Independence: Passes & Passengers
Born On The Fourth of July: Independence Pass
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
It’s a Happy Birthday for North America’s 2nd highest paved crossing of the Continental Divide: Independence Pass. This popular summer passage to Aspen celebrates 142 years this Fourth of July. Here’s its story!
So much of Colorado’s 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/early November.
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.
July Fourth Starts High Traffic Season
Drivers may have noticed the early halt to the road construction south on Highway 24 in Leadville Today. To minimize traffic impacts, the Colorado Department of Transportation is suspending construction and maintenance projects from midday Friday until Tuesday, July 6. The only exception is for emergency operations.
Drivers should expect more vehicles on the state’s highways over the next few days as people travel in higher numbers for the Fourth of July weekend. It is critical for motorists to be prepared before heading out the door.
“Please check the latest weather and road reports, make sure you have plenty of food and water and your vehicle is in good driving condition,” said CDOT Executive Director Shoshana Lew. “While we do everything possible to keep the roads safe, weather and road conditions, especially in our mountain corridors, can change drastically and very quickly with possible wildfires, flooding and rockfalls. Give yourself some extra time and slow down, particularly when driving through construction zones. We want everyone to have a safe holiday.”
Independence Day traditionally marks the start of the high traffic season, with summer tourism hitting its peak over the next six to seven weeks. CDOT is asking drivers to engage in safe driving practices, especially with more vehicles hitting the road. Motorists are strongly encouraged to check on the status of the state’s roadways before traveling by viewing www.cotrip.org, CDOT’s Facebook page or twitter feed, or by calling 511. Additional information regarding Interstate 70 west of Denver is available at www.goI70.com.
Prior to the pandemic, a typical Fourth of July holiday weekend saw a significant amount of traffic travel through the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels, as reported by CDOT that number for the entire holiday weekend was 245,110. And while you’d think that number would have been significantly lower in 2020 when Safer at Home directives were in effect, they really weren’t dialing in at 223,319, a mere difference of 21,791. This weekend will likely break records as more and more Americans hit the road a bit closer to home.
Traffic numbers: 2019 Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnel
|Wednesday, July 3||32,595||17,329||49,924|
|Thursday, July 4||23,761||16,204||39,965|
|Friday, July 5||24,214||25, 214||49,428|
|Saturday, July 6||21,143||33,030||54,173|
|Sunday, July 7||20,527||31,093||51,620|
Traffic numbers: 2020 when Safer at Home directives in effect:
|Thursday, July 2||30,807||17,362||48,169|
|Friday, July 3||31,164||18,776||49,940|
|Saturday, July 4||16,390||18,494||34,884|
|Sunday, July 5||16,451||32,491||48,942|
|Monday, July 6||17,231||24,153||41,384|
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” is a proverb that simply means trying to do what someone else does, or think like someone else thinks is a compliment to that person. Well, parents you should feel flattered, because your kids spend a large amount of time watching your actions and then imitating them. People often imitate or follow along with others without thinking about their actions, sometimes when doing unsafe acts.
So, when you are in your vehicle with your kids, remember that children learn by imitating what they see adults do. So why is this important to know? Because once they turn 16 and get behind the wheel of that vehicle they are going to drive like they saw their parents do when you were driving.
So here are some points to remember when you have that young audience watching your every move. First and foremost, before you leave the house put that seatbelt on. Make sure the kids are imitating you on this one.
Second, keep your temper down. Don’t let other drivers get the best of you. Keep calm and use it as a teaching lesson for your children on what they should do when they drive.
Third, use you turn signals. Let them know why you do this. If it’s ingrained at a young age it can stay with them for a lifetime.
Fourth, keep the speed at or below the speed limit. If the world is flying by too fast, how are kids supposed to see the beauty when all they can do is hang on for the ride. After all of that, just remember to do the best for your kids when it comes to driving laws. They’ll follow your example and hopefully, it will be the right one.
One last thing. I’ve been on contacts with drivers I’ve pulled over only to have the kids tell me what their parent was doing wrong. That is a great example on how kids process what is going on in the vehicle. So, drive correctly, drive safely, and remember, when you have kids in the car, you have an audience in the car with you.
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” -Dr. Seuss.
As always, safe travels!
Trooper Gary Cutler is a Public Information Officer with the Colorado State Patrol.