A mysterious tiny town at the base of the Mount of the Holy Cross.
(Inset) A large number of men and a few women gather for a picnic at Astor City in the late 1800s. The real question about Astor City arises in not where it was, but when it was founded.
Today that place in Eagle County remains shrouded in mystery and is likely the very first settlement in the area. It dates back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. However, ask an early Eagle County resident if they have heard of Astor City and they will scratch behind their ear and give a blank stare in response.
Was there really such a place? Where was it? Could there have been a city or mining camp that was once here and now gone forever? To find the truth, I began a thorough search of old records, newspapers, books and talked to several near-centenarians about Astor City. More myths than facts emerged.
In the West it’s often difficult to tell where history leaves off and myths began. Life in the nineteenth-century Rocky Mountains was rough-and-tumble, and most mountain folk were busy with traps, plows, and picks and pans. Stories were embellished, some simply invented. To those who could write stories, it was easy to interchange legend, myth and folklore. So it was with Astor City that a little bit of each came into play.
Astor City was first cited as a camp about six miles from Red Cliff at the base of Kelly’s Toll Road, which opened in 1879. At the time, early settlers reported old cabins still standing at the site.
Although there is nothing to substantiate the name, Astor City was supposedly named after fur trader, John Jacob Astor, and was considered the first trading post in Colorado. Here lies the first problem… or myth.
Astor created his fur trading empire after arriving in the United States in 1784 and established a trading post on the Pacific Coast. In 1812, forty-eight of Astor’s men crossed the Continental Divide and arrived at the fort. Nowhere, however, in their journals did they report traveling along the Eagle River; they traveled farther north, along the Snake River and Columbia Rivers.
When the United States went to war and Astor sold his fur company to the British Trading Company. Thus his fort and trappers disbanded. It is possible that some of the trappers made their way to Colorado and set up camp at Astor City, but no record of a fort along the Eagle River was listed in the Astor Company’s records. Thus it is unlikely the Astor Fur Trading Company founded Astor City.
An official government survey done in 1882 placed Astor City at N 39.5400 and W 106.40892. Today, that places it within Minturn’s city limits. It was also recorded that Astor City lay on the northwest side of Battle Mountain at the entrance to the Eagle Canyon within a circle of rocks. In 1883 and 1884 it appeared in the Colorado Business Directory and was listed with no post office and with a population of 25.
This much is fact.
Who constructed the first buildings remains a mystery. However, the structures at Astor City were described as a store, saloon, some tents and wikiups. The biggest structure was said to be of huge proportions and within a stockade made of large boulders. The ridge pole in the big cabin was three feet in diameter. Some cabins were built across the Eagle River but those were destroyed in a snow slide. Because Astor City was at the base of Battle Mountain, it was a logical place for a small settlement.
Walter Sturrock and Mike Flynn ran the saloon in Astor City. It was the first or last place to get a drink before or after tackling Battle Mountain and Tennessee Pass, which were tenuous endeavors. Walter, a native of Scotland, was a fun-loving, generous man, blessed with a rich baritone voice and was known to belt out My Wild Irish Rose to the enjoyment of his customers. The saloon was called the Saints’ Rest, most likely named after the old religious classic, Baxter’s Saints’ Rest.
References to the city appeared in the local newspapers. In 1880 two German prospectors searching on Battle Mountain got into a drunken quarrel at the saloon. In a duel, they killed each other. It took three days to haul their bodies to Red Cliff. No one was interested in a lavish burial for the men, so they were buried beside Kelly’s Toll Road on Battle Mountain. In June, 1907, the Red Cliff Blade reported the sad tidings of the drowning death of John Sanchez at the bridge at Astor City. John was returning to camp from work on the grade and crossing the foot bridge, leading his horse. A suspension cable broke and John and his horse plunged into the river. Neither his body nor the horse was found for several days.
Thus it appears that Astor City was in fact a town, albeit small, in Eagle County. Most likely when it was first built, the Ute Indian threat was real and the enclosure of rocks gave protection to the habitants and buildings.
As the road over Battle Mountain and Tennessee Pass improved and the railroad made its way through Belden Canyon and on to Minturn, Astor City’s importance diminished. Like many other small settlements, it might have slowly disappeared entirely, except for one person: Orin W. Daggett.
Daggett originally homesteaded a ranch in Gypsum, became the postmaster in Fulford, tried mining in Cripple Creek and returned to Gypsum upon the death of his wife. After marrying a second time, Daggett moved to Red Cliff and acquired the Eagle County News and Holy Cross Trail. Through his newspapers, he championed causes for the betterment of Red Cliff, including promoting a major highway between Denver and Red Cliff over Shrine Pass, education, and the pilgrimages to Mount of the Holy Cross. Those pilgrimages began at Astor City.
Daggett had a personal interest in Astor City and the Mount of the Holy Cross. He had climbed the peak no less than eleven times, four of these frontal assaults. To further the interest in a major road coming to Red Cliff and to promote the Holy Cross Pilgrimages, Daggett wrote about Longfellow’s famous poem, “Evangeline”. Although fiction, Daggett reported Longfellow’s poem to be based on a tragic story of lovers separated after the forced evacuation of Arcadia in 1755.
The Evangeline-Holy Cross-Astor City legend was perpetuated by Daggett’s creative storytelling and interpretations of the epic poem. Through his weekly newspaper articles, Daggett claimed that Astor City gave Evangeline refuge and that in 1839 she climbed to the crest of Notch Mountain to view the cross, which reinstated her lost faith. Fact? Fiction?
When Evangeline left Nova Scotia in 1755 to find her beloved Gabriel, Longfellow gave her age as seventeen. This meant she would have been over ninety-nine when she made the ascent up Notch Mountain to view the cross. Also, Longfellow’s account of Evangeline’s travel across America placed her in the Ozark Mountains, and other than a mention of mountains, snowy summits and deep ravines, which is as close as Longfellow came to a description of Colorado, Eagle County, Astor City or Mount of the Holy Cross.
Daggett widely used his newspaper to support his stories about Astor City. He did this to draw attention to his proposed highway route over Shrine Pass and for the Holy Cross Pilgrimages, which began at the flats at Astor City. It was surprising that he was never called to task about his editorials, which were far from accurate, but at the time, Astor City, Red Cliff, Gilman and Belden were rough-cut mining towns and hardly the place for men to be studying Longfellow.
Many of the written accounts found today in ghost town books and travel logs, high school papers and history books, mention Astor City in conjunction with Evangeline’s improbable visit. Still it makes for a good story.
In old accounts, Astor City was placed on the northwestern side of Battle Mountain, where the gorge meets the flats. It was said to be built in a circle of rocks. While the double track was built in the canyon, newspaper reports state that several camps for railroad workers were set up on each side of the river and that it was a busy place.
Today the property is privately owned and access is difficult. Since the early days of Astor City, much has changed in the area. In 1907 a large steam shovel and dump carts were at work, helping with the grading for the double track for the railroad. Next the Gilman Mine constructed its trusses for their tailing ponds. More recently, work was done for the mine cleanup.
Where Astor City once stood has been completely absorbed by time and elements. Today one can find suspicious areas where it looks as though foundations for buildings might have been and large reddish rocks lay on the ground, making several large enclosures.
Was there such a place? Yes. Who first built it? Unknown
Where exactly was it? You be the judge.
Although it is not certain where the foundations of Astor City lay, for a view of the past and to conjure visions of traders and miners and saloon keepers, you can get close to Astor City. Drive through Minturn and take Tigiwon Road south. Go as far as a locked gate. From there, snowshoe up the road until you have views down the valley to the mouth of the gorge. There you will see various clusters of truck-sized boulders, trusses from the Eagle Mine and nothing else. Battle Mountain rears above you. Listen carefully. Let your imagination wander back a hundred years. Perhaps you can hear Walter belt out a tune at the Saint’s Rest or the low moan of the wind that could be Evangeline calling for her Gabriel.
Believed to be the first establishment in Eagle County and claiming to provide the traveler the first or last drink at the Saint’s Rest before the challenge of Battle Mountain, Astor City, fact or fancy, is now gone but not quite forgotten.