c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article originally appeared in The Colorado Gambler magazine.
High up in the hills near Aspen lies Ashcroft, one of the best preserved ghost towns in Colorado. During summer, Ashcroft fairly comes alive with visitors who love to walk along the old roads and explore the nine buildings comprising what is left of the town. Although it is still highly accessible during winter, the snowy months drive away tourists as Ashcroft—altitude 9500’— settles into slumber and waits for spring thaw.
Ashcroft had its beginnings during the winter of 1879-80, when miner Thomas E. Ashcraft joined 22 other prospectors in Castle Creek Valley. Named for the castle-like spires on nearby Castle Peak, the valley was identified by the Hayden geological survey as having valuable silver deposits. Despite threats from Ute Indians, Ashcraft stuck it out and soon laid out a small settlement called Highland. A short time later, Ashcraft and his fellow miners moved a short distance from Highland and named their new camp Castle Forks City, a name they also assigned to their placer mine. Highland flourished for a short time before succumbing to the popularity of Ashcroft.
A Miner’s Protective Association was soon formed, with each of the 97 members having an equal say in Castle Forks’ future. Eight hundred and sixty four lots were sold at $5 each. The idea of renaming the picturesque little town soon came under fire. According to postal records, Castle Fork’s post office was first known as Ashcroft as of August 12, 1880 (the census taker called it Ashcraft when he came around a week later). Even at that early date, there were 130 people living there. Their numbers included several miners, but also an assayer, a mason, a merchant, a restaurant owner, a saloon keeper, a surveyor and two blacksmiths. A surprising five entrepreneurs, a news reporter and even a government scout were included in the eclectic total. And, there was nary a woman around.
The following year, the postmaster general assigned the name of Chloride. But local miners were calling the place Ashcroft by the time that name was reassigned in January of 1882. John R. Nelson was the first postmaster. As was the case with so many mining camps, the town grew quickly. Initially Ashcroft was only accessible via Taylor Pass, an extremely rough road that was closed through winter. Wagons traversing the pass were required to stop, disassemble the vehicle, raise or lower it over 40-foot cliffs, and reassemble it before moving on.
The Carson Brothers Stage Line made its debut in 1881 and charged travelers $2 for a ride to Buena Vista and points in between via Cottonwood Pass or Independence Pass. Two other stage lines eventually served Ashcroft as well. Easier access made Ashcroft a gateway to Aspen, while telegraph poles along Taylor Pass enhanced communications. Famous visitors to Ashcroft included Bob Ford, the killer of outlaw Jesse James, and silver magnates Horace and Baby Doe Tabor. In fact, Tabor purchased interests in the Tam O’Shanter and Montezuma mines and built a lavish home at Ashcroft that included gold-encrusted wallpaper. Whenever Baby Doe visited, Tabor declared a holiday and bought drinks for everyone.
By 1882 the $5 lots were selling for as much as $400 and by 1883 Ashcroft had outgrown the nearby town of Aspen. Some historians place the population of 1,000 and others 2,500. The residency consisted mostly of miners and was served by two newspapers the Herald and the Journal. There were also two sawmills, a school, a courthouse and jail, a theater and an amazing 20 saloons. There were also four hotels: the Farrell, Fifth Avenue, Riverside and St. Cloud. Main and Castle were the two main streets.
Unfortunately, much of the silver ore mined around Ashcroft was low grade. The town of Aspen began to grow. Aspen’s mines also excelled where Ashcroft’s did not, and local mining strikes also affected the town. Sealing its doom was the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad’s decision not to extend their tracks to Ashcroft. Very quickly, Aspen came into the limelight while Ashcroft faded into the past.
Ashcroft’s population had dwindled to 100 souls by 1885 with a mere $5.60 left in the city treasury. Many of Ashcroft’s citizens moved to Aspen, often lifting their cabins right off the foundations and moving them as well. There were 75 residents in 1900, but the number still only included three women. Ashcroft’s population was nearly depleted by 1906 when the town was sold to a New York syndicate. When the population was reduced to nine residents, the post office finally closed in 1912.
Eventually only two residents remained at Ashcroft: poet and former postmaster Dan McArthur and former saloon owner John “Jack” Leahy, who had helped form a union during the strikes. A resident of Ashcroft for some 57 years, Leahy also offered legal advice and served as a justice of the peace. Interestingly, his services were never required in an official court of law, and in later years he became known as the Hermit of Ashcroft. When Leahy died in 1939, he was the last official resident of the town.
Ashcroft next caught the attention of sports figure Theodore Ryan and Olympic gold medalist Billy Fiske, who wanted to turn it into a ski resort. The pair built the Highland-Bavarian Lodge in anticipation of constructing an aerial tramway to the top of Mount Hayden. World War II put a stop to the plans when Fiske died in action. Ryan was also drafted and but offered to lease Ashcroft to the 10th Mountain Division for only a dollar per year. But the army was already using Camp Hale near Leadville and while some training exercises took place at Ashcroft, the small town never reached its full potential as a base camp. A decision to move the ski resort to Aspen was Ashcroft’s final undoing.
After the war, dogsled operator Stuart Mace became a caretaker at Ashcroft in exchange for using the land for his sleds. Mace, his huskies and Ashcroft were all featured in the 1950’s television series “Sgt. Preston of the Yukon.” Stuart and his wife also ran the Toklat Restaurant at Ashcroft, and their descendants have turned the building into an exclusive gallery with crafts from all over the world. The Mace’s also saved the town from land developers by donating its 15 acres to the Forest Service in 1953. The Aspen Historical Society began working in 1974 to preserve what was left of the town.
Today, Ashcroft is a great place to snow shoe in a quiet mountain valley. There is a caretaker nearby and a fee of $3.00. From Aspen, take Highway 82 west. At the roundabout, take Castle Creek Road for approximately 11 miles. The road is paved all the way to Ashcroft, but the ancient streets of the town will remind you of how it must have looked over a century ago.