Prospectors Charles B. Culver and Amos Kindt spent the winter of 1879– 80 at the forks of Castle Creek, 12 miles south of Aspen in central Colorado’s Elk Mountains. In May 1880 Culver and William F. Coxhead filed claims in the area, founded Castle Forks City and promoted their discovery. Others soon arrived, and in August the town site company offered 864 lots at $5 each, the 97 members of the Miners’ Protective Association having first choice.
In 1881 Coxhead sold his share to town promoter T.E. Ashcraft. By year’s end the town’s population had swelled to 200 and was served by stage lines from Buena Vista, Aspen and Leadville.
The town name changed to Chloride, then Ashcroft (a variation on Ashcraft) in 1882. Ore samples assayed as high as 12,613 ounces of silver to the ton, and the town boomed. Crews built a new wagon road over Pearl Pass to the Denver & Rio Grande railhead at Crested Butte, and Leadville millionaire H.A.W. Tabor bought half interest in the richest mine, the Tam O’Shanter, for $100,000.
In September 1881, in a bit of shameless self-promotion, Tabor told The Denver Tribune: “I’m afraid to go and look at this big vein [the Tam O’Shanter]. Everybody who’s been up there has come back crazy. I think it’s safer to stay here, if I want to keep my head.”
In 1883 Tabor and wife Baby Doe visited Ashcroft and treated the town to a banquet, a ball and free drinks for all at every saloon. Population peaked at between 2,000 and 3,500, with six hotels, 20 saloons, two grocery stores, a meat market, two newspapers, a school and a bowling alley.
Ashcroft’s fortunes began to decline in 1884, as its ore deposits proved less extensive and of lower quality than expected. When miners discovered richer silver deposits near Aspen, and rumors spread of a planned railroad connection there, Ashcroft’s residents left in droves, taking their buildings with them. By 1887 the population had dropped to 70.
Mining dribbled along in Ashcroft until silver prices crashed in 1893, busting the local economy. In Aspen 50 mines closed, putting 2,000 men out of work. Ashcroft supported a few small operations, manned by itinerant “tramp miners.” Among them was Carroll Coberly, who came to town in 1906 to help clear an ice-blocked tunnel at the Montezuma. The next summer an inexperienced manager built a mill at what Coberly called “the wrong place,” and over the next five years snow slides took out boardinghouses, tram towers and outbuildings.
Through the 1930s Ashcroft’s population dwindled to a few older bachelors mainly interested in hunting, fishing, reading and fraternizing at Dan MacArthur’s saloon. They held periodic elections among themselves for the offices of mayor and justice of the peace. The last of this group, Jack Leahy, died in 1939.
In the mid-1930s the Highland Bavarian Corp. (HBC), led by sportsman Ted Ryan and Olympic bobsled champion Billy Fiske, built a lodge north of Ashcroft and planned to build a large ski resort. World War II intervened, and when Fiske died in combat, Ryan leased Ashcroft to the U.S. Army for training of its 10th Mountain Division.
After the war Ryan hired dogsledder Stuart Mace to serve as caretaker of Ashcroft. In the late 1950s the town and Mace’s huskies starred in the television series Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. Mace devoted the rest of his life to the preservation of Ashcroft.
In 1974 HBC completed a land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service, and Ashcroft became public property. It won National Historic Site designation in 1975. Today 13 buildings remain, half of which are original to the town. Maintained by the Aspen Historical Society, it is open year-round, with daily guided tours available June through September. Visit www.aspenhistorysociety.com/ ashcroftmuseum.html for details.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.