Tony Vagneur: Hauling Aspen |

Tony Vagneur: Hauling Aspen

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Every beast has its underbelly, and food was Aspen’s.

In 2010, a big rockslide came down the side of Glenwood Canyon and closed the road for several days. This was a serious event because, along with everything else, supply trucks couldn’t get through and people in the Roaring Fork Valley were edging toward panic — the grocery stores and restaurants were running out of food. That was a taste of how vulnerable we are in our out-of-the-way mountain aerie.

Aspen has always been very difficult to get to, starting with the first white settlers in 1879, which if you think about it, was probably the last consideration on anyone’s mind. H.P Cowenhoven, his wife, daughter and young protege, D.R.C. Brown, brought two wagon loads of goods over Taylor Pass the summer of 1880, a monumental feat considering there wasn’t a road at the time.

By fall 1880, there might have been as many as 1,000 people living in and around Aspen. The baby cheeks of growth were getting rosy in a hurry.

Now consider that there were no roads, none better than what folks like Cowenhoven had chopped, shoveled and scraped through the mountainous terrain. Getting the silver ore out of the town hadn’t yet become a big issue, as there wasn’t much of it actually mined, and jack trains carried what little there was over to Granite for rail shipment to Leadville for evaluation and smelting.

But there was another problem, one that really doesn’t get addressed much in the historical annals of Aspen — how the hell were all those people going to be fed. Aspen was growing at a fast rate. Forget moving the silver out — there needed to be a means of getting nourishment and supplies in.

It was, no doubt, a desperate situation, without an easy solution. Professional, or market hunters, were imported in an effort to keep meat on the table at the boardinghouses, restaurants and grocery stores. The elk and deer populations totally disappeared at a slightly faster rate than the black bear and mountain lion numbers. Once the deer and elk herds were extinguished, red meat became a novelty of sorts.

It may seem a bit distasteful, but red meat was red meat to a harried boardinghouse operator, faced with what may have been burro, coyote, lion or horse protein just as easily as it might have been beef from a nearby ranch. The local farmers and ranchers couldn’t keep up with the demand for beef, or pork. Hungry fists were pounding the table for dinner or supper.

Roads were built, but they were no panacea. Muddy roads in the spring and fall had a tendency to bog down or incapacitate supply wagons; summer roads could be bumpy, covered with rocks and stumps as much as a foot or more high. The best traveling was in the winter, naturally, when scooting along with a sled was relatively smooth, but avalanches were a real danger.

Flour, sugar, canned goods and other nonperishable food items were brought in by freight wagon, as were tents and other sundry items necessary to the building of a fast growing mining camp, or town. Pianos, furniture — the list was long and heavy.

At this time in Aspen’s history, one of the most lucrative businesses had to be that of freighting. Hauling ore to Granite, where it could be loaded onto rail for the smelter in Leadville, then turning around and hauling the essences of survival back to the Aspen camp. A freighter got paid both directions. There were four large freight companies and numerous smaller outfits.

By 1884 (population 2,500), there were eight grocery stores in the little burg of Aspen, requiring a steady replenishment of items and goods. “Oh, God,” they cried, will there ever be a railroad to Aspen. In 1887-88, Aspen got two railroads and overnight the town became an industrialized city.

In March, 1885, a livery and freighting stable at the east end of Cooper Avenue expanded to be able to keep 250 to 300 teams of horses, necessary for moving freight between Aspen and Granite. Malcolm J Rohrbough, in his book, “Aspen: The History of a Silver Mining Town,” doesn’t say if those teams were two, four or six up, but any way you cut it, that’s a lot of horses.

The local farmers and ranchers were making a good living, selling hay in Aspen at $150 to$160 per ton. Add in all the burros and other livestock necessary to the operation of a mining town and the hay industry alone was probably worth more than $600,000 a year to the local farmers, in 1880 dollars.

In retrospect, it’s kind of humorous to think that a three- or four-day interruption in 2010’s supply chain was such a big deal. But then again, our sense of humor isn’t what it used to be, either.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at