The Independence Ghost Town

Posted by carrieh in Canary Ghosts
Photo of a deserted cabin in the Independence Ghost Town
Photo credit: Haveseen

Just off of State Highway 82 below the continental divide in Pikin County lies the Independence Ghost Town. Like so many mining towns in the old wild west days, Independence rose to its heights and fell to its abandoned demise in under a decade. Stories of lives lived and lives lost for a plethora of reasons. Primarily due to the depletion of resources which for the town of Independence was gold.

Many speculate that the hard life brought on by the pioneer days and the survival methods it took gives reason for some of the dearly departed to stick around in the afterlife.

Severe weather causes hardships

The first established settlement in the Roaring Fork Valley was Independence. The town tried on different names, including Chipeta, Sparkhill, Farwell, Mammoth City, and Mount Hope; however, Independence was the only one that stuck. As the legend goes, prospectors discovered the Independence Gold Lode on July 4th, 1879 (hence its name), and the town, like many other mining towns in the Aspen region, became a boomtown.

By 1881 the Farwell Mining Company purchased the majority of the leading mines in the Independence area. They ran the Farwell Stamp Mill and a sawmill for their mines. By summer, the population had grown to 500. The town had four grocery stores, four boarding houses, and three saloons. In October, their newspaper The Independence Miner began to print. By 1882 Independence had over 40 businesses, including three post offices. From October to May, the citizens of Independence could expect to be blanketed in snow.

Their daily lives were not easy living in a town at nearly 10,900 ft elevation. The steep and rugged terrain combined with the harsh weather caused many difficulties for the pioneers in those days of the old west.

During the winter of 1899, the worst storm in the history of Colorado cut off the supply routes into Independence. The miners were running out of food and supplies. Resorting to dismantling their homes, they used the lumber to make 75 pairs of skis to escape the confines of snow buried Independence and get to Aspen. Making light of their adventure and turned it into a race of the Hunter’s Pass Ski Club. The entree fee was simply: one ham sandwich.

All 75 people made it to Aspen, never to return to Independence. Even with a prospecting surge 1907-1908, the town officially became the Independence Ghost Town.


Tresspassers of Ute Native American land

Hostility from the Ute Native Americans caused some miners to retreat to Leadville. This also led Colorado governor Frederick Pitlin to issue an order that barred European settlers from crossing the divide. Despite the ruling, more settlers came to the growing community, and it made the first European settlement in the valley.

Independence was not only home for the miners, and it was an essential stop for the stagecoach. When silver was discovered in Ashcroft, the railroads were built, which meant the stage line was no longer needed.

The land of the first gold discovery was Ute land. The prospectors were actually trespassing. When all of the fortune dreamers flooded the mountains, it was decided that the Utes must go. Their reservations were pushed to southwest Colorado and eastern Utah. In the eyes of the Europeans, the land was being wasted by the Utes. The Utes didn’t farm the land or had cattle to graze upon it. They also didn’t mine the area for its gold and silver or other minerals. In the eyes of many, the Utes didn’t deserve the land. They assumed the destiny was there’s to take it.

The Ute Native American Tribes

The name ‘Utah,’ where many Ute tribes still live today, is derived from the Ute word. The Ute Indians are said to be the first or one of the first tribes to utilize their horses in their everyday lives. Obtaining horses from the Spanish in the 1600s was a significant impact on the Ute Indian’s lifestyle. They were able to use horses as a means of transportation, hunt, and during war times. In addition, it became a symbol of power and wealth.


Ute Indians 1878 Independence Ghost Town
Ute Indians
Photo: Wikimedia

The Ute lived off the land hunting animals they used for many purposes.  Buffalo was used for food as well as the hides used for clothing and shelter.  Bones and horns were used for the making of tools like hoes, digging sticks, hide working tools, and even cups and spoons.  Teeth were used to make jewelry.

The Meeker Massacre

In 1882 the Ute’s were the last of the western tribes forced onto a reservation. As a result of poor treatment, a small group of the Ute’s retaliated against pioneers in 1879, and a massacre ensued. This was called the “Meeker Massacre.”

When the 1870s approached, miners were intruding onto the land granted to the Ute’s by the Fifty-Niners treaty. Nathan Meeker was appointed in 1878 as the United States Indian Agent at the White River Indian Reservation. He lacked the necessary experience; however, he was appointed anyways.

He lived among the Ute’s and made the grave mistake of instilling his own religion and farming policy. The Ute’s, however, were used to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. With seasonal bison hunting, they were opposed to one that required them to settle on a particular piece of land. Meeker’s biggest ‘sin’ in the eyes of the Ute’s was when he tried to convert them to Christianity. He also angered them by plowing a field they used to graze and race their horses.

The recently elected Governor Frederick Walker Pitkin had campaigned on the theme of “The Ute’s must go!’ Sadly, the Governor, other local politicians, and settler’s made grossly exaggerated claims against the Ute. This was to evict them from the rich land so they could have it for themselves. Under the treaty of 1867, the Ute’s retained and occupied the fertile and watered land.

The Attack on the Indian Agency

As the story goes, Nathan Meeker had a tense conversation with an irate Ute chief. This was the result of Meeker insisting on a change of lifestyle for the Ute’s. Meeker contacted the military for assistance and claimed that he was assaulted and severely injured by an Indian driven from his home.

The Ute attacked the Indian agency on September 29th, 1879, nearly simultaneously with the Ute ambush of Major Thomas T. Thornburgh’s soldiers near Mill Creek. In the Agency attack, Meeker and ten other men working at the agency were slaughtered. Members of the Ute raiding party took some women and children as hostages. Of those were Meeker’s wife Arvilla and daughter Josephine. Josephine had just graduated from college and had begun working as a teacher and physician. The hostages were used to bargain with the Government Representatives to secure a better outcome for the Ute raiders. They held the hostages for 23 days.

Chief Ouray of the Uncompahgre Ute wasn’t involved in the uprising and attempted to keep the peace after the massacre and attack on Army forces. With his wife Chipeta, Chief Ouray helped negotiate the surrendering of the women and children held hostage. They were freed after 23 days in captivity.


Chief Ouray of the Ute Indian Tribe
Chief Ouray
Photo: Wikimedia

A treaty was drawn in 1880 and the Ute’s were forcibly removed from the land into reservations bordering Utah and New Mexico.

The Independence Ghost Town of today

Heavy winters still made the area vulnerable to avalanches, mainly down the south side of the valley. That area had been deforested to open up mines. However, in the 1930s, the Colorado Woman’s Club organized a program to replant the slopes to end the avalanche danger.

In 1973 Independence Ghost Town was recognized as a historic district and listed on the National Register of Historic Places as Independence and Independence Mill Site. It is one of two ghost towns in the county so recognized. The other ghost town is the Ashcroft Ghost Town. Ashcroft was the first historical ghost town to be preserved in Colorado.

The ending of the avalanches

Heavy winters still made the area vulnerable to avalanches, mainly down the south side of the valley. That area had been deforested to open up mines. However, in the 1930s, the Colorado Woman’s Club organized a program to replant the slopes to end the avalanche danger.

After its listing on the Register, the Aspen Historical Society, and other groups started working with the U.S. Forest Service to restore cabins and build the path network. They added explanatory plaques and paid for an intern to live there during the summer months.

A Haunting History of the Independence Ghost Town

Ghost Towns carry a haunted feeling of the land and any remaining structures left behind from long-ago lives and hardships. Blood, sweat, and tears of the dreamers of a better and easier life echo in the wind throughout the Roaring Fork Valley.