Aspen, Colorado –
This quiet little ski town is nestled in a pristine area of the Rockies’ Elk Mountains and Sawatch Range. Although the town now boasts four world class ski resorts, over 6,658 residents (as of the 2010 census), gold medal fishing on the Roaring Fork River, and of course, some of the finest real estate in the World, it’s roots are much more humble. Read on and learn a bit more about how Aspen became what it is today, the colorful history of Aspen is nothing short of amazing.
Long before any Skiers graced the soft corduroy of Ajax Mountain’s freshly groomed slopes, before early residents bought their first properties at astonishingly low prices, and even before Colorado was a State, the Ute Indians made Aspen home during the summers for more than 800 years.
Ute Indian summer camps are thought to have been located throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. It is even suspected that camp was made near the where the Silver Queen Gondola sits today. In 1876 Colorado became a state as General Custer and his troops were massacred at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Soon after the Ute uprising at the White River Agency Ute Reservation became known as “The Meeker Massacre.”
During the mid to late 1800’s America was stricken with Gold Fever. This powerful desire for precious metals is what drove the first settlers over dangerous mountain passes and difficult terrain to the Roaring Fork Valley. It was quickly determined that this area was rich in silver deposits and soon after a town was born.
Henry B. Gillespie arrived during 1879 to examine a claim and was astounded by the amount of silver he found. He promptly traveled to Washington, DC to petition for a Post Office. He then returned to the Roaring Fork Valley, laid out the plans for a town and called it Ute City.
On July 4, 1880 a gold lode was discovered and several hundred miners began to flock to what would become known as the mining camp of Independence. The D&RG Rail Road reached Leadville, Colorado and regular Stages began running from to Leadville to Independence Gold Camp.
Around this time B. Clark Wheeler and Charles A. Hallam, co-partners of David Hyman of Cincinatti, arrived in Ute City. They immediately saw the potential of this rugged mining camp, purchased several mining claims, surveyed the town and renamed it Aspen, after the beautiful trees that dotted it’s landscape and mountain sides.
Aspen’s rich deposits of gold and silver made it a beacon for those seeking wealth and prosperity. In 1890 the Sherman Silver Act was passed, essentially monetizing silver and assuring future demand.
During this period of plentiful silver and gold production, Aspen was home to it’s largest population ever, between 10,000 to 16,000 people, The Aspen Times was born, Pitkin County was established, two railroads reached Aspen, and telephone and water systems were installed.
The prosperity would not last forever though, gold production came to a grinding halt as the last nuggets of the Independence lode were extracted and Silver prices fell through the floor as the Sherman Silver Act was repealed by Congress. Following these unfortunate events, Aspen lapsed into a long period of decline.
Following the extraction of a 2,350 lb. silver nugget from Smuggler mountain in 1894, overall silver production fell to just half of what it was was only two years prior.
In 1901 Jerome B. Wheeler, proprietor of the Wheeler Opera House and Hotel Jerome declared bankruptcy. Shortly there after in 1906, the second rail road to reach Aspen, The Colorado Midland Railroad, also went bankrupt.
Throughout this slow period in the history of Aspen, silver production continued on a more limited basis as the town morphed into a supply hub for surrounding ranchers and farmers.
In 1913 the Isis Theater opened it’s doors for business. Today it has been showing films and delighting audiences for more than 100 years. Construction that began in 1911 on what would become known as Independence Pass Highway was officially completed in 1924.
Although some forms of skiing have been practiced for over 5,000 years, the sport as we know it today was officially “invented” in 1928 when Austrian innovators added metal edges to the formerly entirely wooden designs.
Following the infamous “Black Tuesday” of 1929 the stock market crashed sending the United States into one of it’s darkest periods of history, the Great Depression.
In 1936, Aspen saw it’s first glimmer of hope as people began to examine another of Aspen’s great commodities, light, powdery, beautiful snow. The relatively new sport of skiing was quickly gaining popularity and the mountains of Aspen seemed like a perfect spot to partake. This potential new boom would be temporarily sidelined though with the dawn of WWII shortly there after.
During the WWII, the 10th Mountain Division, an elite unit of winter mountain ready paratroopers, made good use of the Aspen area for training purposes. Many of these soldiers would later return to the valley following the war to help develop skiing in Aspen.
In 1945 a prominent Chicago industrialist named Walter Paepcke visited Aspen and fell in love with the peaceful and snowy landscape. He quickly made plans to develop a new cultural center as well as Aspen’s first ski lift.
In 1946 Aspen Skiing Corporation was formed and Lift-1 was unofficially opened on December 14th. Soon after Lift-1 was dedicated as the world’s longest lift and Aspen Ski School was formed. During this time the Hotel Jerome and the Wheeler Opera House were also refurbished and reopened once again.
In 1948, the Aspen Airport, then known as Sardy Field was opened for commercial flights.
Following WWII the nation had a renewed sense of vigor. During this time Walter and his wife Elizabeth Paepcke continue developing the culture and spirit of Aspen and it’s surrounding area. Cultural institutions such as the Aspen Music Festival & School, Aspen Institute, and International Design Conference were conceived and brought to fruition.
in 1950, Aspen hosted the FIS World Alpine Championships solidifying it’s reputation as a world class ski resort. In 1959, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk both opened to the delight of locals and tourists alike.
During this prosperous and fun time Aspen continued it’s path to becoming what it is today, one of the premier ski resort towns in the world. The city golf course was opened, streets were paved, Snowmass Village was built, and the Silver Queen Gondola was constructed.