Posted by on Mar 13, 2016 in | 0 comments

The Grandees of Ashcroft

Ashcroft boomed and then went bust for good. But some relentless optimists held on for decades.

If history had played out the way Dan McArthur, Jack Leahy, and Charles Armstrong envisioned, Ashcroft would today be the premier city in Pitkin County. Instead of Aspen, these pioneers and opportunistic bachelors chose the mining camp high in Castle Creek Valley as the place to distill their lives, even after Ashcroft’s potential imploded with bankruptcy in 1887, leaving it largely deserted by the turn of the century. Their charisma populated a frontier salon in McArthur’s Blue Mirror Saloon, wherein they assumed civic leadership positions, recounted myth and legend to picnickers and drinkers from Aspen, and acted as guardians of the rough and tumble mystique of struggling prospectors of days gone by. Against all odds they survived, on game, fish, alcohol, and their own cunning, relentlessly championing the town’s revival into the 1920s and ’30s.

In Ashcroft’s heyday, with rumors of silver strikes multiplying, the Aspen Times wrote in 1881, “Honest George Alcorn of Ashcroft says, ‘If I strike ’er boys, I ain’t goin’ to live like I been livin’ past two years.’ Missouri widows look out.” Because the railroads came into Aspen in 1887 and respectable women arrived, we all know which settlement won out. Yet Ashcroft, with a peak population of 1,000, prospered on speculation until 1883. The Dreadnaught, Prince of Wales, and Tam O’ Shanter were some noted silver mines.

With sixteen votes cast in the town election of 1900, McArthur fancied himself the perpetual mayor, postmaster, and “Weather Bureau” representative, tallying snowfall on a stump behind his bar. The Rocky Mountain Sun chronicled his many speculative mining interests and in a cheeky story entitled “Ashcroft Stampeded,” reported how “the ‘doughty’ Colonel Dan McArthur, postmaster and general caterer to the public, while drowsily nodding in his chair after a rush of visitors,” was startled by “a wiggling, hissing snake at his feet.” His saloon served as town hall, post office, and election precinct. He entertained visitors with an old cylinder phonograph. In 1923, he died in his Ashcroft cabin.

Leahy, known as “the poet of Ashcroft,” read everything from Aristotle to law books, quoting and reciting his poetry whenever opportunity arose. Elected justice of the peace, he became a quasi-mining lawyer to itinerant prospectors. He helped build the Pearl Pass road and the jack-trail above Cathedral Lake, where he found gold deposits near Electric Pass. One of his many friends wrote, “He could talk on any subject at any time. His love of liquor was his only enemy.” He was the last resident of Ashcroft, living there some fifty years. He died of malnutrition in Glenwood Springs in 1939, at the age of 80, and is buried in Aspen’s Red Butte Cemetery.

Armstrong studied math and mining engineering in his cabin near the present Elk Mountain Lodge. He trapped fox and pine martens. Rabbit stew and trout were his favorite meals. Because he was known as a good cook, prospectors stopped by his cabin to share a meal, but he discriminated between “tramps” and those who knew what they were doing. In his diaries, he noted catching forty trout in one day and lamented his drinking binges in Aspen. Branded as a gossiper, he stopped the Ashcroft stage as it passed his cabin to see who was coming and going and to acquire available newspapers. In 1900, he was 52 years old. As late as 1922, he listed an Aspen address for his surveying and civil engineering office. He died in 1928, at 81 years old, at Aspen Citizen’s Hospital and is buried in a Masonic plot in Red Butte Cemetery.

Along with other Ashcroft gadabouts, such as Miles Sweeney, Old Man Fitzpatrick, who recited Shakespeare, and the Whispering Swede, who repaired clocks, all convened at “Dan’s Place,” as McArthur’s saloon was called, preaching bimetallism—which would allow both gold and silver as legal tender in a fixed ratio of value—and the renaissance of Ashcroft silver. Though the Oz-like dream of these gentlemen never materialized, nowadays Aspen visitors can tour the nearby ghost town and experience the ambience of what might have been.

ASPEN SOJOURNER / MIDWINTER 2012 / CHARACTER STUDIES