‘Ghost’ is town’s resident expert
ASPEN ” Images both ethereal and earthy emanate from Independence.
During the ghost town’s brief run in the 1880s, the marshal gunned down two men. Where they were buried is a mystery.
There’s an unmarked cemetery somewhere near the 126-year-old buildings, according to “the Ghost of Independence.” The winters ” harsher than anything that hit the more sheltered town of Aspen 3,000 feet below ” surely took lives, as did the mines. Death exists up here, but so far the Ghost can’t find the graveyard.
“The Ghost” is Nathan Ratledge’s nickname. The naturalist at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies is fixing up a cabin at the site 14 miles east of Aspen to live in for the summer. He also provides a wealth of information about the ghost town to visitors and occasionally reminders them to keep on the trails.
Independence is on land owned by the U.S. Forest Service, which works with the Aspen Historical Society to preserve the site. Society officials, in turn, work with the environmental center to restore the ghost town and provide information to visitors.
Outside his future home, Ratledge said the summer is providing him a glimpse of what life must have been like for the “brawny” residents, as he described them, who lived here. At 11,000 feet thunderstorms move in around noon or 1 p.m. daily, with a lot of lightning.
“You wouldn’t want to be on an aluminum ladder,” Ratledge said.
High winds regularly batter the structures, including his cabin, on a hill on the downvalley side of Independence. But at least it keeps the bugs away, he said.
Ratledge, 24, leapt at the chance to spend the summer here and has since amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of the former gold-mining town, including its many names. There were many Independences in the state back then, so Chipeta, Mammoth City, Mount Hope, Farwell, Sparkill and Hunter’s Pass were all proposed as alternatives.
A sign near the parking lot says Independence was founded July 4, 1879, when gold was found. Ratledge, however, called that date folklore. What is known is that by 1881, the Farwell Mining Co. had built a huge, five-story stamp mill to process ore and acquired most of the mines.
From 1881 until 1882, the town would support 1,500 people and more than 40 businesses, including saloons, restaurants, a general store and five hotels, as mining extracted nearly $200,000 in gold. And gold makes men do strange and sometimes fatal things, such as choosing to winter on the divide.
Independence winters are hard to imagine: six feet of snow, hurricane-force winds and temperatures well below freezing. Wagon wheels would be removed in favor of sleds.
In addition to the mines, Independence served as a way station between Aspen and Leadville. The stagecoach road was treacherous.
“Well, with my baby in front of me and my husband leading the horse, I did very well until we got to the top,” wrote Mrs. M. B. Hall. She traveled from Leadville to Independence in the spring of 1881, according to a historical society Web site. “But going down on the other side, the trail was so narrow and steep that I felt sure I would go over the horse’s head.”
Ratledge assumes the road cost many mules and men their lives. The stages’ wooden brakes often couldn’t handle the pass, leading to wild rides and accidents down crevices. And consider that the stamp mill used 32. 850-pound crushers ” giant equipment that somehow made it over the pass.
The narrow road, around which Independence was built, was also the source of brawls. An article from an 1880s Aspen Times says, “There is a section of corduroy road at the top of the pass where the freight wagons often meet. A place where there is just room for one wagon. It is traditional that the wagon drivers indulge in a fist fight … and the loser has to drive off in the mud.”
Little wonder, then, that the arrival of whiskey, supplies and prostitutes would set off parties lasting days, Ratledge said.
Alas, the party didn’t last long. Only $2,000 worth was mined in 1883, signaling the beginning of the end of Independence.
Miners found better working conditions and weather in Aspen, and by 1888, the population of Independence had dwindled to 200.
The next winter, a blizzard severed the town’s supply route and drove the rest of the populace down to Aspen. Running out of food, residents pulled wood off their houses and skied down in an event dubbed the Hunter’s Pass Ski Club.
A few miners persisted in trying their luck until the 1920s. In 1927, Highway 82 was built. The road split the Farwell stamp mill, but road crews left half of the building intact. Its weather-beaten remains continue to deteriorate.
Such old wood was popular a few decades ago, too popular for Independence. Using barn wood materials in building became all the rage in the 1970s, and scavengers ripped pieces off several buildings.
“Basically, the town was just stolen,” Ratledge said. The wood has been replaced, in most places with a more modern variety.
In addition to answering questions, Ratledge will also staff a building that likely housed the general store. Inside are photographs of life before and after Highway 82, along with relics on a shelf of the mining life. Such artifacts, including an original Budweiser bottle, are still found occasionally, he said.
“I’m trying to limit my impact,” the Ghost said. “I’m just trying to be part of the story for three months and then let it go.”
Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado
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