Jim Markalunas: True to his Aspen roots
December 24, 2003
Jim Markalunas grew up in Aspen’s quiet years. As a boy in the early 1940s, he delivered telegraphs on his bicycle for the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad.
“The station agent would take it the old-fashioned way,” he said. “It came in on a telegraph key” that appeared much like a modern-day telegram.
While Aspen has changed, Markalunas’ feelings about the town have not.
“Aspen is a place that gets in your blood,” he said. “Aspen and its history is something we’ve always loved.”
But then again, Markalunas was born with Aspen in his blood; his grandfather was a surveyor in the Smuggler Mine who came to town in the 1880s, and his mom was born in Aspen in 1907.
His father, a minor league baseball player, grew up working in the coal mines of Pennsylvania and came west with tuberculosis because the dry air was supposed to alleviate the condition. He met his wife, a nurse who treated him in a Colorado Springs hospital. He died from tuberculosis when Jim was 2 years old.
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Born in 1930, Markalunas grew up in Aspen’s transitional period, after the mining boom and before a ski lift ran up Ajax.
“It was altogether a different world then,” he said.
Some of his fondest memories involve the engineers on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.
“They’d always stop [near Rio Grande park] and we would hop on board,” Markalunas said. “They’d pick up some coal at Smuggler mine and we’d just hang around with them.
“It was fun, great memories.”
Later, when Markalunas was a little older, his appreciation for the history of the area blossomed.
“I was fortunate to have grown up in Aspen at a time when you could meet and talk to many of the old prospectors who were still alive from the early days,” he said. “Those guys would just sit around making homemade peach brandy. They’d want you to have a snort of it and listen to them tell their tales of the early days.
“[They] were a bunch of great guys.”
As the town grew both in size and affluence, Markalunas said it became increasingly difficult to live here, but he was connected to the valley and didn’t want to leave.
“You can stay poor or leave rich,” he said. “But you hang on in Aspen because your family roots are here.”
In January 1947, Aspen’s quiet years came to an end with the formal opening of the first Aspen ski lift ” Lift One.
Walter Paepcke, a Chicago industrialist who spearheaded the effort to turn Aspen into a cultural and recreational center, was joined by Aspen Mayor Gene Robison and Colorado Governor Lee Knous in the dedication ceremony Jan. 11, 1947.
The night before, hordes of media from around the country arrived in Aspen via the new ski train and were welcomed by the Aspen school band and crowds of people waving torches.
“That will always stand out in my mind,” Markalunas said. “It was sort of like the second coming, it was really something ” the beginning of a new era in Aspen.”
A few years later, after graduating from high school, Markalunas served a tour of duty in the Korean War. He returned to Aspen in July 1952, and took a job with the Roaring Fork Light and Power Company as the superintendent of the Castle Creek Powerhouse (near the Castle Creek Bridge).
The job, Markalunas said, was quite dangerous. In the winter, he and some of his crew members had the task of breaking the ice at the head gates ” one was located about three miles up Castle Creek, the other was up Maroon Creek above the T-Lazy-Seven Ranch ” to free the flow of water for hydropower generation.
“I could have fallen in and not come out, but we didn’t realize it was dangerous at the time. Ignorance was bliss,” he said. “What we did in those days would never be allowed today. All of the fun has been taken out of living these days because of safety regulations.
“Those were some of my happiest and most adventurous times,” he added.
The powerhouse was torn down in the 1960s, which Markalunas regrets.
“It was a beautiful powerhouse,” he said. “That was one of the biggest mistakes the city ever made.”
Later, Markalunas became the director of the city’s water department. Since retiring in 1990, he has served as an Aspen city councilman and “gets some skiing in when the snow is good.” During the holidays, he devotes much of his time to charity work with the Salvation Army.
His wife of 50 years, Ramona, is the founder of the Aspen Historical Society (now HeritageAspen).
“I enjoy Aspen,” she said. “It feels pretty good [to be part of the history].”
All four of their children ” Julie, Lisa, John and Tom ” were born and raised in Aspen.
Steve Benson’s e-mail address is email@example.com