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Resurrecting ghosts of the past

The landscape of the West hides many secrets in nooks and crannies of desert canyons and within mountain valleys. Ghosts from the past haunt these places. As a matter of fact, the word “ghost” is used to describe long-abandoned mining towns of yesteryear.One ghost town dear to my heart may soon yield some of its secrets to inquiring minds who want to know more than has so far been revealed. Ashcroft is set in one of my favorite mountain valleys, about 10 miles up Castle Creek from Aspen and just beyond the Express Creek turnoff.Only a handful of buildings remain, but every summer, this national register site attracts thousands of visitors who want to personally experience a real Western ghost town.This summer, from June 5-17, volunteers will be working with archaeologists and historians to coax some of Ashcroft’s secrets that lie buried beneath the ground.Before telling you any more about this special project though, let me warn you about any misconceptions.These detectives of the past are going to be using metal detectors that have nothing to do with “treasure hunting.””Treasure hunting” is against the law on federal land, and Ashcroft is administered by the White River National Forest, with help from the Aspen Historical Society and the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. For those who might be salivating over images of hoarded gold hidden here, dream on. Ashcroft was a silver mining town.Only in the last decade have metal detectors come into acceptance as a reliable tool for archaeologists and historians. Proper use of these devices at the Little Bighorn battlefield helped proved the value of this technology in studying the past.Why are they being used at Ashcroft? Because no one knows where the exact boundary of the old ghost town is located. Land managers have a hard time managing something they can’t put their arms around.Sounds implausible, doesn’t it? For a town that boasted a population of 2,500 people, you would think history would have preserved some record of its exact location. But much of the town was inhabited by miners living in tents, which, once removed, leave little evidence.That’s not to say people haven’t done their homework. The Colorado Historical Fund generously granted money for historic and archaeological research of the town of Ashcroft.It’s time for folks to roll up their sleeves and do some “gumshoe” ground-pounding.Archaeologists will systematically search for concentrations of metal hidden underground by using aerial photographs and a system of grids. Global Positioning Satellites will provide exact locations that can be mapped, and hopefully the extent of the ghost town will become known.Through a national program called Passport In Time, the Forest Service invites the public to participate in helping solve the puzzle of the past. Time is running out to sign up. The first week is booked solid, but help is still needed for the second week. Call project manager Alice Gustafson at 945-2521 for details.Writing from 25 years of experience in federal land management agencies hunting for the clues of history, Bill Kight, of Glenwood Springs, shares his adventures with readers every other week.


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