Willoughby: Kit Carson and a 24-hour ride to Denver

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Carson Daily Stage Lines served Aspen until the railroad arrived in 1887. Ad from 1886 Aspen Times

Before two railroads reached Aspen in 1887, the trip to Denver entailed 24 hours of hard travel. You started the trip on the Carson stagecoach at 6 a.m. Twelve hours of hair-raising, rocky, dusty jostling over Independence Pass — known as the Twin Lakes Toll Road — took you to Granite. There, you caught a train, which would arrive in Denver at 7 the next morning. The return trip from the Denver depot allowed passengers to sleep in an extra hour or so before a 7:45 a.m. departure.

The stagecoach rolled along at about 4 miles an hour for about 45 miles each way. It stopped occasionally for a change of horses. There were no bridges back then; horses forded the streams. When the coach was overcrowded or overloaded with baggage, sometimes passengers had to get out and walk up steep grades. Those who may have preferred to walk could match coach speed. Given the altitude, most felt relieved to let the horses do the work.

Kit Carson created The Carson Daily Stage Lines. I know you wonder, the Kit Carson? Even in his time, when he lived in Leadville, The Aspen Times confused the local Carson with the famous Western scout who died in 1868. “Our” John Christopher “Kit” Carson joined a throng of miners during the Leadville silver boom and found ore in his mine in 1878. He invested his new wealth in his stage line and fingered Aspen, the newest boomtown, as the line’s primary destination.

Carson, known in Aspen as the “rustler of the Granite road,” transported more than passengers. He had the mail contract and, like Wells Fargo during the California gold rush, he carried coin. Carson charged 2.5 percent to carry money between Granite and Aspen. Jerome Wheeler once told the story of opening his bank in Aspen. He needed $178,000 (today’s dollars) for the business. Carson delivered the goods with two pistols strapped on his chest.

Independence Pass was a toll road, and not well maintained. Carson, along with Aspen’s freighters Atkinson and Holbrook, reduced startup costs by trading maintenance work for tolls. One year, Atkinson took on clearing snow for the summer opening. But the county refused to pay him because they alleged he had not met the contract. Carson and Atkinson also paid the toll takers’ wages.

Carson expanded stage service first to Glenwood and then to Ashcroft in 1887. He moved from Leadville to Aspen, dabbled in the Aspen mining business, and then became a partner in the fairly successful Last Dollar mine of Tourtolotte Park.

Toward the end of the 1880s, Aspen’s residents surveyed a few eastern cities. They discovered that Aspen’s mayor, who was paid $24,000 a year in today’s dollars, hauled in between two and four times more salary than the eastern mayors did. Carson won the mayoral race in 1889 as the Republican reformer candidate.

He served only one term as one of the least liked and ineffective mayors, according to criticisms in local papers. Carson’s stage business continued into the 1890s, but trains soon took over mail and passenger service from Denver and Leadville.

After a trip to Denver during the early 1880s, passengers returned to Aspen worn and weary. But when compared to sitting astride a horse, a Carson coach felt like a luxury liner.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at