LINCOLN CREEK VALLEY – On Sept. 13, 1888, the Leadville Chronicle sub-headlined: “A Lincoln Gulch Man Has a Terrible Hand-to-Hand Fight With a Huge Mountain Lion — A Narrow Escape.”
Two “pickslingers” employed by claim owner Dr. Whitehill of Leadville were bedded down for the night in their shack up Lincoln Gulch, when caterwauling of an unmistakable kind outside woke them. They peered through a chink in the wall, and “sure enough,” said one, “it was one of them derned varmints.”
After supper they had hung their mutton quarter from a high tree limb and the lion, reckoned to be “as big as the biggest Newfoundland,” was circling and jumping for the mutton. With each attempt the cat fell to the ground and howled at the failure. Maddened, he soon took to the scent of fear in the cabin.
“We could hear his claws scratchin’ agin the logs. Me and Jim felt mighty queer at the time,” said the unnamed raconteur. Soon the cat found the flimsy door made of two-inch boards, tacked on with hinges of boot-strap leather. “There was cracks all around it and he got his claws into them cracks.”
Without weapons, the prospectors devised a plan to pop open the door and holler at the cat while smacking the assailant with an axe and shovel. Upon bursting open the door, “Jim and I yelled enough to skeer a Comanche, but the cat planted both claws in my shoulder. Then Jim gave him a terrible whack on the head with the axe and the critter give a tremendous cry and lit out.”
The prospector opened his shirt to show the claw marks to a Leadville deputy, and said that if Dr. Whitehall “didn’t get us a gun out there I’ll throw up the job.”
Three generations of cabins
Up against obstacles hard to imagine now in an Aspen of swipe-for-a-genie phones and buttery concierges, the first prospectors up Lincoln Creek in the early 1880s scratched for carbonites, silver, gold, copper, lead, and zinc. Facing avalanches, unstable explosives, cave-ins, and odyssey-like distances to marginal medical care, they were a breed of endurance athletes in an era when survival was the victory.
Today along the four-wheel-drive road up the gulch, the intriguing remains of the ghost town of Ruby exude Old West mystery and at least three generations of structures. Along the road are historical log-building ruins that complement the landscape, a few modern cabins on patented mining claims, and, up until recently, two ramshackle retro-modern cabins from the post-World War II era that the U.S. Forest Service razed.
Until 1994, for extra fees, unpatented mining claims could be upgraded to patent. Once patented, the claimant became the actual owner of the land with the right to build a residence, while unpatented claims remained leases on federal property for the sole purpose of mining.
Before their demolition earlier this month, the most recent architectural interlopers evidenced the romance of an unfettered period of the last of the Old West, from the 1940s through the 1970s, when few journeyed to the wilderness frontier and even fewer objected to what they built in those parts.
Yet in their derelict state, surrounded by junk that the USFS is cleaning up with the help of penal inmates, the removal of the cabins seems justified, in a bid to reclaim a sliver of the disappearing pristine. Artifacts scattered about range from lead-soldered prospectors’ cans opened starlike with knives, to rusted bed springs, to a flathead V-8 engine and a decomposing 1948 Hudson coupe, driven up to one of the scraped cabins in the 1950s.
Twin Lakes versus Aspen
In the earliest days up the gulch, the major obstacle to early mining was access and transport. A burro path down intersected the existing trail over Independence into Aspen from Twin Lakes in 1880. The first freight wagon loads coming to Aspen from Leadville over Independence had to be disassembled and reassembled to get through narrow sections below the Lincoln Creek and Difficult Creek junctions.
At the Lincoln Creek junction with the Roaring Fork, a one-time settlement near the current Lincoln Gulch campground had a hotel called the Junction House, first run by Joe Sendlebach, according to the July 30, 1881, Aspen Times. A stable accommodated 14 horses and the hotel served fresh strawberries. The Junction served as a stopover for travelers over Independence Pass and access for early Aspen prospectors exploring Lincoln Gulch.
At the same time, the preferred route for Leadville-side prospectors in and out of Lincoln Gulch was over Red Mountain Pass at the top eastern side of the gulch. A switchback trail for burro trains over the distinctly red 13,000-foot pass crossed into a settlement called Three Cabins in Peekaboo Gulch near Twin Lakes. From there, six-in-hand freight wagons hauled the ore to a stamp mill in Twin Lakes, the Leadville smelter, or to freight trains in Granite, according to the Leadville Herald Democrat, Carbonite Chronicle, and the Twin Lakes Miner newspapers.
Aspen argued that Lincoln Gulch commerce would be better served with a wagon road up the promising gulch and a better road from the Junction into Aspen. The projected volume of business from the gulch would link directly to the rest of the west via Aspen’s anticipated railroads.
But the Twin Lakes and Leadville mining community, which had first penetrated the gulch, and which had been servicing gold and silver mines running up numerous gulches on the east side of the pass, felt it had the right to commerce from the developing district.
Bribery in Leadville?
In 1883, gulch prospectors offered to meet Pitkin County half way in constructing a wagon road out to an improved Aspen road, said the Rocky Mountain Sun on October 20. Though some 15 mines in the gulch would ship “good smelting ore” to Aspen, said the Sun, the Pitkin commissioners chose to fund Aspen infrastructure instead.
With that, up through 1893 — when the price of silver tanked with the stock market — and until about 1908, Twin Lakes serviced Lincoln Gulch. At a standstill after the crash, a touted discovery of 800 to 1,200 ounces per ton of silver on the Ruby claim in 1898 by owners Hughes and Willard of Kansas changed the equation. That ore, shipped over Red Mountain to Leadville, sparked a resurgence in the gulch, said the Granite Pay Streak in August 1898.
On the heels of that strike, the still incomplete Lincoln Gulch road to the Junction become a hot Aspen issue again. The Aspen Times on July 22, 1905, headlined, “Where is the Lincoln Gulch road?” Many believed Leadville grafters were paying Carpenter, the state surveyor, to not build the already-funded commercial wagon road out of the Gulch, said the Times.
Finally, in February of 1906, the contract was signed to complete the road, which a Ruby Mine brochure at the Aspen Historical Society said was finished in 1908. At the same time, Colorado funded the state wagon road from Twin Lakes over the divide into Aspen. But because of a series of underbids by contractors for different sections of the road, said the Miner, the challenging construction dragged on until completion in 1911.
Beginning in 1914, Aspen volunteers worked picks and shovels to help the phlegmatic state construct a new Highway 82 for automobiles over Independence. Mr. Willoughby, in a day-long journey, drove the first car over in 1922.
Despite so much roadway procrastination, the most productive years of Lincoln Gulch mining occurred between 1898 and 1916.
Early gulch mines
The Herald on April 12, 1882, reported that Young’s Camp over Red Mountain Pass in the gulch, named after J. F. Young who’d been prospecting several summers for carbonites there, would become the new mining district of Lincoln Gulch. (Carbonites include marble, limestone, and a range of colored crystals, some of which are semi-precious gems.)
A year later, on Dec. 1, 1883, the Times reported that Edward Bailey, owner of the Highland Mary claims at the top of the gulch, upped the road ante. While visiting Aspen, he bragged that with a wagon road he could deliver 30 tons of ore per day to Aspen.
Fast forward to the 1960s, and Bailey’s Highland claims somehow became where the late Aspen ski cinematographer Don Rathbun rebuilt a frame cabin, one of the two the USFS tore down recently. Rathbun became unable keep the claim up and the between-the-legal-cracks structure was vandalized and declared a hazard.
In October 1883, the anonymous “Prospector” wrote to the Rocky Mountain Sun praising the Pontiac, Windsor, and Minnie Clawson claims, boasting of up to $1,000 per ton of assayed silver. Such projected assays, designed to attract investors, were based upon small amounts of rich ore that could represent tonnage if the ore continued at the same percentage. The Prospector claimed the gulch could deliver 40 tons of ore per week to Aspen instead of Twin Lakes, with a gulch road.
On Feb. 23, 1884, in what the Sun characterized as “a regular Kansas blizzard,” a large avalanche just below the Junction House buried the bridge over the Roaring Fork on the toll road into Aspen. The few souls braving the winter in Lincoln Gulch remained trapped there until spring.
But a new allure in the gulch caught people’s attention when prospector “Uncle Jimmy Tanfield” discovered “a lode rich in gold and copper,” said the Times on Aug. 8, 1886.
At the same time, on the eastern slope of Red Mountain pass, the Gibraltar, Jackpot, and Lucky Cuss were operating as producing gold mines. Not surprisingly, since gold had been mined in nearby Independence (known in 1882 as Sparkill, Dutch for pole creek), and gold traces had been found earlier in Lincoln Gulch, anticipation of a big gold strike remained tantalizing.
The Times reported in November 1889 that the Galena Belle mine in Grizzly Gulch near Lincoln assayed $17 gold and $117 silver per ton. Up Lincoln, the August 1898 Aspen Tribune said the Ruby Mine found $30 per ton of gold, and the April 1899 Times wrote “Dr. Bowman dug grass roots ore that returned $25 gold.”
Al Fennel in 1910 panned “rich gold float” in gulch tributaries, said the Miner. And as late as 1927, the Times said J.J. “Jake” Yeckel of LG Metal Mines Co., would “bring big results in the rich gold territory.”
Amidst this speculation, the Miner started calling the gulch miners Argonauts, in reference to the ancient Greek quest for the Golden Fleece. Though gold sometimes appeared as a low percentage of shipments while silver and lead paid off steadily, no big gold strike put the area on the map.
The bottom line was that a miner had to move tons of rock to distill an ounce of gold, which its rarity valued at about $19 per ounce between 1850 and 1927. Factor in back-breaking labor and irregular percentages of gold in ore, and Lincoln Gulch silver proved to be more profitable.
Ruby red silver
Though a retro-fitted sign on a large log structure once used as a stable along the gulch road says “Ruby est. 1883,” historic newspapers through 1927 referred to Lincoln Gulch or the Ruby Mine in Lincoln Gulch, without ever calling the district the “town of Ruby.”
Ruby became the de facto name once the Ruby Mine became dominant there from 1898 through about 1911. In the 1940s and 1950s the Aspen newspapers started calling the once thriving gulch the “old ghost town of Ruby.”
Overlooking that technicality, in 1901, an Illinois group formed The Ruby Mine Co., consisting of a number of claims on the west slope of Red Mountain Pass. The upper Ruby tunnel above timberline exposed a vertical silver vein. By driving two deeper tunnels below it they pursued the fatter part of the vein.
On March 22, 1902, the Times wrote that a series of big snow slides had shut down the Ruby. One “great avalanche on its mission of destruction” took the boards off the tram building and brushed the bunkhouse at midnight, while “sleeping miners escaped eternity as they dreamed of the Ruby’s treasure vaults they coveted.” Days later in Aspen, “All the boys arrived” to celebrate their close call and were “hailed by all as a glad surprise.”
Soon the Ruby became known as running “the best property in the district,” said the Miner on July 16, 1904, after shipping 60 sacks of $250-per-ton silver out on a 60-burro train over Red Mountain. On Aug. 23, 1904, the Times wrote that claim jumpers near the Ruby were deterred by the “owners enforcing their demands with popguns.”
But what really made the Ruby name shine appeared in the Nov. 20, 1904, Herald Democrat, wherein a concentrate of ruby silver was found. This somewhat rare red silver, mixed in with other silver ore, can present as stunning red crystal formations. Earlier, the Ruby claims were probably named for this ruby silver.
New owners’ promises
By 1906 the Ruby had built a bunkhouse, a mill and an assayer’s office. In 1907, the Miner said they were installing a gas-powered concentrator mill and saw mill, and that they would be shipping $1,000 per day over Red Mountain.
The Oct. 14, 1906, Times reported that 20-year-old Victor Johnson at the Ruby Mine took ill with stomach cramps and was transported down to Citizens’ Hospital in Aspen, where he died of peritonitis, the autopsy revealed. He was embalmed by Undertaker Blakemore before being accompanied by his “heart-broken father” back to Leadville on the Midland train.
In another mishap, Aspenite John Needham drilled into a “missed shot” at the Ruby in 1907. The shot blew up in his face and right eye, said the Times on Aug. 8. He was brought to Citizens’ Hospital where the outcome was uncertain.
In April 1909, the Consolidated Ruby Mining Co. incorporated the existing Ruby Mining Co. plus some 18 lodes and issued one million shares of stock to fund extraction of a projected “$2 million worth of ore,” according to a CRMC brochure at the historical society. The new company built two blacksmith shops, a 28-horse stable, and accommodations for 40 miners.
Four months later, the Aspen Democrat-Times wrote in July 1909 that Miss Jeanette Weatherman was hired as a waitress for the Ruby Mine’s boardinghouse (imagine serving 40 miners in a remote outpost). But she found her man there, because the paper noted in November that “Cupid Heatherly,” Aspen’s town clerk, issued a marriage license to Jeanette and C.M. Arnett, an engineer at the Ruby. They honeymooned that January in Kansas.
Under the new owners, supervisor William Barnes produced $100,000 in ore that year, still short of the $2 million promised to their shareholders, while ore wagons were able to ship via the 1908-improved road down the gulch into Aspen.
Meanwhile — where one of today’s “modern” cabins built by the Nichols/Flatt family of Grand Junction was recently demolished — the Miner said the “European-American Mining company of Paris, France,” worked the Osborne claims opposite the Ruby. On scene were owners “Baron Claes de Peyron of Sweden and Mr. Leapold Gelus of Marseilles, France,” who claimed 6 ounces of gold and 800 ounces of silver per ton.
The 1910 Miner went on to bombast that the gulch “will soon be developed into one of the foremost mining camps of the Rockies,” and “mines will be opened that will astonish the mining world.”
This did not prove to be the case, and with unfulfilled promises based on silver at $.52 per once in 1910, the district began sliding into its second malaise, which ripened with the winds of world war in 1914. Yet in August 1916, the Democrat-Times said William Anderson, aka “Rattlesnake Anderson,” was visiting Aspen from his claim near Anderson Lake. In September 1919, the Herald Democrat wrote that Aspen merchant Mr. Kobey was operating the idle Ruby at a profit.
In July 1925, the Times reported that Blaine Bray was putting the Lincoln Gulch road into shape for automobile traffic. “That’s the ticket, Gentlemen Commissioners,” wrote the Times. In February 1927, the Times, in the typically unshakeable optimism of mining reporting, said LG Metal Mines Co., run by a new group of Aspen businessmen, extracted samples high in gold, silver, and lead.
Judge William Shaw never stopped believing
After 1930 there is little mention of successful mining in the gulch other than the scattered hyperbole of “Saturday-afternoon” prospectors picking over abandoned claims. But for a few operations, the hope of a resurgence of mining in the Aspen area retreated as the new era of skiing began to eclipse the old way of life.
During the 1930s, Aspen pioneer and county Judge William Shaw, a rumpled chain smoker and respected Aspen fixture into the 1970s, caught the mining bug, and he began amassing numerous claims in Lincoln Gulch, often in exchange for legal work.
In his letters at the Aspen Historical Society, his knowledge of the lodes abandoned there in the early 1900s, along with the Gordian knot of legal details, showed how he believed that high-grade silver and gold might still be unearthed there. To this end, in 1946, he courted a mining group with properties in Guatemala, wherein former President Herbert Hoover was a partner.
According to Shaw, the gulch fell into its first decline by 1893 because of excessive litigation, lack of train proximity, and because many left for easier pickings in Aspen, while World War I led to the second decline. He observed how shape-shifting ownership in mining worked: “Large companies have a habit of leaving a property, waiting for the owners to forget the property and then relocating in their own name.”
From 1933 to 1934, during the Great Depression, a sizable and grateful crew worked on the water diversion tunnel, boring under Independence Pass from Lincoln Gulch to Twin Lakes. Today, Western Slope Coloradans worth their salt still resent that eastern-slopers “rustled” the Western Slope’s water to irrigate southeastern Colorado melon fields.
In the 1950s, Shaw worked with the Minerals Research Corp. in Golden to take core samples around Ruby; in 1968 he tried to land a deal with Superior Oil Co. by cobbling together countless gulch claims into a lease package for $3 million; and by 1970 he had the Union Carbide Corp. sniffing for minerals there. Though none of these deals panned out, he maintained two cabins in Ruby, as his hope for a new Lincoln Gulch mining center faded.
Judge Shaw died in 1974, followed by his wife Dorothy in 1976. Their son and principle heir, “Harry Bob,” an Aspen High grad and Harvard PhD, preceded them in death in 1963. Along with the venerable Shaws, the detailed knowledge of the working parts of old Aspen and Lincoln Gulch became lost.
As is the case with many historical mining districts, and Lincoln Gulch is no exception, shifting owners and morphing partners freighted with leases and sub-leases leave a jumble to decipher. The bonanza lode may still lie hidden up there, but thanks to the U.S. Forest Service cleanup, the once boastful gulch is revegetating as a recreational nook of Pitkin County.
Editor’s note: Tim Cooney is a veteran Aspen Mountain ski patroller and dedicated student of Aspen history. Aspen Daily News and Aspen Journalism are collaborating on coverage of Aspen history. The Daily News published this story on Sunday, August 20, 2017.