Volunteering in the Ghost Town of Ashcroft, Colorado

In no way am I a handywoman, but here I am with a Philips screwdriver removing rusty screws from an old boardwalk. I’m also huffing and puffing because the altitude is 9,500 feet high in Ashcroft, a ghost town near Aspen, Colorado.  Right now I could be shopping or hanging out at the hotel’s pool 1,000 feet below in Aspen, but, instead, along with five other visitors, I have volunteered with ACES, the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies to spend the day replacing the old wooden walkway with a crushed stone path that will last a lot longer.  I’m only visiting Aspen for five days, but I like the idea of feeling as if I’m part of the community.

Above us are snow-covered mountains rising from 13,000 to 14,000 feet high. Grassy meadows surround us and the leaves are just beginning to appear on the Aspen trees. Jim Kravitz of ACES explains that this area is what the land would have looked like more than one hundred years ago. Polka-dotted in the grass are dark wooden abandoned houses, some with grass growing through the windows, others in perfect shape with stairs and roofs, all the remains of the ghost town of Ashcroft.

Jim hands tell us what needs to be done and we pick up the tools we’ll need for the job we have respectively chosen.  One woman has volunteered to drill holes into wooden posts which will form the path’s border.  The two men volunteer to bang the Rebar through the wood into the earth. Three of us grab screwdrivers, including Anna Scott of the Aspen Historical Society (a co-sponsor of the project).

Ashcroft was created in 1880 when a silver mine was discovered in Castle Creek Valley. By 1883, the town had boomed to 2,000 people and boasted two newspapers, six motels, seventeen saloons, one bowling alley, a doctor, a jail, and a house of ill repute. Unfortunately, the silver turned out to be shallow deposits and by 1885 there were only 100 people left and they only lived there in the summer.  Much later, a World War II veteran, Stuart Mace, arrived with his family and operated dogsled tours. Later, he was featured in the popular 1950’s series, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.  Today,  Ashcroft is a ghost town with ten restored buildings and three buildings in their original condition, one of which holds Mace’s dogsled.

The screws in the boardwalk have been embedded for so long that it’s tough to get them out and my hand is aching. I throw down the Philips and grab a hammer and crowbar. I begin to yank up old planks of wood – this is much more fun than getting the screws out.  Once the pathway is bare, we lay down a protective covering to protect against weeds and then place the wooden posts. Before the guys can hammer in the reinforcing bars, we measure the distance to make sure it’s exactly 4.5 feet and that the beams lay flat. “Can you Pulaski that?” Anna asks me. I thought Pulaski was a bridge in NYC, but quickly learn it’s a combination of an ax and a mattock, and we’re using it to flatten the earth beneath where the wooden border will be. I put down the Pulaski and move on to wheelbarrow duty. This means, shoveling from the pile of crushed stone, piling it into a wheelbarrow, and wheeling the loads down the old boardwalk to our new path. Now I know what backbreaking means. Try heaping shovelful after shovelful of heavy earth into a wheelbarrow without tipping  it over as you roll it down the boardwalk.

But even though this is tough, I don’t mind it at all; and when a few tourists arrive who have paid $3.00 each to visit the ghost town arrive, I really feel as though I am a part of something; because the next time I return to Ashcroft Ghost Town, I’ll be able to walk down this very path, knowing I helped create it.

Late in the afternoon, we pack away the tools and head back to Aspen.

My shoulders and back ache, but it doesn’t matter because now I have an appointment for a hot stone massage at the Spa at Viceroy Snowmass

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The massage table is heated and I breathe in the heady scent of lavender. I have signed up for a hot stone massage, but my therapist, Roxy offers me something much better: Ili lomi lomi, a treatment in which she’ll do movement with a hot stone in her hand, something she learned from a master masseuse in Maui.  All my soreness disappears, and when the treatment is over, I am so energized I could almost go right back up to Ashcroft Ghost Town to complete the new path!

To volunteer to work with Aces and the Apsen Historical Society at Ashcroft Ghost Town, in the organic garden, or feeding birds of prey, visit the Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers website.

Text and Photos by Margie Goldsmith

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