Located about eleven miles south of Aspen in Castle Creek Valley, Ashcroft was established in 1880 as a silver mining camp. It quickly grew to more than 2,000 residents and briefly rivaled Aspen, but it was already declining by the late 1880s because the veins of silver ore were shallow and no railroads extended lines up the valley. At least one resident hung on until the 1930s, but today Ashcroft is a ghost town with nine surviving buildings cared for by the Aspen Historical Society.
In the late 1870s prospectors from the silver boomtown of Leadville started to spread throughout the central Colorado mountains, seeking to strike it rich. Some explored Castle Creek Valley in 1879. In May 1880, Charles B. Culver and W. F. Coxhead found ore where two forks of Castle Creek met, at an elevation of about 9,500 feet. Culver staked out their spot, originally called Castle Forks, while Coxhead returned to Leadville for supplies. By the time Coxhead got back, Culver’s enthusiasm about the valley’s prospective mineral wealth had drawn nearly two dozen others to camp nearby.
Early discoveries made in May and June 1880 proved promising. In addition, the new town had the advantage of being closer to the railroads at Crested Butte and Buena Vista than its rival, Aspen, because the main routes into the area went over Taylor and Pearl Passes in the Elk Mountains. The town grew quickly; by August 1880 it had a post office, and the population hit 500 the next summer. It was briefly known as Chloride but in 1882 changed its name to Ashcroft, which may have been a misspelling of the name of early prospector and entrepreneur T. E. Ashcraft.
By 1882–83 Ashcroft was booming. The mines initially produced 14,000 ounces of silver per ton, enough to induce Leadville silver millionaire Horace Tabor to invest in the nearby Tam O’Shanter–Montezuma Mine. The town bustled with more than 2,000 people, two newspapers, about twenty saloons, a school, a smelter, and several hotels. Stage service ran over Taylor and Pearl Passes, with three lines plying routes to destinations such as Crested Butte and St. Elmo. At the time, Ashcroft boasted a larger population than Aspen and seemed to have a promising future.
Ashcroft’s promise faded fast. Its mines ended up having shallow deposits and were soon played out. By the mid-1880s an improved road over Independence Pass and new silver discoveries near Aspen caused much of the town’s population to relocate their cabins to the growing Pitkin County seat. The final nail in Ashcroft’s coffin came in 1887–88, when the Denver & Rio Grande and Colorado Midland Railroads reached Aspen but made no plans to extend their lines up Castle Creek.
Limited mining continued at Ashcroft until the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893 brought silver production to a halt. After that, the town’s remaining population gradually moved away. In November 1912 the post office closed for good, making Daniel McArthur’s bar the town’s only remaining business. A few single old men with mining claims continued to live in the area, but by the 1930s Ashcroft was a ghost town.
Just as Ashcroft was fading into history, interest in the area suddenly revived as the sport of skiing started to become more popular in the United States. In 1936 investor Ted Ryan formed the Highland-Bavarian Corporation with two partners, T. J. Flynn and winter sports star William “Billy” Fiske III. They bought the Ashcroft town site and surrounding land at the base of Hayden Peak, where they hoped to build what would have been the state’s first alpine ski resort. In the late 1930s they constructed the Highland-Bavarian Lodge a few miles north of Ashcroft, received a US Forest Service permit for their resort, and even secured a state bond issue to build an aerial tram.
The start of World War II derailed their plans. Fiske died in combat. Ryan invited the Tenth Mountain Division to the area as a training site. When the war ended, it was Aspen—not Ashcroft—that became the center of the area’s ski development.
Restoration and Preservation
Starting in 1948, Ryan leased some of his land near Ashcroft to Stuart and Isabell Mace. The Maces built a lodge called Toklat, ran a dog sledding operation, and served as stewards of Ryan’s land. Ryan and the Maces worked to keep the area largely undeveloped, with Ryan eventually transferring much of his land to the Forest Service. In the 1950s the television series Sergeant Preston of the Yukon was filmed at Ashcroft using the town’s old wooden buildings and the Maces’ dogs. In 1971 Ryan opened Ashcroft Ski Touring, a small-scale cross-country skiing center that operated on trails around the old ghost town.
In the winter of 1973–74 Ashcroft’s surviving two-story hotel building collapsed. The next year, the Aspen Historical Society, led by local preservationist Ramona Markalunas, started leasing the town site in order to reconstruct the hotel and preserve the remaining structures. This marked the first time that the Forest Service granted a permit to a historical society to preserve and interpret a ghost town. In 1975 Markalunas got the site listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today three restored buildings and six buildings in their original condition survive in Ashcroft, including the post office, the assay office, a mercantile store, two saloons, and a hotel. The buildings are mostly arranged along a clearly defined main street, and some contain historical artifacts and interpretive signs. A parking lot and trail provide easy access to the town, which receives as many as seventy-five visitors per day in the summer. The Aspen Historical Society offers guided tours during the summer and early fall, as does the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, which acquired the Maces’ Toklat Lodge in 2004. The Ashcroft Ski Touring operation started by Ryan continues to allow cross-country skiers and snowshoers to enjoy the area in the winter.