The Gillespie Ghost House
The Gillespie Ghost House may not still be standing today, but it was one of the finest mansions in the Aspen area in its time. An elegant classic Victorian trimmed to the hilt in gingerbread decoration.
The mansion was built in 1881 by Henry B. Gillespie, allegedly the first to become a millionaire from the mining industry that boomed in Colorado in the late 1800s. Destroyed in a fire in 1944, the house was uninhabitable, leaving it a spooky dilapidated shell. People loved to walk by the house to admire its structure. Even after the fire when it sat empty and lifeless. It was torn down in 1951 to put in a school and playground.
Henry and Melissa Gillespie
At 32 and a young adventurer, Henry Gillespie came to Aspen with the first prospectors in 1879. He paid $25,000 for mining properties and set up a camp they named Ute City. He left before winter and returned in the spring with other prospectors who would help develop options for the mining properties.
Melissa Gillespie was an educated and cultured woman. She soon joined Henry as one of the 3 women in a camp of 35. She survived the harsh winter of 1880 and worked diligently to build the cultural aspects of the town.
Her aim was to polish off the rough edges and introduce urban cultures into the town and people’s lives in the community.
Melissa Gillespie and her Community
Melissa Gillespie was a woman of means who made sumptuous meals with the bare supplies they often had. She organized cultural activities such as dances and musicals, bringing enjoyment and entertainment to the community. She was also vice-president of the local temperance union that battled against “demon rum.”
Melissa became Aspen’s first school superintendent and formed the Aspen Literary Society, publishing a literary periodical. After helping establish a church mission and sabbath school, she became a forerunner of the Aspen Community Church.
The couple raised three children while they continued their hard work and dedication in building the town. Henry enjoyed terrific success in owning the Molly Gibson mine. He traveled to Washington DC to petition for a post office and found investors to put in a toll road over Taylor Pass to Ute City. When he returned home, the town had been renamed Aspen by a charter obtained by B. Clark Wheeler.
The Colorado Silver Boom
The Colorado Silver Boom began in 1879 when silver was discovered in Leadville. It was the second-largest mineral boom in the state, mining over 82 million dollars worth of silver during that period. Twenty years earlier, in 1859, the shorter-lasting boom of the Colorado Gold Rush took place.
The significant outcome of the silver boom of 1879 was due to large-scale purchases of silver by the United States Government that was authorized by Congress in 1878. The boom lasted throughout the 1880s, which increased the population and wealth of Colorado, particularly in the mountains.
The Sherman Silver Purchase Act
In July of 1890, the United States Federal Law was passed known as the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. The act didn’t authorize the free and unlimited coinage of silver wanted by the Free Silver supporters. It did increase the amount of silver the government was required to purchase repeatedly.
The act was passed in the interest of farmers and miners who had enormous debts they could not pay off due to deflation. The purpose was to inflate the economy so they could pay their debts off with a cheaper dollar. However, mining companies extracted an overabundance of silver which drove the prices down, resulting in the inability to extract the mineral at a profit. Their aim was to increase the demand for silver by enlisting the aid of the government.
The government purchasing of silver nearly doubled by 1890. However, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed in 1893, causing silver prices to plummet. This then brought an end to the great Silver Boom, which brought many towns into economic despair. This resulted in many towns becoming ghost towns.
The Hazards of Mining takes its toll
Working conditions inside the mines were often a great danger to miners. Silicosis, a disease of the lungs from inhaling the harsh crystalline silica dust, often led to tuberculosis and resulted in death.
Other dangers for miners were the threat of tunnel collapse, flooding, and lack of oxygen in the deeper areas of the mines. It was common for miners to bring caged birds into the mines to test the oxygen levels. If the bird passed out, it was an indication that the oxygen levels were dangerously low.
The miners only carried lanterns or tallow candles into the mines, and when those went out, they were left entirely in the dark. Mine tunnels were small and spaced tightly to save on the cost and effort to expand the tunnels, resulting in people of small stature and even children laboring the mines.
The many dangers of the mining expeditions were for those that worked the mines. On the other end of the spectrum were the mine owners, such as Henry Gillespie. He extravagantly enjoyed the wealth accumulated by the hands and often sacrificed the miners’ lives.
The Building of the Gillespie Ghost House
The Gillespie’s built their beautiful home in 1881. When the decorative gingerbread was added, it was called the Ghost House. Beautiful and intriguing yet creepy all the same.
Henry Gillespie paid $35,000 for the home, which is equivalent to $750,000 in modern-day worth.
The Gillespie’s were one of two families who received an unassembled piano by mule train in 1885, two years before the railroad reached Aspen. The transportation cost was $1,000 alone!
Colorado Mining Industry From Boom to Bust
Henry Gillespie’s constant promotion of Aspen resulted in a visit from New York’s president of Macy’s Department Store, Jerome B. Wheeler. Although the stimulated economy of Aspen from the growing population and rising businesses, the town went bust four years later at the hands of the collapsed silver mining industry.
The Sherman Silver Purchase Act was annulled in 1893, which resulted in Colorado’s boomtown silver bust. However, Aspen was spared complete extinction due to the boom driving many extensions of the railway networks into the mountains. These included lines such as the Denver, South Park, and Pacific railways into Leadville. There was also an extension of the railroad up the Roaring Fork Valley to Aspen which made the extraction of silver ore economically feasible and therefore aided in saving the town.
Although the mining industry collapsed, the economy of Aspen was stimulated somewhat by the growing popularity of agriculture, which previously had been deemed unfeasible.
The effect of the silver mining crash
Like most millionaires in the region, the sliver crash brought Henry Gillespie to financial ruin. He was completely broke and highly in debt. He lost his beloved Ghost House and all of his possessions and his showplace mansion El Jebel located just below Basalt.
Penniless and debt-ridden, Henry and his son traveled to South America in search of another mining bonanza. Sadly, both men contracted jungle fever and died in 1912. It is unknown what happened to Melissa Gillespie after her husband’s death.
The end of the Gillespie Ghost House
The Gillespie Ghost House was sold to Walter Paepcke in the late 1940s, and the house burned to near ruin in 1944. Since it was uninhabitable, people loved to walk by and take in the wonder of the hunted-looking house. As with any creepy-looking structure, the Ghost House was photogenic and sparked the curiosity of town visitors and local passerby’s.
In 1951 Paepcke donated the land to the Aspen School District. He hoped to salvage the house or at least its materials. A debate ensued on whether to renovate the house or tear it down. A die-hard Colorado historian, Caroline Bancroft, tried to prevent the destruction of the old Victorian home to deem it a historical monument. Her arguments included empty lots not attracting tourists, but mining-era houses did.
However, most notably was the house was built and belonged to Henry Gillespie. He was a pioneer, so restoring the old house would pay as a tribute to him. Henry and his wife started the town’s first Sunday School and literary society. Henry himself went to Washington to establish the first post office.
The Gillespie Ghost House-reminder of early silver days
Caroline Bancroft also argued that the house should at least be moved and tried recruiting donors. She wanted to paint the house silver as a reminder of the early silver mining days.
The town hired an architect to survey the options for the house. He stated that it was not economically possible to move it and was too expensive to restore. Walter Paepckes architect deemed the place a “bad ruin.”
The town ultimately decided to destroy the house.
Now, all that remains of the Gillespie Ghost House are photos, town records, and the story behind it.
Did Henry and Melissa return to their beloved mansion after their deaths as so many souls return to a place they loved or spent time during their lives?