BASALT – The Emma most of us know today is little more than a blur while speeding by on Highway 82. An old brick storefront and a Victorian brick house, both within a stone’s throw of the highway, are all that remain of a once thriving trade business with local ranchers and the family that lived there over a century ago.
Photos recently discovered from the late 1880s reveal Emma in a new light. They came from a relative of Charles Mather, the man who built those structures in the early 1890s when the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad (D&RGW) chugged up and down the Roaring Fork Valley and passed directly behind Mather’s store and home.
The photos were mailed to Pitkin County Open Space and Trails administrative assistant Janet Urquhart after she contacted a relative of the Mather family while doing research on an open space parcel. Included with the half dozen photos was a hand-written letter from 1943 describing the Roaring Fork Valley with blunt candor.
According to the beautifully scripted letter, both Aspen and Basalt were “dead.” Italian immigrant farmers and ranchers had taken over the agriculture industry in the midvalley and presided over it with a strict work ethic. Glenwood Springs was the dominant municipality.
Both letter and photos provide a rare glimpse of life in the midvalley and reflect the profound transition from boom to bust as fortunes changes for communities up and down the Roaring Fork Valley.
Historic Treasure Trove
Isabel Harvey, of Corvallis, Ore., is the widow of the only grandchild of Charles Mather. Urquhart’s research led her to Isabel in December while researching the history of the Emma open space parcel.
“I was trying to research Charles H. Mather online and not finding much of anything except correspondence among people doing genealogy research,” said Urquhart. One promising lead turned up Isabel Harvey’s phone number.
“As it turns out, Isabel doesn’t use email or the Internet, but I called her up and explained who I was and why I was calling. I was astounded when she told me her late husband was Mather’s only grandchild and that she had great old photos from the Emma townsite. We chatted for quite awhile and I filled her in on the present-day status of the buildings.”
Those buildings were structurally restored in recent years by the State Historic Fund and Pitkin County Open Space and Trails. The photos to which Isabel referred had been stored in a footlocker of memorabilia belonging to her late husband, George Harvey, who passed away in 1985.
“It was December when I called,” said Urquhart. “Isabel promised to dig out the photos after the holidays. I suggested she send us photocopies, then we’d figure out what we wanted and find a way to have them scanned in Oregon. Instead, she just mailed the photos. A big envelope arrived in January with these amazing, original photos inside. We were all pretty wowed.”
The State of the Valley — 1943
While the photos are compelling and rare because they capture a once rural outpost in the Roaring Fork River valley, the letter Isabel Harvey included in the envelope brings a fresh perspective to the Quiet Years era. The letter was written in 1943 to George Harvey, Isabel’s late husband and the grandson of Charles Mather.
George was attending Antioch College that June, where he and Isabel met. He wrote to a Basalt resident, Mr. Ernest Gray, asking about opportunities for summer employment in Basalt.
Gray, whose father had worked for Charles Mather in Emma at the turn of the century, received the letter, hand-delivered by the local postmaster. Basalt was a very small town then, so Gray was easy to find through general delivery. The letter Gray wrote back was in a beautiful script. It dissuaded George Harvey from seeking employment in Basalt, but first recalled Harvey’s family.
“I played as children with your mother Alice and with George (Harvey’s uncle) before they moved east. I remember vividly when Alice broke her arm and also remember accounts of George’s death by drounding [sic] soon after arriving in Connecticut.”
The uncle died while ice-skating, apparently from breaking through the ice. Gray went on to describe the bleak economic condition of the local economy, first by recounting the revolving ownership of the Emma Store.
“Since Charley left Emma that business has never prospered. The people who bought him out lost business rapidally [sic] and finally was glad to sell at a loss and get out. Then followed a long line of never very prosperous merchants or store keepers or what have you, and as near as I know the brick buildings Charley erected have stood empty, except for an occasional dance or farmers meeting, for some twenty years.
“Charley, your grandfather, started in a small log building and builded [sic] a business that ran as high as eighty thousand a year. He drew trade, mostly from farmers in the valley, for many miles on each side of him. Then, too, Basalt was a prosperous town, Railroad Junction, of some twelve hundred people. He ran a delivery over here. The transportation facilities were either train or horse and wagon. The two R Roads ran up the valley. But times have changed.”
Gray speaks to prosperous times in Basalt when the region was in a mining and farming boom driven by the silver mines of Aspen and the coal mines of Carbondale and Redstone. Charles Mather left his native Essex, Connecticut, where he was born in 1861, to come west in 1888.
At that time both the D&RGW and the Colorado Midland had built tracks to Aspen. Mather started a thriving trade business but, following the Silver Crash of 1893 and a severe economic downturn, returned to Connecticut with his family in 1901.
“The railroad that Basalt was on (Colorado Midland) discontinued service in 1919,” recounted Gray. “Basalt died. It has recovered somewhat, but no town can continue to prosper without a payroll. The Rio Grande RR that the station Emma is on continues one train a day into Aspen, but they do very little business, and the mines in Aspen having played out, Aspen is dead. Very few people live there anymore, perhaps four or five hundred. At one time it boasted twenty thousand.
“Glenwood Springs, twenty-three miles down the valley, has continued to grow slowly. It is now around twenty-five hundred and draws most of the valley trade. The automobile has taken business from the small town to help build the larger ones larger. That is the case in this valley. Then again, there has been another great and gradual change – the People!”
Italians Take Over the Midvalley
In a recent phone interview with Aspen Journalism, Isabel Harvey chuckled about Gray’s sociological depiction of the Roaring Fork Valley, saying it perhaps crossed the line of political correctness. Still, she appreciated the perspective he offered in his letter, which is why she included it with the photos.
“In your grandfather’s day,” wrote Gray, “the valley was settled by what we now call old time Americans. They came from all parts of the East and central West. Now they are all gone and Italians from Northern Italy, a big, blond, blue-eyed race of people, own every ranch in the valley with perhaps four exceptions.
“They are a clannish, hard working, money-making and pinching, intelligent race of people. They are prosperous, some having dug fifty or sixty thousand out of farms former Americans lost on mortgages. They have good homes, good cars and are good pay, but awfully hard, close traders who are hard to do business with. They hire very little help and the whole family works as a unit and keeps their money at home.
“I wish I knew where you could find a job, but in this valley there is nothing but farm labor, and it is possible you could get some of that if you were to wish it.”
Gray goes on to suggest job opportunities in Glenwood Spring as a clerk, auto mechanic or cook, but Harvey took his advice and elected not to make the trip.
It was many years later, on a family vacation with their three children, that Isabel and George Harvey returned to Emma for a brief visit, just to have a look at the buildings his grandfather erected over a century ago.
“I knew George had an emotional tug there,” said Isabel.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times to produce stories from the Aspen Journalism “Land Desk.” The Aspen Times Weekly published this story on Thursday, March 12, 2014.