Vagneur: The making of Basalt
October 26, 2013
It really all got started in 1882 with Fryingpan, the beginning development of what for many years to come was considered the red-headed step-child of Aspen. The charcoal kilns are still there, anachronistic testaments to the rapacious appetite mining development had on the Roaring Fork Valley. It might have ended there, too, had not a group of investors decided to run a rail line from Colorado Springs to Salt Lake City, with a branch running up to Aspen.
We like to think it was all about silver mining, but there was a lot of timber coming out of Woodland Park and Manitou Park (both near Colorado Springs) that needed an outlet for market, and the building of the Colorado Midland Railroad seemed to take both metal and wood into consideration.
Incorporated in 1883, the Midland bought up land across the river from Fryingpan and in 1887 began creating its main depot in the valley, Aspen Junction. From this small spot, — later to be named Basalt — three directions were possible: a branch to Aspen; the line going up the Fryingpan River and through the Hagerman Tunnel, to Leadville and Colorado Springs; and the line headed west to Glenwood Springs and lands beyond. The Midland never made it to Salt Lake City.
Aspen was the big town, other than Leadville, that got all the press and produced all the bullion. Aspen Junction and the Midland railroad were but the work horses who got the silver to market affordably and who helped make the entire mining spectacle profitable for the silver barons.
The fortunes of each town were decidedly different, as well.
In 1893, Aspen was badly hurt by the demonetization of silver, but Aspen Junction maintained its shine, changing its name to Basalt in 1895. The Midland, though always facing extreme hardship on its route through the mountains to Leadville, had carved a niche for itself, partly as a popular local passenger line and kept its steam engines chuffing and steel wheels turning, dragging Basalt with it, right up until 1918.
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Woodrow Wilson, the first progressive U.S. president to firmly believe that massive federal government intervention was in the best interests of its citizenry, took control of the railroads in preparation for World War I and dictated that the Denver and Rio Grande railroad should be given all of the freight business in this area, further directing that the Midland be scrapped.
Deja vu plays a role here — the U.S. government crippled Aspen in 1893 with its monetary policies and then, 25 years later, tried to hamstring Basalt with the demise of the Midland, but both towns have survived exceedingly well.
While still a young kid, I remember my mother taking me on jaunts to Basalt, visiting people I really didn't know but came to like as we got to know each other. Basalt was my mother's high school alma mater, and she liked to keep in touch after she'd married my father and moved to Woody Creek. But I never really understood her deep relationship with the town, named after what is colloquially called Black Mountain, until just the past few years.
My great-grandfather on my mother's paternal side, John W. Sloss, was a Basalt justice of the peace for several years around 1900. He and his brother, S. Price, had arrived in Ashcroft in 1882 from Missouri and established a dairy along the banks of Castle Creek. They then moved downvalley (1885), in partnership at what is now known as the Sopris Mountain Ranch. After my great-granddad's premature death, Price moved up the Fryingpan and ranched at what is still recognized today as Sloss, or the Cap K Ranch. It should be noted here that Su Lum, popular long-time Aspen Times columnist, is related to this writer through the Sloss connection.
Some people don't like it, but Basalt is still often referred to as the red-haired step-child of Aspen. My great-grandfather's old house still stands, just across the street from his brother Price's, on a hill overlooking the town. Some things never change.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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