Willoughby: Many paths led to Aspen during the 1880s | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Many paths led to Aspen during the 1880s

Settlers cross the Rocky Mountains, illustrated in Harpers Weekly.
Library of Congress |

Fifty years ago Herbert Vandemoer wrote “Wagon roads to Aspen,” a series for The Aspen Times.

For this labor of love, Vandemoer mined information nuggets from Colorado of the 1870s and 1880s that included transportation routes, stagecoach lines and travellers’ stories. He compiled direct quotes and presented them organized by topic and time period, often with no explanation, to build readers’ understanding of how people travelled to Aspen before the railroads of 1887.

Vandemoer built a summerhouse in Aspen in 1947, and made frequent trips there from his home in Denver. I remember him as an acquaintance of my uncle John Herron.

Many accounts of roads to Aspen focus solely on those closest to the city. But Vandemoer’s installments built a broader view. His writings show Denver as a major point of origin for travel to Aspen. That city had become the state’s transportation hub with the convergence of two rail lines. The Denver Pacific line from the north to Cheyenne extended to Denver, and the Kansas Pacific from the east across the plains arrived in Denver in 1870. The year it was founded, 1871, Colorado Springs became another hub with a narrow gauge line to connect to Denver. The line reached mountain stops farther south.

Insights about timing and context offer a more complete understanding of routes to Aspen. After the first waves of prospectors explored the Aspen area, and the governor removed the remaining Ute Native Americans from the central Rockies, local governments and other enterprises built toll roads to penetrate the Elk Mountains. The so-called “roads” of the 1880s offered clear passage for a wagon or stagecoach, and not much more. On a regular basis, runaway wagons, sleds and stagecoaches tumbled down steep sections. Mule trains transported much of the freight, particularly silver ore.

The San Juan Mountain mining districts, areas near Gunnison, and Aspen developed within the same timeframe. When the railroad ended in Leadville, Cottonwood Pass was built to provide a shortcut from there to Gunnison.

Construction began on Cottonwood Pass 1875, and lasted six years. The first Aspen road started in Buena Vista, extended over Cottonwood Pass, and then ran up Taylor Pass. There, the road provided shortcuts to Aspen and Ashcroft, two fast-growing towns. The Taylor Pass road traversed the ridge top to descend Aspen Mountain into town, or you could head straight down Taylor Pass to Ashcroft. Not much later, in 1881, the Denver and Rio Grand completed its line from Colorado Springs to Leadville, and on to Gunnison.

The road from Granite over Independence Pass opened late in 1881. Similar to the beginnings of the Taylor/Cottonwood route, the road split into two routes. From the top of the pass, you could travel down the Roaring Fork or Hunter Creek valleys to Aspen.

In just three years, three roads connected Aspen to the outside world. Although it provided a shorter route to Aspen, Independence Pass presented winter challenges. During snow months, travellers preferred the less-steep Taylor/Cottonwood route. This choice became even more attractive after construction of a new road from Ashcroft, down Castle Creek Valley, to Aspen. In 1882 a third pathway to Aspen, Pearl Pass — also not popular in winter — connected the railhead in Gunnison to Ashcroft. Once there, travellers took the Castle Creek road to Aspen.

Heavy summer traffic wreaked havoc along these early routes. Imagine, after a thunderstorm, wagon-worn ruts and boulder-sized potholes rimmed with mud and mule manure. When the railroads reached Aspen in 1887, road-weary travellers welcomed the growing travel network with a sigh of relief.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.


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