Walk with Aspen’s Past …
There are stories of Aspen’s past that you can physically feel as you stroll through the ghost towns of Independence and Aschroft They are stories of hard-working miners, Victorian ladies who set out to be pioneers, children growing up in the wilds of Rocky Mountains. The artifacts of their stories are everywhere here — shards of glass and other shiny objects, stained wallpaper inside dilapidated wood cabins, signs that mark what was once a bustling saloon, hotel, post office and more. Now those who steward these two towns — Independence, located 16 miles up Independence Pass from Aspen, and Aschroft, situated 11 miles up Castle Creek Road from Aspen — will tell you they are not haunted; rather, they are ghost towns of a different type. “Well, I can’t say we know of any paranormal events up there, but …. Some people do say they feel something — a certain presence at the Hotel View at Ashcroft,” says Nina Gabianelli, whose tours of these towns and other Aspen Historical Society sites are a rare glimpse into turn-of-the-century life in the Roaring Fork Valley. “But really our role is to be stewards of these towns and share the real stories of the past.” (If you’re wanting more ghost stories, check out the Nov. 9 episode of the Colorado Experience on PBS, where “the spirits of Colorado’s mining past” are featured, including an interview with Gabianelli at Ashcroft.) By way of history, Ashcroft once was founded in the spring of 188o on the prospect of silver mining. At its height, the town was bigger than Aspen, with a population of 2,000, two newspapers, a school, sawmills, a small smelter and 20 saloons. But as quickly as Ashcroft boomed, it busted. Today, it is home to three restored buildings and six buildings in their original condition. “The things you find at Ashcroft tell tale of the people who established it and called the town home,” said Gabianelli. “It’s a true gift of history.”
On the other side of Aspen is the town of Independence. Legend has it that prospectors discovered gold in the area on Independence Day — July 4, 1879. Soon after, a tent city popped up. And, before long, the town had grown to 1,500 residents and boasted nearly 50 businesses.
But as luck would have it, gold did not pan out for the miners at Independence. By 1888, only 100 hearty souls remained. The others decided Aspen — with its abundant work, good pay and milder climate (Independence sits at 10,920 feet) — would be a better place to call home. Then, in February 1899, a series of winter storms blocked supply routes to town and those few remaining residents were forced to flee.
“They actually cut down their homes — cut down and dismantled their homes for wood — and made skis,” said Gabianelli. “And they all skied into Aspen as one big posse.”
Of course Ashcroft and Independence aren’t the only “ghost towns” around Aspen. The area was home to many miner’s shacks and small enclaves. You can still find cabins at Ruby, far up Lincoln Creek Road past the reservoir, and other remnants of the past can be discovered on trails and in the backcountry.
“The mining history of this area is very rich,” said Gabianelli. “We are stewards of Ashcroft and Independence to preserve them, but there you can find traces of history everywhere.”
In summer, the Aspen Historical Society offers guided tours of Independence and Ashcroft (both towns are on the National Register of Historic Sites).
In winter, Ashcroft can be accessed by foot and the surrounding area can be explored on Nordic skis (it becomes the Ashcroft Touring Center). The historical society also offers on-mountain ski tours, where you can learn the history of Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands — before they were ski areas and in their infancy as ski mountains.
Still other ways to learn about Aspen’s history is by visiting the Aspen Historical Society’s two museums — the Wheeler/Stallard Museum and the Holden/Marolt Mining & Ranching Museum.
“There is so much history here to explore,” said Gabianelli. “You just need to listen and embrace the sites and stories.”
Walking through Ashcroft on a blustery autumn evening and it’s very easy to do just this. And with a bit of knowledge about Aspen’s “ghost towns,” it’s easy to create a narrative of who the people that lived here were and how they spent their days.