Vagneur: Hard to imagine in today’s Aspen |

Vagneur: Hard to imagine in today’s Aspen

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore
Tony Vagneur

It was there once, down by Rio Grande Park, just below the bank: A stockyard, a livestock enclosure that got plenty of use in its time. Made of stout posts and 2-by-12 wooden planks, cattle, horses and sheep trod its alleyways, ending up in a railroad car bound for market, maybe in Denver, possibly somewhere else.

It’s hard to imagine in today’s Aspen, but we’d round up those cattle we summer pastured at Jimmy Smith’s North Star Ranch, now the North Star Preserve, and head for town, trailing about a hundred head along Highway 82, around the corners, hanging a hard right down Mill Street to the stockyards.

Long before cellphones were invented and Dick Tracy (comic-book detective) had the only two-way wristwatch radio we’d ever seen, the old man had used Mountain Bell to call the Rio Grande Railroad well ahead of time, arranging with them the date and approximate time we’d be there, and about how many head of cattle we’d be shipping. A simple thing, really, although the tricky part was ensuring that we arrived at the stockyards well ahead of the train. That big, black, smoke-spewing steam locomotive, chuffing eagerly up the line and blowing a few blasts on its whistle, had the very real potential to scatter our herd of cows to hell and back if we didn’t have them already safely locked up in the pens.

Cows are a funny bunch, ’cause no matter where you put ’em, they seem to know where home is, pretty much, except for a famous few that got disoriented and stranded at the Conundrum Hot Springs a couple of winters back. The point being that once we’d cut out the ones that were going to market and the train had safely left the station, we opened the stockyard gate and headed the remainder of the cluster toward Woody Creek without much trouble.

Road bikers still heady with the recent appearance of the USA Pro Challenge should be aware that we usually went out Bleeker or Hallam, unpaved, and if we felt lucky, ducked across Castle Creek Bridge, although sometimes the cows preferred going under the bridge, which is the route we were forced to take. Cemetery Lane was dirt, as was the whole of McLain Flats Road, and if we had seen one bike rider the entire way to Woody Creek it would have been cause for much conversation about the crazy SOB. The Rio Grande Trail was, at that time, still the Rio Grande Railroad rail bed, used several times a week by those coal-eating, steam-belching behemoths.

Back in those days, there were things you don’t see much of anymore, important things like livestock-resistant fences along the roadways. Three or four of us trailed that bunch of bovines across the flats, moseying along as they say, without much worry of cows taking unauthorized routes. We pulled a right at the bottom of the W/J, which was owned by the Duroux family at the time, cut across what later became the Woody Creek Raceway and pushed the herd up that little dirt road that still goes to a higher mesa where we were, finally, home.

Buck Deane and I used to argue about whose family had the last cattle drive through town, generally using 1963 as the year, and before we ever completely settled the issue, decided without really talking about it, that it didn’t matter, anyway, because we knew, in the bottom of our hearts, that there would never be another one through town, although on some fantasy level I used to think how interesting it might be to run about 1,000 head down Main, just to remind folks that ranching used to be the lifeblood of the valley. Likely we couldn’t stand the lawsuits.

You can say a lot about Aspen’s history after 1893, how important culture or skiing (or simple irreverence) has been to Aspen’s development, but to overlook cattle and railroads would be to admit that Aspen may not have survived those “Quiet Years.”

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at