In the spring of 1880, prospectors Charles B. Culver and W. F. Coxhead left the boomtown of Leadville to search for silver deposits in the Castle Creek Valley. After vigorously promoting their findings back in Leadville, Coxhead returned to find 23 more prospectors had joined "Crazy Culver" in the camp they named Castle Forks City.
They formed a Miner's Protective Association, built a court house, and laid out the streets in only two weeks. Each of the Association's 97 members paid $5—or one day's work and $1—to draw for building lots. By 1883, the camp, now called Ashcroft, was a town with a population of perhaps 2,000 with two newspapers, a school, sawmills, a small smelter, and 20 saloons—bigger than Aspen and closer to the railroad in Crested Butte.
As quickly as it boomed, Ashcroft went bust. The mines, which initially produced an amazing 14,000 ounces of silver to the ton, were just shallow deposits. Promised rail links to Crested Butte never materialized. Major strikes in Aspen, already the county seat, lured away investors and workers.
By 1885 there were just 100 summer residents and $5.60 in the town's coffers. Only a handful of aging, single men made Ashcroft their home by the turn of the century. They all owned mining claims, but spent their time hunting, fishing, reading and drinking in Dan McArthur's bar. They told stories in exchange for drinks and served as an informal employment service, matching sporadic work at the remaining mines above Ashcroft with an unstable work force.
Every four years they elected municipal officers from among themselves. "Judge" Jack Leahy—who died in 1939—was the last of the original citizens. He cultivated a reputation as a scholar and legal expert and wrote long, melodramatic poetry. Historian Jon Coleman calls these men "prospectors with dismal prospects, boosters with nothing to promote, and town fathers with no children."
In the 1930s there was a new flurry of interest in Ashcroft, this time by international sportsman Ted Ryan and his partner Billy Fiske, captain of America's gold medal Olympic bobsled team. They built the Highland-Bavarian Lodge (north of Ashcroft on Castle Creek Road) and planned a European-style ski resort in Ashcroft with an aerial tramway up Mount Hayden.
World War II put an end to their plans. Fiske died in combat and Ryan leased Ashcroft to the army for $1 a year. The 10th Mountain Division, America's soldiers on skis, used Ashcroft for mountaineering training in the summer of 1942. After the war, ski area development moved to Aspen, and Ryan later deeded the site to the United States Forest Service.
In 1948, Stuart Mace, a veteran of W.W.II and commander of a canine division, brought his family and dog sled operation to Ashcroft. Mace and his Toklat huskies were featured in the popular 1950s TV series Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. The ghost town was fitted with false fronts to create a Canadian set.
Given use of five acres in exchange for caretaking on behalf of the Highland-Bavarian's remaining holdings, Mace devoted the rest of his life to protecting the area from development and restoring the ecology. In 1974, he was joined in that effort by the Aspen Historical Society. Under the direction of Ramona Markalunas, Ashcroft became a National Register Historic Site, and the Aspen Historical Society received the first U.S.F.S. permit ever granted to a historical society to preserve and interpret a ghost town.