By Gail Zanett Saunders
In the early morning hours of Ouray County’s golden age of mining wagons and pack trains filled Ouray’s streets with smells and noise. Everything from lumber, coal, food, and equipment needed to be hauled up steep trails; the most valuable ore was found in higher elevations. And, in the evening, the wagons rolled back into town and burros and mules with pack-saddles of ore dropped off their heavy loads. Between the late 19th century and early 20th, John Ashenfelter ran his operation. He arrived in Ouray in 1882 with a few pack an imals bought on credit, and in the next twenty-five years, the became the largest freighting outfit in southern Colorado.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1853 to farmer parents of German descent, John Ashenfelter was one of twelve children. He left home at the age of 18 to seek adventure in the Indian Territory. Shortly before coming to Ouray at the age of 39, he married Lena, age 26. The couple had no children
The San Juan mining region ranked as one of the most highly mineralized in the country. Late to develop because of its isolation, men began to rush in after word got out about rich ore deposits. Prospectors found ore between Ouray and Silverton and north of town, but the area up Canyon Creek southwest of Ouray proved to be a bonanza. It would be awhile before capital and railroad transportation arrived, but when it did, the mines proved to be some of the wealthiest in the country.
William Feland located the Virginius Mine in 1876 the same year Ouray was incorporated. The Virginius sat at 12,500 feet in Humboldt Basin up Canyon Creek southwest of Ouray. Mining mogul Albert Reynolds, with banker partners, purchased the mine in 1880 for $100,000. He hired Hubbard Reed to manage the mine. Reynolds had been an Indian trader, a rancher, and a freighter. John Ashenfelter oversaw Reynold’s freighting company in the Indian territory, and Reynolds knew Ashenfelter as good businessman, reliable, and fearless. Reynolds needed a freighter to haul his ore, and Ashenfelter accepted the job offer. With steep undeveloped roads, winter storms, and avalanches, freighting on the trails and roads took a mighty effort. During 1886, Ashenfelter hauled 1500 tons of supplies and 100,000 feet of lumber to the mines. He returned 2965 tons of freight. He did not ask any of his haulers to do anything he would not do. Hubbard Reed remarked that Ashenfelter “... has more nerve in the snow than any man I know of in Colorado.”
Burro pack-trains were driven single file from behind while packers led their string of fifteen or so mules. The teamsters who drove wagons pulled by horses used sleds in the winter and when spring came, they transferred the haulage to wagons when they reached lower elevations. Muleskinners drove similar wagon pulled by mules. Rough-locks, a type of brake, held the rear wheels from turning to help slow the descent of the heavy wagons. Sometimes a teamster strapped himself to his seat to keep from falling out. Twenty-four hours a day Ashenfelter’s wagons and pack trains moved along the Canyon Creek roads. At one time Ashenfelter had thirty-six teams of horses or mules called “Big Sixes,” as well as fifty pack mules, and about 100 pack burros. His purebred stallion named “Old Rock” weighed 2020 pounds; the horse was a popular entry in Ouray’s Fourth of July parades.
In 1887, the Ouray branch of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad finally reached Ouray. This lowered the price of freight. In 1889, Reynolds decided to construct the Revenue tunnel 2000 feet beneath the Virginius which would intersect the rich veins. Completed in four and a half years, the tunnel allowed the operation to expand as lower grade ore could be hauled to markets. The town of Sneffles (first called Porters) sprang up around the portal. Ashenfelter expanded his business and erected a barn to house his stock at Sneffles. In 1896, he moved an 18,000-pound boiler to the Revenue; 18 head of heavy draught horses pulled the load to the mine.
In 1896, Thomas Walsh discovered gold in the Imogene Basin six miles southwest of Ouray. Walsh began developing his mine. He built a mill to separate the ore, used tramways to bring the ore down steep mountainside, built a fine hotel-like boarding house, and he turned to Ashenfelter to haul his ore. Again, Ashenfelter expanded his operation and built another barn at the Camp Bird complex. Between 1896 and 1902, Walsh’s mine made over four million dollars in profits. In 1902 he sold the mine for around six million dollars to an English Conglomerate.
Every day, a four-horse stage carried mail to the miners at the Camp Bird and carried bullion back to Ouray. On October 2, 1899, a double shipment of bullion left the Camp Bird worth an estimated $12,000. On that run, the stage was guarded by an armed man riding behind on horseback. Behind some willows, two bandits lie in wait. In their confusion, the robbers missed the strong box but took off with bags of mail and luggage. A posse gave chase, but the men escaped by way of horse trails leading out of Yankee Boy Basin. Later that week in Norwood, San Miguel County Deputy Sheriff George Kinchen shot and killed John “Kid” Adams, one of the bandits.
In addition to these two great mines, Ashenfelter hauled ore and supplies to the smaller mines in the Canyon Creek district including the Ruby Trust, Governor, Altoona, and others. In Ironton, in the Red Mountain District between Ouray and Silverton, Ashenfelter built another barn. He purchased hay and grain for his use and to sell wholesale and retail. It took a carload of hay every day and twice a week, a carload of grain to feed his animals. He even owned a ranch in the Montrose area and sold beef to the mines.
In Ouray, Ashenfelter built barns located on both sides of Eighth Avenue west of Main Street. His general office sat on the corner of 8th Avenue and Main Street. At its zenith, Ashenfelter employed 50 to 75 men. Ashenfelter paid his teamsters $3.00 a day with dinner at the mine, and he paid drivers of two horse teams and laborers $2.00 for a ten-hour day.
The Ashenfelter livery rented saddle horses to miners. After a night on the town or a hot springs bath, the miner rode the horse back to the mine. Then, he tied the reins to the saddle, and turned the horse loose. The riderless horses plodded through Ouray’s streets back to the barn. If a woman wanted to take a trail ride, she rented her horse from Ashenfelter. He hauled furniture and other freight around town. He even had a sprinkler wagon that watered down the city’s dusty streets. Ashenfelter kept a wagon to be used as an ambulance at the Revenue.
Ashenfelter had a blacksmith shop at the barn and employed six wheelwrights, blacksmiths, and horseshoers to keep the horses and wagons in good shape. Tom Gallagher told this account in an oral history:
Bart Gallagher, my dad, was a blacksmith for Ashenfelter. There were four blacksmiths. . . They built all the wagons from the ground up-wagons and sleighs. All the woodwork and ironwork. It was all done over the forge; there was never a bit of welding. Even wagon tires were made. They had a veterinarian [and] a harness and saddle maker.
In 1892, Ashenfelter took a turn in his business adventures when he purchased 400 acres of land four miles directly west of Montrose on Spring Creek Mesa; he invested his freighting fortune in an orchard.
Ashenfelter hired Ed Silvey as manager. In 1900, the Ashenfelters built a large stone house on the edge of the mesa that looked over the city, but their primary residence remained Ouray. Their farm raised potatoes, pears, peaches, strawberries, apples, and plums. In 1902, a hard freeze hit his orchard and ruined most of the crop. But, in 1903, his luck improved, and he hired 100 men to bring in his bountiful crop. In one day, his crew packed up 1500 boxes of peaches for shipment. That year he won 47 horticulture ribbons at the Inter-state Fair, and at the Colorado State Fair, he won first place for “perfect fruits” and second for his apples. He said, “this was a better enterprise than the constant worry of having life snuffed out like a candle by a missed hole or falling rock.”
In 1903, Ashenfelter’s wife Lena died at the home of her sister in Colorado Springs. In 1905, John remarried Amanda Rosella Van Struck. Soon after, his health began to decline. He travelled to a sanitarium in Pueblo and Hot Springs, Arkansas for treatment. In the winter of 1908, he lost twenty-six head of stock in an avalanche on the Sneffles Road. Ashenfelter pondered selling his freighting operation. He informed the Camp Bird that he did not want to renew his contract. After a long illness, at the age of 56, he died in 1910.
John Ashenfelter’s obituary read, “Ashenfelter gained reputation of being the most daring and successful breaker and conqueror of mountain trails that ever came into the San Juane
Want to learn more about freighters in the San Juans? Zoom into Kevin Chismire’s Zoom Evening of History talk on ‘Freighter, Dave Wood” on July 14 at 7:30. For more information, see the OCHS webpage: www.ouraycountyhistoricalsociety.org.