Ghost Towns #1 - Ashcroft, CO
Ghost Town tour started out as mildly as summer day in the high country. A smooth paved road wound its way up Castle Creek. It was a pleasure to escape the devilishly hot weather on front range and luxuriate in mountain scenery.
First stop on our tour was the town of Ashcroft, 12 miles south of Aspen, at an elevation of 9,500 feet. Now Ashcroft is a huddle of nine or ten ruined, weather-beaten buildings. This is all that remains of the great dreams and high aspirations that created the town. The first dreamers to envision prosperity in this high mountain meadow were C.B Culver and W.F. Coxhead, a pair of prospectors who believed the area they originally called Castle Forks City showed as much promise of riches as the boomtown of Leadville. Within a few short weeks they attracted prospectors, laid out streets and built a courthouse.
The Tam O’Shanter-Montezuma and other mines above Ashcroft originally produced a bonanza of silver, and the town mushroomed to over 2000 residents, including, for a short time, silver king Horace and Baby Doe Tabor. Almost overnight two newspapers, a school, sawmills, and a smelter and 16-20 saloons, sprang up. But the boom was short-lived. Within a year the mine closed, and population dwindled to only 50 residents.
Interest in the Ashcroft area revived in the 1930s when T.J. Fiske a former Olympian bobsled racer and investment banker teamed up with Ted Ryan, financier, and Robert Rowan, real estate magnate. These visionary high-rollers had dreams of developing a European-style ski resort to rival St. Moritz. They got as far as building rustic accommodations called the Highland-Bavarian Lodge where visitors could rent a room for $7 per day, take sleigh rides up Castle Creek Valley, and ski back down to the lodge. But World War II put an end to their grand plans for a ski resort. During WWII the Tenth Mountain Division trained at the lodge near Ashcroft. By the time the war had ended, interest in ski resort development had shifted to Aspen, and the grand plans for Ashcroft were scrapped.
Ashcroft still tantalized dreamers and visionaries. In 1948 Stuart Mace, who as a conscientious objector, supported the war effort by commanding the army’s canine division rather than carrying a rifle, discovered the Ashcroft area. After the war he relocated his dogsled operation from Boulder to Castle Valley and negotiated a lifetime lease with then-owner Ted Ryan in exchange for Mace’s stewardship of the land. Stuart Mace, and his wife, Isabel, built the lodge they called Toklat, Inuit for glacial mountain valley. There they raised five children. Stuart used Toklat as home base for his dogsled operation. His dogs gained notoriety starring in the TV series Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. With his rugged good looks, he had the perfect appearance to play Sgt. Preston. Instead he filled in only as stuntman for the program. He was a fierce defender of the natural ecosystem, sometimes vociferously confronting offenders he found abusing the land.
In 1987 Stuart Mace added a studio/workshop/gallery featuring weavings from the Mexican Village of Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico. In 2004 ACES, (Aspen Center for Environmental Studies) bought Toklat. The Toklat lodge now hosts a variety of environmental classes.
Today Ashcroft is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A well-maintained walking path winds through the site, and interpretive signs point out the town jail, post office and saloon. On the morning we visited the small museum was open and Natalie Mase and Katya Galambos were ready to interpret the history of Ashcroft for visitors. The walls of the tiny building that serves as the museum are covered with historic photos, and Natalie and Katya are happy to explain Ashcroft’s story.
“Who stayed at the hotel?” I asked.
“There have been rumors of it being a brothel,” Natalie said with a sly smile.
“It might have been a boarding house too.” Katya offered. “If you were a miner, you came up here for the summer and didn’t want to commit to building a cabin. Miners weren’t really looking to commit to a town and contribute to a community.” She explained. “They were trying to strike it rich, and if you didn’t, you moved on.”
“The hotel may also have been useful to promote the area. As a fund raiser, you try to convince investors that your claim was the best, a good thing to invest in,” Natalie added. A nice big hotel with crenulated decorations proclaimed this place as a good bet.
“The town was actually well positioned to outlast rival Aspen until the 1887 decision to take the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad line into Aspen. The center of gravity immediately shifted to the rail corridor and many Ashcroft residents simply packed up and moved, taking their tents or houses with them on wagons or skids.” (pinecreekcookhouse.com/Ashcroft/history)
For decades the town’s last original resident, Jack Leahy, lived in his small cabin on the edge of the formerly bustling. According to his obituary in the Aspen Times “Jack was a most unique and colorful character. In fact, some referred to him as being a human paradox. He was a true pioneer of the old West, a typical old prospector, yet he was one of the most highly educated men in the Rockies. He led the way to the rich Aspen-Ashcroft mining district. Thousands followed him— then left when mining played out— yet he stayed and thus became both the first and last resident of Ashcroft.” With Jack’s passing, Ashcroft became an official ghost town.