The rich life of Aspen Mountain miner Billy Zaugg

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Aspen Historical Society

William 'Billy' Oswald Zaugg, 88, sits on the porch of his Durant Street miner’s cottage in the 1955. His house stood on Lot F, where the Mountain Chalet now stands.

ASPEN – On a brisk Jan. 31, 1906, miner Billy Zaugg was working his lease on the Little Lottie mine just below the Tourtelotte Park saddle on Aspen Mountain when the top-man from the nearby Edison claim, who’d been operating an up-and-down ore bucket attached to a windlass, came running for help, saying there’d been a cave-in.

Leasee P.C. Reilly had been working below in the Edison, in the neighborhood of today’s Little Percy run. He hadn’t responded to the top-man, who finally yanked on the cable and found the bucket immovable. Zaugg looked into the Edison and determined that he could reinforce the busted timbers and descend the extraction hole.

In what was a low-budget operation during the park’s waning years, the Aspen Times said the next day that “the Edison is composed of two compartments, one for a man-way and the other for hoisting ore and waste.” But the man-way had been filled with extracted ore and the four-inch timbers separating the compartments snapped, sending a cascade of ore down onto Reilly.

After digging through 10 feet of debris, Zaugg uncovered Reilly. Those at the scene said Reilly’s death was instantaneous. “There was an ugly wound on the top of the head, but otherwise the body was not mutilated,” said the Times. A 26-year Aspen resident, he had been a socialist candidate for the state Legislature.

Aspen Historical Society

The young Billy Zaugg stands in front of his cabin in Tourtelotte Park on Aspen Mountain in the early 1900s, probably located on the west side of the Tourtelotte saddle at the top of Ophir Woods near his Little Lottie claim. The hill on the
right above the cabin roof might be the knob where the Ruthie’s chair top terminal now unloads.

Young man leaves home

Somewhere between obscurity and notoriety Aspenites come and go. Yet William “Billy” Oswald Zaugg (1867-1956), one of Aspen’s first Swiss-born transplants, for whom a mine dump, a meadow park on upper Ruthie’s, a cabin, and a forgotten ski trail are named on Aspen Mountain, leaned toward notoriety. Not only did his long life straddle the 1890s silver mining boom and the emerging ski era of the 1950s, but legend claims he was the last miner to live on Aspen Mountain.

He and a handful of Victorian survivors were the old-timers who populated the steps of the old post office (Ute Mountaineer, today) in the 1950s, spitting tobacco and telling tales. In the afternoon many adjourned to the Red Onion. Gary Cooper used to squat on the curb and chat with them. That generation of firsthand historical knowledge faded away by the 1960s, in the same way that veterans of Aspen’s 1960s and 1970s are becoming as rare as lava lamps.

The oldest of eight siblings in Independence, Kan., four of whom died at an early age, Billy Zaugg graduated from the University of Kansas. His parents had immigrated to Independence from Switzerland and built a successful farm and money loaning business there. In 1885 his mother died. As a boy, Billy had the skills to manage the finances on both the loans and the farm.

In 1890, at age 23 — like wide-eyed Aspen newcomers ever since — Billy came to town during Aspen’s wildest times, when anything was possible and silver ore seemed to be spilling out of the ground as well as from the mouths of braggadocios. A stew of gambling, “fallen angels,” and opportunists looked for suckers. In that initial euphoria, he may have suffered a young man’s heartbreak from an early romantic encounter.

Mrs. Elizabeth Zaugg?

The earliest newspaper mention of Billy Zaugg in Aspen appeared in the June 7, 1893, Aspen Evening Chronicle. The scuttlebutt said a 100-yard foot race between W.O. Zaugg and S.N. Kempton would take place at the Aspen racetrack (located at today’s Aspen Meadows) for a purse of $25 ($635 today). “These sprinters will cover the ground in a small time,” said the Chronicle.

In those days, foot races and boxing matches, often the result of a simmering grudge, took place at the racetrack, and spectators bet heavily on the outcomes.

Prior to Billy’s racing prowess, a curious item in the Aug. 13, 1890, Chronicle noted the marriage of “Mrs. Elizabeth Zaugg” (born Milly Edmonson) to Mr. S.C Youberg, a successful shoe salesman in town. The only living Zaugg sister was Rosalie. But in the practice of the day a divorced woman dropped the man’s first name and used her own. Prostitutes also used Mrs. as a respectable honorific.

What makes this connection more compelling is that in Billy’s declining years in 1954, a late-in-life girlfriend, Alice “Allie” Townes, paid his property-tax debt and acquired the deed to the lot and the ramshackle Durant Street miner’s cottage where Billy was living. The property had been attached to the estate of the late “Mrs. Elizabeth Youberg,” the former Mrs. Elizabeth Zaugg.

Though coming from a Presbyterian family, perhaps Billy came to town and became swept up in the roiling camp, which led to a quick marriage and divorce, or a sojourn with a working girl who took his name, wherein they purchased lot F, once located where the Mountain Chalet now stands. (In 1957, Ralph Melville purchased the same property from Townes and expanded his Mountain Chalet.)

Source: Denver Public Library

The Tourtelotte Park tram (1890-1893) that ran from the base of Little Nell up to Tourtelotte Park, financed and built by Jerome B. Wheeler and D.R.C. Brown senior. The tram operation went into the red after the 1893 silver crash, and was sabotaged in September of that year, probably by teamsters who were unhappy with the loss of business transporting ore in their wagons.

Midas touch

One account shows how Billy was enticed by downtown Aspen. He recollected in an Aspen Times story on February 6, 1947, witnessing a few flip-of-the-card bets for $1,000 ($25,000 today) and card games with a $10,000 pot in the early 1890s at the infamous Branch Saloon on Cooper Street, which occupied the same lot as the more recently extinct Cooper Street Pier.

A profile of Zaugg by the University of California in 1905, titled “Progressive Men of Western Colorado,” characterized him as a hard worker “having a touch of Midas without the sordidness … using his gains for the development of his resources and his moral life.”

Even after the price of silver crashed in 1893, and up through Aspen’s quiet years into the 1940s, his hardworking Swiss ethic made him a living by grubstaking other miners and leasing various mines.

There is no record of him marrying, and Billy Zaugg went on to became a successful independent miner who lived in Tourtelotte Park, a regular juror, an oft-called-upon pall bearer, a musician, and a founding member of Aspen’s Fraternal Order of Eagles.

Source: Denver Public Library

A pack train of burros probably preparing to transport goods up to Tourtelotte Park, circa 1889—because the Tourtelotte tram is not yet there in the photo, which connected to the base terminal that is shown under construction in the middle of the picture. Note that the boy in the front right with the brimmed hat is bare footed.

Finding opportunity

As a town fixture from 1890 to 1956, Zaugg’s early prospecting took him above Ashcroft and to Lincoln Creek where he established claims that petered out. Though there had been talk of gold in Lincoln Creek, none struck pay dirt.

Between 1895 and 1898, the Rocky Mountain Sun had listed the Viola, Josephine, Black Queen, Alexander, Napoleon, and the Pearl of the East claims as Zaugg’s interests in Lincoln Creek, where he helped build the road in 1903.

Only history knows why miners chose enigmatic titles for their claims or the story behind so many women’s namesakes. A similarity exists to the whimsical naming of race horses and boats by those beginning new adventures. Yet a catchy name for a mining claim evoked luck and perked the ears of investors.

Nevertheless, looking closer to town, Zaugg saw opportunity in Tourtelotte Park after the silver crash, where a hardworking independent might make a living after so many had walked away from mines that no longer produced quick profit or attracted investors.

With that in mind, Zaugg leased the Camp Bird claim in 1895, which is shown on a mining-claims map prepared for the 1986 gondola construction to have run along the bottom of Red’s Run to the steeps of FIS.

Tourtelotte Park circa 1890. The mine dump shown in the top-middle of the picture is probably the Little Lottie. The large mine dump with a building on it where Bonnie’s Restaurant is today, just above the middle-right, is probably the Edison. Lower and to the right of that is probably the Camp Bird. As an independent, after the silver crash of 1893, Billy Zaugg worked the Camp Bird Bird in 1895. By 1897 he moved up to the idle Little Lottie, where he and his brother Peter worked their lease in the early part of the new century. In 1906 while working the Lottie there was a cave-in at the Edison, and Billy Zaugg dug out the crushed leasee P.C. Reilly there.

Little Lottie strike

But before Zaugg focused on Tourtelotte Park, the Little Lottie claim, just uphill of the Camp Bird, extending from the steps of modern Bonnie’s restaurant uphill to the Tourtelotte saddle, ignited Aspen mining further.

Said by the Chronicle to be one of the Park’s original claims, the Lottie was first filed in Leadville in 1882 by W.D. Richardson, several years after Hank Tourtelotte first drank from the pristine springs of his eponymous park in 1879 and staked out his Buckhorn claims near the current Buckhorn Cabin.

On Jan. 14, 1889, the Chronicle reported a significant strike in the Little Lottie. This set off the big rush to Tourtelotte Park. Leased by Judge John R. Curley, Little Lottie not only presented a “four foot [silver] breast between walls of Dolomite and Shale,” the mine showed a similar mineral profile to the valuable Durant and Bonny Bell, both east of today’s Silver Queen and Schiller Road. Essentially, Curley’s discovery connected the porpoising silver apex that ran up from the bottom of Aspen Mountain through today’s ski dumps to Tourtelotte.

That summer the Chronicle variously declared that Tourtelotte was “the silver plated basin in the hills,” depicting its bustle as “pretentiousness that threatens to breed secession,” while proclaiming, “Gentlemen, rise up and take off your hats; 1889 is here.”

Speculators Jerome B. Wheeler and D.R.C. Brown senior took note and bought a 50 percent share of the Lottie for $40,000 ($1 million today), said the March 14 Chronicle. Lottie ore was near the surface and assumption hoped there was plenty more. At the same time the neighboring Celeste, Edison, and Justice were angling in on the Lottie strike.

But the park produced a low-grade yield of silver per ton. Burros and wagons couldn’t keep up with transport to the trains at the base of the mountain. Wheeler and Brown solved that glitch by building the Tourtelotte tram (1890-1893), which ran from the base of Little Nell to the Park, their scheme being to transport lots of low-grade ore to the market more cheaply.

Ultimately, Tourtelotte mining “feathered out,” and Wheeler’s and Brown’s enterprise went into the red. With silver tumbling as the stock market crashed in 1893, the tram was sabotaged, probably by teamsters who resented the loss of hauling ore in their wagons. After peaking in 1892 with a town population of some 2,000, work in the park slowed to a crawl after 1893.

A frugal man

Since the government had ceased buying silver for coins, Aspen downsized to a new equilibrium. Mines such as the Durant and Smuggler continued to run by cutting wages and offering stock shares, while independents scratched out ore from cheap leases on once-producing mines.

Billy Zaugg was one of those independents, capitalizing on hard work with low overhead, content with modest profit rather than bonanza dreams.

A few rungs below the independents, the Chinese were known to eke a living in other Western camps by sifting the tailings of abandoned mines. Their ingenuity caused resentment and bigotry among traditional miners. This was the case in Aspen, where the Chinese were not allowed during the 1880s and 1890s, and by some newspaper accounts, run out of town.

Yet Zaugg persisted, managing fractional interests in various claims, most showing little more than promise. With the Camp Bird not producing well, he followed the ore uphill, and by 1897 he held a lease on the idle Lottie some 500 feet above the Camp Bird.

In a few years, Zaugg’s brother Peter came on board. Between 1902 and 1915 they shipped ore down from the park in wagons. At one point, their brother Otto came and helped, said the Times.

Steve Rausch

A 1920 stock certificate for the Park Tunnel Mining and Milling Company. In 1922 Billy Zaugg was hired as a consultant for the Park Tunnel project that aimed to connect with the vertical shafts in Tourtelotte Park from the west side of Aspen Mountain.

Modest returns

Receipts among Zaugg’s papers from the Taylor and Brunton Sampling works in Aspen between 1898 and 1905 show ore from the Lottie in varying lots from 4,500 to 17,000 pounds, with yields of from 56 to 129 ounces of silver per ton — definitely lower grade ore, with 300 ounces per ton considered high-grade.

After so many hours of hard work with high profit not being apparent, one might conclude that Billy’s hearty way of life trumped his earnings — not unlike so many Aspenites in the ski era to come.

But all was not work. On Aug. 11, 1905, the Aspen Democrat reported in “Aspen Ladies take the Park,” that a party of ladies came up to Tourtelotte from Aspen on horseback for a day. Mrs. Ed Turner put out a “kings banquet” for their lunch. They then went to Mrs. Riley’s where they met the “ever genial Billy Zaugg, who brought them to his cabin where soon music instrumental and vocal filled the air.” Billy took them on a tour of the Little Lottie, after which they all enjoyed dandelion wine at Captain and Mrs. Austin’s.

From 1915 through the 1920s, the Times often noted that Billy came down from the park for a town visit or for supplies, while he enjoyed most of Aspen Mountain to himself during the World War I years.

In 1925, back in Independence, the Zaugg brothers’ father died. Billy and Peter may have been estranged from him because in their father’s will, Billy and Peter received only $5 each, and the Times only mentioned Otto as attending the funeral. Possibly their Presbyterian father viewed them as prodigal sons who had run off to Colorado.

Budding romance?

In 1924 Billy “took a position” with the Park Tunnel, just off today’s Midway on the west side of Aspen Mountain, where a short-lived tram from the railroad on Durant Street had been built in 1922 that angled over today’s 1A lift line and Ruthie’s Run to the Park Tunnel.

The Park Tunnel aimed into Tourtelotte from the west, looking to connect to the vertical shafts in Tourtelotte Park and find paying ore. Presumably Billy’s knowledge of Tourtelotte Park ore would help the operation mine $.67-per-ounce silver, up from $.52 in 1902.

But romance may have been on the horizon, when the Times reported on Aug. 26, 1926, that “William Zaugg spent last evening in town from Warren’s Lake” (above Smuggler) which at the time had guest cabins for fishing. Mrs. Alice (Warren) Towne and her mother Flora Warren, widow of Frank Warren, lived there in summer. Other mentions in the Times have him staying there when Alice was there.

In 1929, he took out a sectional lease at the Smuggler mine, owned by David Hyman, famous for spearheading the Apex court case over ownership of ore in the ground, which hamstrung Aspen mining in the 1880s. Billy had a beef with Hyman over tools being stolen off the unsecured Smuggler property, evidenced by correspondence at the Aspen Historical Society.

During this period he sometimes took the train to Denver to watch theater, but he had a special interest in silent films and their transition in the 1920s to “talkies.” In a hand-written note-to-self in elegant script he suggested that the new talking movies should be called “screen tones.”

Like wishful Aspen authors of today, he even wrote a silent movie treatment called “Her Awakening,” wherein a girl scams a young miner for money but recants to save him from a hanging for a card-game death that her brother committed.

Aspen Historical Society

Billy Zaugg is in his Sunday best for this photo of him next to the shed in the back of his Durant Street miner’s cottage, in 1930.

Berko

Aspen miner Billy Zaugg poses with a young Aspen woman next to the Goethe Festival welcoming sign at the edge of town in 1949.

Later years

At some point near 1929, his work in the Little Lottie decreased, as both the mine and his stamina may have. In his 60s, his hard years of toil caught up with him and Billy moved into town.

But a 1935 receipt for $953.15 for silver processed from ore shipped to Leadville from his Smuggler lease showed he could still swing a pick. Today, a part of the Smuggler is called the Zaugg crosscut and guides there mention this during their mine tours.

In 1937, his girlfriend Alice inherited Warren Lake after her mother’s death. By 1947 the cabins were falling into disrepair, said the Times, and Billy helped her sell the lakeshore acreage to World War II veteran Mr. M.J. Carrasco, who planned to upgrade the cabins.

In the 1940s, Billy was regularly called upon as a pallbearer, escorting the remains of prominent Aspenites to local cemeteries. He served on a number of juries. In one case, his jury let a dog owner off for chasing a farmer’s cow until it died. During the summer of 1947 he served as a judge in the town’s summer rodeos.

In a Times interview on Feb. 6, 1947, he observed how “times have changed,” saying that in his day, “It wasn’t anything to go out and hunt and kill a mountain lion — nowadays you have to organize one of those safaris and it gets in the newspaper.”

The July 14, 1949, St. Louis Dispatch asked Billy’s opinion of Walter Paepcke’s ongoing Goethe Festival, which brought a herd of intellectuals to town to kick around Goethe’s self-grounding ontology and prolific writings that defined Germany’s high culture. The event sparked a “town versus gown” rub. Though successful in many ways, perhaps Paepcke was a little tone deaf to post-World War II sentiment.

Being well-read, Billy said that “the Greeks and Chinese said it all before,” and he recalled seeing Goethe’s hit play Faust at the Wheeler Opera House in the 1890s. He added, in a Yogi Berra way, that he preferred Goethe in its original German, “ ’cause good authoring is mostly in the way you say things.”

Berko

Visitors, possibly from the Swiss ski team during the 1950 FIS International Ski Championships, walk up to Billy Zaugg’s house on Durant Street. Just visible above the men’s heads are two finish banners on Aspen Mountain at the bottom of FIS Slalom Hill.

Aspen Historical Society

William ‘Billy’ Oswald Zaugg, 88, sits on the porch of his Durant Street miner’s cottage in 1955. His house stood on Lot F, where the Mountain Chalet now stands.

Slowing down

In his declining years he lived in a weathered, book-filled cottage on what was once the edge of the red light district on busy Durant Avenue, across from the renowned Clarendon Hotel. But, by the 1950s, he was surrounded by a weed jungle. This was the same house that Alice Towne had paid off the past-due taxes on so that he might live in peace.

In 1949, Andrew Buesch of Aspen and Chicago, drove Billy, 82, up Aspen Mountain and down Little Annie Basin. The July 14 Times said, “Although Billy had tramped the hills many times years ago, it was his first trip to see the new Sundeck.” That trip may have been his last up the mountain.

Some stray legend says that Billy lived it up in Europe with the money he made before retiring in Aspen, but there is no evidence of this; instead, there are local endeavors in the newspapers, indicating that other than a few trips back to Kansas to visit his dying aunt, and a California trip in 1910 to visit brother Peter’s gold properties, he stayed in Aspen.

The St. Louis Dispatch summarized, “He spent his life working, reading, going to the theatre, and hunting.”

Tim Cooney

The grave marker of “Billy” William Zaugg, in the Red Butte Cemetery, with Aspen Mountain visible in the distance.

Tim Cooney

Alice “Allie” Towne’s grave marker in the Red Butte Cemetery in Aspen.

Steve Rausch

Zaugg Dump ski run on the original Little Percy’s mining claim. Though no records show Billy Zaugg as working a mine there, the dump, Zaugg Park, and a nearby cabin are named for him.

Tim Cooney

The cabin above Zaugg Dump and International Road that has a sign over the door saying “Bill Zaugg’s Cabin. The last miner to live on Aspen Mountain.” Evidence and another cabin photo show Zaugg’s cabin was in Tourtelotte Park. Bill’s brother Peter Zaugg may have lived in this cabin.

A forgotten trail

In October of 1948 Ruthie’s Run was near completion. The wide expanse above the Snowbowl had been called Zaugg Park for some time, and crews cut many trees there to widen it, said the Times. The park got its name because the area was Billy’s backyard, where he prospected, hunted, and picked berries for his famous jam.

His brother Peter may have used the cabin that still stands in the woods above Zaugg Dump. Though deserving of his name, Zaugg Dump ski run was on the Little Percy claim, and might have been one of Billy’s projects.

In a Times column on Jan. 22, 1948, Red Onion proprietor Tom Effinger said Billy’s cabin was in Tourtelotte and not in Zaugg Park. And Billy commented about “this here skiin’ business,” that he hoped the snow melted soon so he could get back up to his cabin and pick berries.

But what has been forgotten is Billy Zaugg’s Trail. A 1947 trail map shows only three ski trails on the front of Aspen Mountain: The Silver Queen, Roch Run, and Billy Zaugg Trail. His trail connected upper Roch to what is now International Road to the top of Silver Queen.

The last remnant of Billy Zaugg’s Trail can be skied by turning right at the top of Reardon’s, intersecting just below onto International Road. It ought to be renamed appropriately.

On Oct. 7, 1954, “Mine Salter” in his Glory Hole column wrote that 87-year-old Billy Zaugg ate breakfast every day at the White Kitchen, a onetime gabfest in downtown Aspen with a horseshoe-shaped counter. He ate “a stack, two eggs, juice, coffee, and oatmeal, while smiling faintly at the flip-lip chitchat that aids his digestion.”

A series of illnesses confined Billy to his house, and he died on Nov. 15, 1956, in St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction. The Times obit said he was “one of Aspen’s most loved and respected citizens.” His gravestone in Red Butte Cemetery sits not far from Alice Towne’s, who lived until 1971. They were another Aspen story come and gone, close in life and nearby in death.

Editor’s note: Tim Cooney is a veteran Aspen Mountain ski patroller and dedicated student of Aspen history. Aspen Daily News and Aspen Journalism are collaborating on coverage of Aspen history. The Daily News published this story on Sunday, April 21.

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