“There can be no other criterion, no other standard than gold.”
In the state of Colorado, where historic preservation has, for too many decades, taken a back seat to "progress," the Aspen Historical Society deserves a gold medal for their efforts to preserve the sites of both Ashcroft and Independence. They are shining examples of what can (and should) happen to ensure that future generations can experience living history. Similar to Bodie, California, both sites exist in a state of "arrested decay." That is, they are preserved enough to keep their structures standing, but not so restored as to look inauthentic.
Imagine a mining town high in the Rocky Mountains which was visited by the likes of the fabulously wealthy Horrace Austin Warner (H.A.W.) Tabor and his wife Elizabeth "Baby Doe," and Bob Ford, the coward who shot Jesse James in the back and who was himself murdered in Creede a decade later. Imagine a town that at one time threatened to rival nearby Aspen, but only three short years later would be virtually deserted. Imagine a town that was so difficult to reach that stagecoaches coming over Taylor Pass had to be disassembled, the parts then lowered (or raised, depending on the direction of travel) one-by-one over a forty-foot high cliff, and then reassembled.
T.E. Ashcraft and his party located pay dirt near Ashcroft in 1879 and founded the town of Highland. They planned to spend the winter here. However, the town was inside of Ute Indian territory, and with the Meeker Massacre having recently occurred on September 29, 1879, most of the party felt better about wintering in Leadville. Two of the men stayed anyhow and laid out a camp that they called Castle Forks, where the two forks of Castle Creek merged. That spring, prospectors swelled the Elk Mountains, and Highland proliferated.
At about the same time, Castle Forks' name was changed to Ashcroft and it also proliferated. For some inexplicable reason, when Ashcroft was founded, a single letter was changed. Some surmise that when the post office was started on August 28, 1880, the postmaster, John R. Nelson, misspelled Ashcraft's name, and, so, Ashcroft it was.
In any event, Highland died very quickly as Ashcroft grew.
At once time, Ashcroft claimed four hotels. One of those, the Hotel View, still stands proudly at the southern end of the town's main street. The jail is also still standing with its 2x4s stacked one on top of the other, and its windows still barred. Among many other businesses, Ashcroft also had a school, the requisite number of saloons, and a newspaper, the Ashcroft Herald.
Ashcroft had its share of eccentric characters and the stories to accompany them.
H.A.W. Tabor was part owner in the Tam O'Shatner and Montezuma group of mines. He built a lavish home here for himself and Baby Doe. It's said that the walls were covered with a gold-encrusted wallpaper. When money is no object, you cover your walls in gold. Whenever Baby Doe would make an appearance in town, Horrace is said to have declared a twenty-four-hour holiday, and he paid for everyone's drinks in all of the saloons. When you're married to Baby Doe, and she pays a visit, you tell everyone to stop working and get them all drunk. Its what you do.
Among the other well-paying mines which supported Ashcroft and produced mostly silver and lead, there were the Unexpected, Hidden Treasure, Dreadnaught, and the Empress.
By 1883, Ashcroft was beginning to fade, as Aspen started to take off. The eventual opening of Independence Pass did more to hurt Ashcroft than to help it. Aspen sat at the very foot of Independence Pass and had better, higher-paying mines. As Aspen continued to swell and prosper, residents of Ashcroft began leaving for that town's greener pastures; some even picked up their cabins and took them to Aspen. Then, in 1887, the Denver & Rio Grande Western railroad reached Aspen. It was hoped that a line would be extended to Ashcroft, but this never materialized, and Ashcroft slowly faded into memory. The population dwindled year-after-year until only one man remained.
Jack Leahy, the hermit of Ashcroft, never left the town. He died in 1939, and with him, Ashcroft, in its spectacularly beautiful location at the foot of the Elk Mountains, indeed became a ghost town.