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June 17, 2024
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Aspen’s embattled community first experienced by the Utes, then came the silver crash

Today’s hand-wringing over the lost soul or vanquished spirit of Aspen is nothing new. Such laments have echoed throughout every epoch in Aspen’s storied past. This doesn’t diminish the shared sense of loss felt by Aspenites when familiarity with what they love is eroded or erased. Rather, it reveals a continuum of attachment to a place and a time that has never been and never can be static.

Aspen’s community has proved resilient despite dramatic changes that have long inflamed a cathartic sense of loss. Aspenites are contentious about change because change alters the experience that first gave them a rich sense of place. A first love of Aspen leaves a deep emotional imprint.

In search of community

A thorough examination of the evolution of the Aspen community requires the division of five historic epochs: the Utes, silver mining, the Quiet Years, culture and skiing, and the age of affluence. As we continue our series, “In search of community,” our next three installments will explore these epochs. This piece focuses on the Utes and silver mining; the next will feature the Quiet Years; the third will cover skiing and culture; and the final will tackle affluence and the embattled community of Aspen.

Read other stories in the series here.

The shifting fortunes of Aspen over the past 145 years of its written history have made community identity a constant challenge. Historical context is critical to an understanding of community, and that must begin with the Utes — the People of the Shining Mountains — who were the first population to experience an embattled community in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Ute teepees were the valley’s original affordable housing and horses were the first conveyances for these master horsemen.
Credit: Aspen Historical Society, Masterson Estate Collection

The native community inhabited this land for thousands of years

The first people to see this country came upon it 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, at the end of the Wisconsin Ice Age, after early man had crossed the Bering Strait on a land or ice bridge between the continents of Asia and North America. These paleo hunters pursued a moving banquet of mammoth and buffalo that followed the warming sun south along the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. 

Not far from the Roaring Fork Valley, “Timberline Man” was discovered in 1989 by spelunkers in a cave in White River National Forest. Dated to 8,000 years ago, this paleo-Indian was studied in Washington, D.C., then returned to Colorado, where the Utes, claiming him as an early ancestor, interred the ancient remains with a sacred ceremony. The cave has been sealed and the location has been kept a secret.

Yarmony, a prehistoric pit house site, was discovered during a highway excavation near State Bridge, along the Colorado River, in 1987. These remains, dated to 7,000 years ago, show that early man not only migrated through the region, but left permanent residences. 

The native Utes have been linked with the Paiutes of Utah. Both share common ancestry with the Fremont people of the Great Basin and the northern Colorado Plateau. The Utes spent summers in the Roaring Fork Valley hunting and gathering as a Stone Age, tribal culture. Acquiring the horse in the early 1600s from the Spaniards afforded the Utes mobility for hunting and warring, and they secured for their domain most of the Colorado Rockies, extending east onto the high plains, where they hunted buffalo. Their empire stretched to present-day Texas, Wyoming, Utah, Nebraska and Kansas.

The Utes celebrated a spiritual connection with the natural world in a tribal life that relied upon mutual support at every level. Their homes were tepees covered with skins, or wickiups made from a frame of sticks and branches covered with brush or skins. Housing for the nomadic Utes was recycled, organic, biodegradable, affordable and portable.

The Utes were people of the seasons who roamed the valleys and the high mountains, danced for the bear as it came out of hibernation, heralded the deep voice of thunder and raised their faces to the lightning flash. A dependence on nature cultivated a deep sense of respect and belonging to the world around them. Such was the extended community in which they embraced pristine nature within a theology that made sacred the elemental forces under the thrall of which they worshipped a pantheon of nature spirits. Their homeland was their church, their prayer circles their chapels, the sky their cathedral domes, the earth their mother, and the heavens their father. They were children of air, water, earth and fire. Fiercely independent, the Utes faced an inexorable foe with the advancing tsunami of white European settlement who eventually sought to banish them from their traditional lands across most of western Colorado.

When the Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden survey team explored the Roaring Fork Valley in the summers of 1873-74, it was as if aliens had arrived from another planet. Hayden had been nicknamed “crazy man who picks up rocks” by other Native Americans who had witnessed the scientist’s rock collecting as insane antics. When Hayden’s geologic surveys were made available in the late 1870s, they became treasure maps for a throng of wealth-seekers who recklessly violated treaties and willfully trespassed on Ute lands under the entitlement of Manifest Destiny.

This set up the inevitable clash between industrial resource exploitation and the comparatively harmonic ecological balance extant within the realm of the Utes. Confined by ever-constricting relocations and jaded by broken treaties, the Utes were pushed to the brink of tolerance. They finally snapped under the authority of Indian agent Nathan Meeker. His efforts to convert these hunter-gatherers into farmers culminated with the plowing under of the Utes’ horse racetrack, which was an affront to this equestrian people. Even more so was Meeker’s call for U.S. cavalry backup in bad faith to Ute leaders. When those troops crossed into Ute territory, Ute fighters — believing the incursion to be an act of war that meant the slaughter of their people was at hand — killed Meeker and 10 of his male agency staffers in 1879. 

This provided grounds for a “final solution” edict issued by Colorado Governor Frederick Pitkin: 

“My idea is that, unless removed by the government, [the Ute Indians] must necessarily be exterminated. The state would be willing to settle the Indian trouble at its own expense. The advantages that would be accrued from the throwing open of 12 million acres of land to miners and settlers would more than compensate all expenses incurred.”

In 1881, the disenfranchised Utes were force-marched from their traditional lands and suffered the first crisis of community in our region. Here was the Cain and Abel story told against the backdrop of Western settlement where the hunter-gatherer was slain by the farmer, the townsite planner, the railroad builder and the mining speculator. Cain murdered Abel in the “Shining Mountains” of Colorado, and the Roaring Fork Valley was opened for business.

Underground mining work was laborious and dangerous. Here a drill team bores holes for dynamite charges.
Credit: Aspen Historical Society

A new community seeks riches 

In 1879, two years before most of the Utes were removed to reservations, prospectors had pushed into the upper Roaring Fork Valley over its high passes. Unlike most mountain valleys, the Roaring Fork Valley was settled first from its headwaters because of obstacles in the lower valley: treaty land held by the Utes and the formidable abyss of Glenwood Canyon.

When two prospecting parties in 1879 coincidentally made camp together at Ute Spring at the base of Aspen Mountain, near today’s Gant Condominiums, they gathered around a campfire and made a vow of mutual protection of themselves and their unproved mining claims. Eager to secure their lives and their interests, this tacit agreement was the settlers’ first political exercise in Aspen, creating the civic foundation for a community of silver.

Crossing the high routes into the Roaring Fork Valley required grit and determination, the requisite character traits of Aspen’s silver seekers. This unifying identity instilled a hard-bitten resolve necessary during the mining era when community was solidified by the brutal labor of tunneling into mountains following veins of ore and by the rigors of surviving on the edge of wilderness at 8,000 feet. Slowly, the Aspen community expanded with the advent of businesses that supported mining and profited from it. This formed a social division of miners and merchants where the former exploited the earth and the latter exploited the former.

A townsite dispute between two town founders, B. Clark Wheeler and Henry Gillespie, caused a split that alienated half the nascent city from the other, as claimants sought political hegemony and profitable land sales. Soon resolved amicably in Wheeler’s favor so the community could advance, a second and more intractable legal problem arose known as the Apex controversy. This issue instigated complex litigation that challenged mining claims and held up mine development for four years. Aspenites were again divided. “High stakes raised the level of greed, already well developed in the mining camps,” wrote historian Malcolm Rohrbough in “Aspen: The History of a Silver Mining Town,” and drove a wedge into the struggling camp.

The Apex controversy was settled with a compromise just as two competing railroads pushed their tracks into Aspen in 1887-88. A new industrial era dawned, and with it an increasingly complex community divided by subsets based on ethnicity, religion, fraternal organizations and labor unions that represented the professional miner: “men with similar skills and needs and, above all, with a common identity,” wrote Rohrbough.

Industrial mining was a far cry from the wistful pick-and-shovel prospector with his burro and a gold pan strapped across his pack saddle. The romance ended once the ore was found. Then came the mechanics of blasting the rock, excavating the shafts, mapping the veins, and processing and shipping the ore. Aspen quickly became part of mainstream industrial America once its ore-rich mountains were a known quantity.

An Aspen mine hoist provided a framework from which ore buckets were lifted from the depths of a shaft and were powered by hydroelectric energy. Credit: Aspen Historical Society, Shaw Collection

The whistles blew, the shifts changed, and the men marched to and from work. They carried lunchpails and wore leather helmets affixed with headlamps. They were the minions of industry and they faced numerous dangers in the mines where injury and illness awaited them in the dark, wet tunnels and tomblike stopes they drove, like trolls, deeper and deeper into the earth.

They lived humbly and worked for scant daily wages of $1 to $3. They worked long hours to bring home enough to feed and clothe a family, to make payments on their homes and to enjoy a beer or two at their favorite saloon. They fed fuel into their stoves, where they warmed their hands on cold winter days before starting a shift.

Mines were dark, dank and dangerous. The deeper the mine went, the hotter it became, and men worked stripped to the waist. Candles flickered on the walls and the air was filled with dust and stench. The miners endured bruised and battered hands, cold, wet feet and lungs coated with particulates that plagued them with “miner’s consumption.” The monotonous nature of the work and fatigue from hard physical labor created lethargy that resulted in carelessness and deadly mistakes.

Miners unable to see through the murk could fall more than 100 feet down a shaft or air vent. Body retrievals were grim and time-consuming. Dynamite and blasting caps were in constant use, and misfirings caused deaths and injuries, including lost hands, mangled arms and blindness. There were cave-ins and toxic gas seeps. In 1891-92, miners died at the rate of roughly one a month. Injuries were far more frequent. The wealth of the mine owners was born by the misery of the laborers.

Who were the Aspenites making up the industrial mining community? Aspen’s 1885 census (three years before the railroads) reported the population was 72.4% male and 99% white, with a handful of blacks, mulattos and Indians but no Asians. Germans and Irish were most heavily represented, with mixes of English, Scots and Welsh. Counted among Aspen residents were 810 miners and 115 prospectors; 12 mine engineers; eight mine superintendents; 39 smelter workers; six charcoal burners; 26 sawmill workers; three contractors; nine painters; nine brick masons; 20 grocers; 20 butchers; 55 teamsters; 60 freighters; 35 blacksmiths; eight doctors; 31 lawyers; four school teachers; 12 real estate brokers; 22 hotel keepers; 16 barbers; 22 cooks; 48 laundresses; 41 saloonkeepers; 31 bartenders; four prostitutes; eight gamblers; and five actresses.

In Aspen’s earliest days, civic bonds were formed through social activities instituted as an antidote to the deep isolation of this remote mountain redoubt. Baseball, a new national identity, became popular among “miners, mechanics, teamsters, carpenters and draymen,” wrote Rohrbough. “Some played and others watched, but all groups talked, joked, ate and drank” with the deepening of community ties.

In Aspen’s early years, before pressurized fire hydrants, hose cart companies joined men in harnesses to sprint through the streets to a fire where the team was then tasked to pumping water from strategically located cisterns.
Credit: Aspen Historical Society, Shaw Collection

Hose-cart brigades put men together in harness for the protection of their stick-built city. Dances, socials, theater, churches, political parties, charities and a temperance union joined the people in shared pursuits toward a better life. For the many single men who labored in the tunnels, gambling, saloons and prostitutes provided recreation and challenged the moral authority of town builders. Beer consumption in 1885 grew from 30 barrels a day in winter to 45 barrels a day in summer, eliciting wonder at the freighters who drove teams and wagons over Independence Pass to provide provisions before the railroads arrived.

Drink was but one of the collateral human costs in this industrial frontier. Other costs could be seen in the desperate eyes of prostitutes loitering in the red-light district near the Colorado Midland station along the base of Aspen Mountain. A large contingent of single working men was mired in drunkenness and destitution in the saloons, their wages gulped down in shot glasses and frothing beer, their nights spent in bordellos and boarding houses. They were written up in police records for brawls, assaults, thefts and murders.

By the time the mines were running at full bore in the early 1890s, the native elk herds had been exterminated by overhunting, and streams and lakes were depleted of trout. All of nature’s bounty was destined to feed man’s insatiable appetites, and there was no effort toward sustainability. When the wild meat ran out, pioneer ranchers provided beef by grazing cattle on the mountains and raising hay in the valleys. Farmers grew potatoes. The rivers were drawn low for irrigation and flowed through ingenious systems of ditches. Some of the waters were so polluted with industrial waste that they weren’t suitable for irrigation. Silver production was the religion, the earth was the altar and profits were the salvation — all sought with unbridled human enterprise and expense.

Historic Aspen is often seen through the idealized chimera of gigantic silver nuggets in the backs of wagons, of festive street parades, of steam locomotives chugging along scenic grades, and of pageantry and boomtown opulence. Look deeper. There, hidden in the background of old daguerreotype photographs is a gritty side that expresses a simple equation: With every ounce of silver taken from the bowels of the Elk Mountains came a quantity of blood, travail and ecological devastation. The Utes were the first victims of industrial mining; the community of miners was the second.

Pack trains of donkeys and mules were the motive force for transporting goods into Aspen over the high passes and supplying prospectors and miners at remote mine sites. This train is seen setting off from downtown Aspen in the mid-1880s. Credit: Aspen Historical Society, Masterson Estate Collection

Meanwhile, a small set of wealthy elites — the mine and railroad owners and investors — represented capital and Eastern influence. They established refined cultural amenities, including a fine hotel and an opera house that stood out against the contrast of the rugged frontier. “The fertile imaginations of Aspen’s socially minded citizens generated innumerable reasons for social gatherings,” wrote Rohrbough, who described a burgeoning sense of pride in the civilizing influences of a community hewn out of the wilderness. “Social and cultural life at all levels was built on a foundation of prosperity, progress, development and growth.”

The pace was slow enough, wrote Rohrbough, to keep Aspen attractive. “Part of the appeal of the city lay in its initial slow growth. The gradual evolution of Aspen stood in vivid contrast to the helter-skelter and uncontrolled development of Leadville. Aspen had both economic prosperity and an appealing place to live.”

In 1893, Aspen was touted as the greatest mining center in the world, wrote Rohrbough, with 227 developed mines and 2,500 professional miners working for $3 a day. The population was 12,000, in addition to roughly 5,000 transients. There were two major banks, two broad-gauge railroads that brought 10 passenger trains and four freight trains daily and the third-largest opera house in the state. The Hotel Jerome was reputed to be the finest luxury hotel on the Western Slope. Aspen was a sophisticated city that had waterworks, electric light, hydroelectric power, a hospital, streetcars, public schools and nine newspapers that operated at some point between 1886 and 1893.

A visual reflection of Aspen’s community from the mining era is seen in the torchlight parades that today flow in a stream of light down Aspen Mountain for special events with torch-bearing skiers. That spectacle revisits the miners lighting their way back down into town during shift changes at night with mining helmets and lanterns — men who made the Aspen community function yet who are mostly lost from the historic record.

“The emergence of socioeconomic distinctions in Aspen, the several identifiable ethnic groups, the competing religious denominations and the growing differences in wealth tended to divide and fragment the community,” wrote Rohrbough. Unity, he wrote, came through boosterism, the promotion of Aspen’s growth and prosperity “in which all individuals and all groups presumably had a common interest. Another unifying feature was the residual frontier instinct to come together in the face of disaster — fires, blizzards, avalanches and mining accidents — with an outpouring of common assistance and genuine concern that transcended group identification.”

The Aspen Mine was among the town’s industrial mining operations. Credit: Aspen Historical Society

This altruistic virtue of community largesse prompted the formation in 1886 of the Pioneer Association, which honored Aspen’s original “locals” — those who came before the fall of 1881. The association would “perpetuate the bonds of union made memorable by the struggles, trials and hopes of the early days of Aspen … to cultivate a spirit of sociability among those who tramped over the Indian trails to plant the foundations of a new empire in the then-wilderness of the Roaring Fork Valley.”

The silver crash of 1893, perpetuated when the U.S. government elected to no longer back its currency with silver, shattered the Aspen mining community by drastically undermining the economic foundation upon which Aspen was built. There were other local and regional mining activities — iron ore in Cooper Basin south of Ashcroft; peachblow sandstone and limestone up the Fryingpan Valley; coal in Coal Basin west of Redstone and at New Castle — but too distant from Aspen to defray the loss of silver, the city’s lifeblood. Some silver mining continued, but prices fluctuated dramatically and Aspen never regained its mining boom.

The following dirge from a departing miner amplifies the lament for a lost community that succumbed to external influences that were beyond local control. Such was the toll from socioeconomic dependence on a volatile and speculative extractive industry. The silver crash was the second crisis for Aspen’s embattled community.

Now I sit on the porch and watch the lightning-bugs fly.

But I can’t see too good, I got tears in my eyes.

I’m leaving tomorrow but I don’t wanna go.

I love you, my town, you’ll always live in my soul.

But I can see the sun’s settin’ fast,

And just like they say, nothing good ever lasts.

Well, go on, and kiss it goodbye,

But hold to your memories,

‘Cause my heart’s ’bout to die.

Go on now and say goodbye to our town, to our town.

I can see the sun has gone down on our town, on our town,


— William Zaugg (Zaugg Dump is an Aspen Mountain double-black diamond ski run)

The next installment in this series will trace the dramatic shift of Aspen’s community from the silver crash into the Quiet Years.

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