The first whites in the Crystal Valley traveled on the Ute Trail, as well documented by the Hayden surveys in 1873. Whites brought with them the wheel, and no sooner than the first homesteads were staked, petitions began flowing into the nascent Pitkin County clerk’s office requesting a wagon road. The 1886 petitioners included Myron Thompson and Floyd Grubb. A route was laid out likely on top of the Ute Trail, except where it could not be made suitable for wagons. The construction would be basic, using picks and mules that were gentle on the landscape. One of the eventual road contractors was James Bogan, whose hand-laid rock walls remain evident today along the “Bear Creek Trail,” and for whom the campground is named.
Red Wind Point was originally a tight narrows with steep cliffs immediately adjacent to the river on both sides. Neither the highway bench nor the old railroad grade originally existed. The wagon road had progressed up the east side of the river, past Nettle Creek. Faced with impassible cliffs on both sides at Red Wind Point, the only feasible choice was a log bridge over the river just downstream of the point, and a climb up the west bank to near the current location of the Sweet Jessup Ditch. The road crested this shoulder and dropped back to the river along the west bank until it reached Janeway. Several old sections are still visible to a discerning eye.
The wagon path was finished around 1888, allowing the Valley’s homesteads a few years of what must have been a very idyllic and quiet, bucolic setting. My old friend, Jessie Boyce, once remarked that a mature civilization is one where people can safely travel by muscle power. To have walked or ridden a horse from Carbondale to Hayes Falls along this route must have been truly exquisite.
However, the quietude of the Crystal was not to last. One John Osgood wanted local coal rendered into carbon (at the now iconic and thankfully dormant Coke Ovens) for his steel mills in Pueblo. To get coke out of the Valley, he needed a railroad.
Osgood was purportedly at this time the sixth wealthiest man in the world, and he wasn’t inclined to worry much about those already settled here. Upon hearing reports that the railroad was obstructing the wagon path, County Commissioner John Bennet traveled up Rock Creek (known now as the Crystal River) and was quoted in the Aspen Daily News saying, “I don’t want to do anything that would cripple or embarrass a new (rail)road into the country, but the rights of the argonauts who have gone there and through all sorts of exposure and hardships, wrested its riches and its charms from the wilderness, must be respected. We succeeded in building the road up Rock Creek at a cost of some $6,000 and — while we don’t object to subsidizing a railway company and encouraging it for ‘steen times that amount — we must protect the outlets from the country.”
Upon reaching the Red Wind Point narrows, the rail builders simply demolished the wagon bridge and blasted their way along the east bank where the iconic red cliffs still show the scars of dynamite. Now completely denied access up the Valley, angry Crystal residents petitioned the county commissioners, stating that “the Red Wind Bridge on the County Road about eight miles above Carbondale has been destroyed … cutting off egress to the best market for some of the ranches, said ranches being isolated.” Petitioners included John Mobley, whose cabin yet stands in Janeway.
Think about it. Homesteaders had persuaded the fledgling county to turn the Ute Trail into a wagon path with free use to all. Homesteads were appearing and a muscle-powered economy was beginning to flourish. Along comes a wealthy robber baron who, without any communication with the county or the residents, knocks down a critical bridge and constructs a private railroad, which, of course, would haul freight for a price. Class warfare? Perhaps. It was certainly an enormous affront to the commoners’ life in the Crystal.
The county commissioners responded on April 7, 1893 by appointing a Special Attorney to prevent further obstruction and address John Mobley’s demand that the county “restore the public thoroughfare to a passable condition.” Wrangling between Osgood and the county went on for decades, with the railroad widening its grade to allow a parallel wagon path and complaints of horses terrified by steam locomotives. CDOT would eventually blast its way up the west side of Red Wind Point building Highway 133; the landscape there today bears little resemblance to what the Ute left behind. We still have the uber-wealthy deploying their economic muscle here, though nowadays drawn more by the allure of trophy ranches. And, sadly, traveling up and down the Crystal Valley by muscle power remains a difficult and frightening experience.
CVEPA strives to protect the wild landscape while also seeking to protect public access along historic routes in the Crystal Valley. See www.cvepa.org