The Mining Boom: 1879 – 1893

In 1879 the first prospectors arrived in what would soon become Aspen and determined the area contained large deposits of silver ore. For the next 14 years Aspen’s fortunes rose as it eventually produced 1/6th of the nation’s and 1/16th of the world’s silver.

Hayden Geological Survey reports are released in fall of 1878 indicating promising geologic formations in the Roaring Fork Valley for the presence of silver prompting the first prospectors to cross difficult mountain passes, explore the area for silver and lay claims on what will become one of the richest silver lodes in history. Henry B. Gillespie arrives in Aspen to examine a claim and travels to Washington, DC to petition for a Post Office. He lays out a town and calls it Ute City. Prospectors discover the Independence Gold Lode on July 4 in what will become the mining camp of Independence.

B. Clark Wheeler and Charles A. Hallam, as agents and co-partners of David Hyman of Cincinnati arrive in Ute City. They purchase several mining claims. Wheeler surveys town site and renames it Aspen, forming his own town company. DRC Brown and H.P. Cowenhoven arrive after a difficult 3-week wagon trip from Leadville over Taylor Pass. The D&RGRR reaches Leadville. Stages are running from Leadville to Independence Gold Camp where 300 people now reside. Prospectors form the mining camp Ashcroft.

Pitkin County is established. The Aspen Times (owned by B. Clark Wheeler) is first published. Aspen Mining and Smelting Company is organized. First Aspen school opens. Independence Pass road is completed to Aspen. The remaining Ute people (except for Southern Utes) are forcibly removed from Colorado and relocated to the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah as stipulated in the 1880 Ute Removal Act (approximately 1,465 Ute people were removed from their ancestral lands in what is now considered Colorado to reservations west of their range). Silver is discovered in the Molly Gibson Mine. First Clarendon Hotel is built. Volunteer fire department is established. Katie Cowenhoven marries DRC Brown. Horace Tabor comes to and invests in the Montezuma and Tam O’Shanter mines. Wagon road over Taylor Pass is officially opened. D&RGRR reaches Crested Butte. A telegraph connecting Aspen, Ashcroft, and Crested Butte is completed. Independence’s population reaches 500 and it is served by four grocery stores, four boarding houses, and three saloons.

The gold camp (Independence) has an estimated 1,500 residents, however, production drops drastically. The Farwell mines close and Mill shuts down.

Jerome B. Wheeler, half-owner of Macy’s Department Store, visits Aspen. Through various investments Mr. Wheeler injects much needed cash into the community.

Clarendon Hotel burns down. Ranching in valley takes hold with the help of the 1862 Homestead Act. Aspen Times 1884 Pitkin County map shows various ranch holdings around the area including the Stapleton ranch on Owl Creek, Carroll and Burke ranches on Brush Creek, Watson ranch on the divide, Koch ranch up Hunter Creek and McLain Ranch on what is now known as McLain Flats.

New Clarendon Hotel opens. Hydro-electric power is used in the mines. Electric Company turns on power to 40 stores. Soon after Aspen has public electricity available throughout the community. Aspen Water Company is organized. Aspen’s first telephone system is installed in the Spar Consolidated Mine. Henry Weber and H.P. Gillespie order the first pianos shipped to Aspen at a cost of $1,000. Wyatt Earp and a US Marshall arrest James Crothers in Aspen for a Wells, Fargo & Co’s stage robbery in Arizona in 1884 with a Mr. Chambers.

City water system is turned on.

The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad reaches Aspen in November. The mines can now ship low-grade ore to market more economically.

A second railroad, the Colorado Midland, reaches Aspen in February. The Wheeler Opera House opens. Jerome B. Wheeler builds a home for his wife in Aspen’s West End which is now headquarters for the Aspen Historical Society. A one-mile long tramway is operational on Aspen Mountain. Durant and Aspen mines are consolidated forming the Compromise Mine, ending years of expensive litigation. Only 100 citizens remain at Independence.

The Hotel Jerome opens in November with great fanfare.

Sherman Silver Act is passed, assuring a continuing market for silver. Population of Aspen reaches 8,000. Cable tramway from Tourtelotte Park to Aspen is completed.

Silver ore production exceeds that of neighboring Leadville. Aspen is the largest silver producing district annually in the nation with one-sixth of the U.S. total and one-sixteenth the world total. The Holden Lixiviation Works becomes operational (visit the site). The Pitkin County Court House opens.

Construction of the Silver Queen Statue for the Chicago World’s Fair is supported by the City. Davis H. Waite becomes Governor of Colorado on the “Free Silver” issue.

Aspen reaches a peak population of 10,000 to 16,000. Congress repeals the Sherman Silver Act, demonetizing silver. The Silver Panic follows, virtually halting the area’s mining industry and beginning an economic long downward slide. Women’s Suffrage in Colorado is enacted by popular vote (the first state where men voted to grant women the right to vote).