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Seeking Higher Ground: Pitkin, Breckenridge, Carbondale — what’s in a name?

Locations: Columns Published

Every Roaring Fork Valley town (except Carbondale) has at some point changed its name: Glenwood Springs was once Defiance. Basalt was Aspen Junction. Aspen was Ute City. 

What’s in a name, usually, is history. Which is usually written by the victors, then revisited as times change. As they are now. 

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Across the nation and here in Colorado, the names they are a-changin’.

It seems odd to me that Carbondale, home to CLEER and CORE, as well as multiple solar companies, still bears a name that brings to mind its coal mining past. (Bonedale, a frequent nickname, feels a bit calcified to me.)

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It also seems odd that our iconic 12,953-foot mountain should be named for a gold-seeker who left Denver in 1860, traveled to where Breckenridge is today, then followed the Eagle River to the Roaring Fork Valley. His band saw Mt. Sopris, but they didn’t climb it. The first recorded summit belonged to the 1873 Hayden Survey Party.

What’s odder still is the fact that the former “Ute City” is oxymoronically located in Pitkin County — a county named for Colorado Governor Frederick Walker Pitkin, a politician who campaigned on a theme of “The Utes Must Go!” I’m not the first to wonder about this. The Aspen Times published a story about the name back in 2017. In it, Roland McCook, a great-great-grandson of Ute Chief Ouray, said that Pitkin’s name “represents all of the turmoil and the removal of the Utes.” 

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McCook’s ancestors had been visiting the Roaring Fork Valley for more than 800 years. They had been awarded much of the Western Slope by the “Kit Carson” treaty in 1868, but by the 1870s, silver prospectors had begun swarming here, into the Utes’ Shining Mountains. The Utes resisted, burning Crystal River Valley cabin in 1872 and forcing the miners to flee. 

In 1879, prospectors Henry B. Gillespie established the mining camp of Ute City. That was at a time when Governor Pitkin was urging miners to move east across the Continental Divide to avoid Ute conflict. 

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Of course, the miners stayed, rechristening Ute City as Aspen in 1880.  

By then, an uprising of White River Utes had killed Indian Agent Nathan Meeker and 10 male employees. A Western Slope war quickly followed; 13 army and militia and at least 19 Ute warriors were killed. Governor Pitkin fanned the flames, not only offering to have Colorado militia help federal troops drive off the White River Utes, but also punishing other Utes, some as far away as Silverton. Less than a year later, whites exiled all but one band of Utes from the entire state.

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I don’t know whether Pitkin is on the list of the 14 name-change controversies that the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board (CGNAB) is charged with investigating. Prompted by renewed public interest in removing symbols of racism, Governor Jared Polis convened the 15-member CGNAB in early July. The CGNAB is tasked with working with the US Board on Geographic Names and making official recommendations to the Governor. 

Highest on the CGNAB’s list (literally) is 14,130-foot Mount Evans; it was named after a territorial governor who was forced to resign because of his role in the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. Also on the CGNAB’s list are two mountains bearing names used as racial slurs: Redskin and Squaw Mountains.

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Breckenridge will probably escape scrutiny by grace of a vowel swap. In 1859, settlers named the town for Vice President John C. Breckinridge. (This may have been a political ploy to ensure that the town got a post office, a necessity to ensure survival in those days.) 

But in 1861, John Breckinridge abandoned his US Senate seat to join the Confederacy. Angry Unionists in his namesake Colorado mountain town changed the town’s name to its current spelling of Breckenridge in protest. (A Kentuckian and a slave owner, Breckinridge was later appointed Confederate secretary of war.) 

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Now, what if we were to reconsider Carbondale? I wouldn’t recommend a public naming contest. That’s how, in 1993, Steamboat Springs wound up with “The James Brown Soul Center of the Universe Bridge” over the Yampa River. Considering how much vinegar I use to de-mineralize my glassware, and considering how much I have had to amend my garden’s soil, I sometimes think the place should be called Alkali Flats. That’s truthful and non-political, but somehow lacks cachet.

Considering how joyously the Lipps Inc. song is played at Mountain Fair, maybe it should be Funkytown?

Then again, maybe we could keep the “dale” part and honor the town’s commitment to green energy by calling it Sunnydale. There isn’t a town with that name in Colorado, just a fictional one in California. It’s home to Buffy the Vampire slayer. Carbondale might just be funky enough to embrace that.

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