Happy Birthday, Independence Pass!
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
It’s a Happy Birthday for North America’s highest paved crossing of the Continental Divide: Independence Pass. This popular summer passage to Aspen celebrates 139 years this Fourth of July. Here’s its story!
So much of Colorado history is associated with mining. Ultimately, it’s the reason that so many flocked to the region in the late 19th century. So it should come as no surprise that notable Independence Pass has a mining connection as well.
In 1879, two prospectors – W.M. Hurst and Isaac Gadded – struck a rich ore vein on the west side of what is presently known as Independence Pass. The two lucky miners named their claim for its date of discovery, July 4th – Independence Day! In the end, a newspaper article chronicling the discovery dubbed the pass “Independence,” and the name has remained ever since.
When it was first mapped out in 1873, Independence Pass was known as Hunter Pass, more than likely because it was an un-traveled game trail used to cross the Continental Divide down into the Roaring Fork area.
Of course, once word got out that there was “gold in them thar hills,” miners began to arrive at a rate of over 30 a day. The initial claim indicated that the ore assayed out at $400 in gold and 20 ounces of silver to the ton. Before long, what was once a precarious footpath became a more developed route, allowing burro teams to haul the ore down from the mountain into Leadville smelters and return with supplies and mining materials.
Now for anyone who’s ever traveled Independence Pass on a good day, in summer, the idea of traversing the route as part of a mule train in colder weather seems like a dangerous trek, requiring many days exposed to the harsh elements that a lofty 12,095 feet in elevation can offer.
Add to that the fear of retaliation from the Ute Indians who had already shown their disdain for the white man encroaching on their sacred territory with the well-known Meeker Massacre, and most miners were content to wait out the harsh winter in Leadville until travel conditions were safer.
However, it didn’t take long for someone to realize the business opportunity of increased travel over Independence Pass. In spring of 1880, the Twin Lakes, Roaring Fork & Grand Colorado River Toll Road Company was formed, clearing a 12-mile passage west from Twin Lakes up to the rich ore veins.
The first crossing of the pass in a wagon occurred on May 25, 1880. Four mules pulled the wagon as far as they could, switching out to sleighs once they reached the deep snows. It would take a week for the wagon to reach Aspen.
The Leadville and Aspen Toll Road Company formally opened its Independence Pass Toll Road for through traffic on November 1, 1881. And it’ll come as no surprise to locals, that it also promptly closed the passageway to all but sleigh traffic due to heavy snow. Snow removal outfits worked constantly throughout the winter to clear heavy snow brought on by avalanches, and winds creating drifts on both sides of the summit. And conditions didn’t seem to improve much over time either.
In fact, the Leadville Chronicle newspaper published an interview with freighter John Borrel regarding a hellacious 14-day mid-winter crossing of the Pass to Aspen in 1885:
“It was the dead of winter and snow had been falling until it was ten feet deep. Although traffic was heavy, the snow drifted so badly that the road was not kept open. We were near the top of the range for three days and nights in a traffic jam. Someone got stuck in the snow, teams began to line up, unable to pass until they reached in both directions for a great distance. We finally cleared the jam by carrying sleds, stages and wagons and their loads out of the road and to new positions. It was mighty labor and we were all exhausted.”
Regardless, the toll road was still profitable, charging round trip rates from Twin Lakes to Aspen at a buck for a pack animal, $6.50 for a double team, and $9.00 for a four-horse team. Not small change in those days, eventually leading to increased competition.
In 1881, famed mountain man Kit Carson established the Leadville, Twin Lakes, and Independence Stage and Express Company. One of two express companies providing regular stage service, Carson’s vehicles fought for position with over 50 freight wagons crossing Independence Pass daily. The narrow path, perched on steep mountainsides offered little chance to pass, and combined with the spring mud, made travel an arduous process.
In addition to the traffic, were roadside thieves taking full advantage of the slow-moving freight wagons carrying high-grade silver ore. Although rewards were often posted for their capture, none was ever claimed because, quite simply, any thieves caught in the act were simply shot to death on the spot!
But as the story goes with so many stage companies, the railroads were not far behind and by fall of 1887, the Denver & Rio Grande’s rail line between Leadville and Aspen was operating, followed shortly by the completion of the Colorado Midland line to Aspen through the Hagerman Tunnel, putting the first nail in the coffin for the Independence Pass Toll Road. Carson’s last stage crossed the pass on October 24, 1887.
It wasn’t until 1927 that there was any interest in reviving the passageway linking Leadville and Aspen, prompted mainly by an increase in automobile travel. Eventually, the interest prompted the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to extend Hwy 82 across the Divide as a graded, gravel road. It would be another 40 years until CDOT paved the road, although only open seasonally, as it still is at present.
Today, Independence Pass stands as North America’s highest paved crossing of the Continental Divide. But to be honest, many consider the paved passageway just as scary today as it was back then with white-knuckled tourists sharing the road with more confident residents from both sides of the pass. And for those brave enough, Independence Pass will remain open until the snow eventually shuts things down usually sometime in late October.
Until then, it’s a very Happy Birthday to Independence Pass with hopes of many more years to come!
Colorado Journalist Kathy Bedell owns The Great Pumpkin, A Media Company located in Leadville, Colorado which publishes LeadvilleToday.com and SaguacheToday.com. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.