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Paul Andersen: Traffic jams on Independence Pass have long history

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

The story about a group of bakers who slept in their oven while trying to cross Independence Pass in the early 1880s is worthy of reflection given current events. I found it while researching “High Road to Aspen: A History of Independence Pass,” published in 2014.

The half-baked scheme to haul an oven to Aspen is pertinent given the recent Interstate 70 closure when GPS rerouted interstate traffic over the highest paved pass in the U.S.

The bakers came over the Pass when it was a mere goat track hammered into the tundra and then riven into the snow. Crossing on snow was demonstrated by Aspen pioneer Henry Staats, one of the “Original Thirteen” who wintered over in Aspen in 1879-80. Staats discovered that snow was the best surface on which to travel.

Staats was hired in 1880 by Henry Gillespie, who was to play a prominent role in Aspen mining, to lead a group from Leadville to Aspen for a survey of mining claims. Staats was tasked with hauling enough food and gear to support a large prospecting party.

This erstwhile pioneer shrewdly planned the crossing over snow on a contrivance of his own design, which he called “boats.” Since the spring snowpack was too deep for post holing, the plan was to construct sledges and skid them over with teams of men under harness.

“They were two feet wide, four feet long, and one foot deep,” Staats recorded. “They were turned up at each end, had about three feet resting on the snow, and had sheet iron bottoms nailed on the edges of the boards.”

Staats loaded the sledges with 200 pounds of “grub, a coffee pot, and a tin cup for each man.” The men lashed their woolen blankets over the load. Grub consisted of flour, bacon and other basics. “We were to mix our bread in the flour sacks and cook it on a stick,” Staats strategized.

Now came the ingenious part: “I told the men we would travel only at night and sleep in the daytime. We started at the edge of the snow about ten o’clock at night; the snow was hard then. We arrived at the top of the range in about four hours, then down the other side below the Independence Mine by sun up. Then we began to get into the crowd of people trying to get to Aspen.”

Following later from Twin Lakes, and ignorant of the Staats technique, were the ill-fated bakers who were determined to open Aspen’s first and finest bakery. The Leadville Chronicle reported the episode:

“A sled was purchased, on which the furnace was securely fastened … with half a dozen jacks as motive power. The trail soon narrowed to such an extent that the projecting sides of the oven stuck, and it was found necessary to excavate several feet at each side to admit its progress. At night the weary bakers slept in the oven, haunted by the faint aroma of pastry that, like the scent of roses, hung around it still.”

The bakers’ plodding progress soon caused a traffic jam as others hoping to cross the pass and get an early jump on filing claims were held up by the oversized oven, which jammed the trail. The Chronicle reported, “The pack trains accumulated in the rear until the road for nearly a mile was backed up with shivering, searing, howling men.”

Today, a jackknifed truck is an inconvenience for howling drivers who still rely, 140 years later, on Independence Pass. Despite its twists, turns and narrows, the Pass still serves an essential role in transportation. Sheriff Joe DiSalvo heard this from howling drivers when he closed the Pass a few weeks ago in order to handle errant truckers.

As for the bakers, they finally got their oven moved off the trail, which was the yeast they could do after having gotten such a rise out of those eager beavers behind them. While things didn’t pan out so well for them crossing the Pass, they eventually made it to Aspen where, in the course of their trade, they all made plenty of dough.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at andersen@rof.net.


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