Legends & Legacies: Aspen, a town in transition
November 5, 2016
When people think of the Aspen of the 1880s, many picture streets lined with saloons and men tying their horses to hitching posts. Hollywood helped paint that image. But by the time Aspen was founded, that view of the Western mining town — half myth — had receded.
Aspen had its share of bachelor miners: men who prospected, erected a cabin and eked out a living from underground treasure. Within a few years, however, most miners worked for wages and supported families. Mining encampments transitioned from the gold-rush towns of the 49ers to large Western communities.
This transformation coincided with the coming of the railroads. A decade after Aspen gained rail service, it lost isolation. One could argue that it grew to be even more connected then that later in the 1940s and 1950s. Even working-class residents traveled. A trip to California, Chicago or New York — sometimes combining business with pleasure — broadened horizons. Relatives and friends from far away exchanged visits with Aspen families. Locals enjoyed vibrant retail choices at home, but they also shopped in Denver and beyond.
As a union town, Aspen paid above-average wages. As with any urban population, there was some poverty, but by the standards of the time Aspen residents fared well. Aspen's working poor could see a play, enjoy a circus or dance to an orchestra. Eventually, the Panic of 1893 put a damper on the relative affluence. But compared with circumstances a few decades before, and the remoteness of most mining operations, railroads had brought about a turn for the better.
We have all experienced the wonders of change through technological advances. During the mining era, Aspen residents marveled at lights in houses and on the streets, an affordable camera and telegraph — and then telephone — service. Refrigerated rail cars brought fruit in summer and meat in the winter. The overall highlight: indoor plumbing.
The demonetization of silver greatly reduced the value of Aspen's base industry. This crash forced another transition. Mining profits had been based on the high quality of ore extracted. With lower prices, mines had to increase production. This crisis coincided with technological advances in mining, such as the introduction of high-speed pneumatic drills. In addition, new milling processes extracted a higher percentage of mineral content. These developments allowed miners to profit from lower-grade ore that they had previously left in the ground.
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Some major mines bottomed out. Electricity rates soared, and so did the expense of pumping water out of mines. As the town tucked into another transition, a few of the smaller mines consolidated. A new round of milling improvements improved profits with even lower-grade ore. At the same time, gasoline-driven trucks replaced horse- and mule-drawn wagons and sleds. These transportation innovations made mines in the surrounding mountains more viable.
World War II brought another transition to town. Aspen harbored ample supplies of zinc and lead, strategic war minerals. The town's traditional base industry expanded to meet war needs.
The most recent transition began around the turn of the 20th century. That's when motor companies supplied affordable automobiles robust enough to travel over the Continental Divide to Aspen. City leaders began to promote summer tourism.
With the addition of skiing, the new base industry expanded to a year-round enterprise. Beginning in 1950 when silver prices fell again, more workers supported tourism than were employed by mines.
Driven by tourism, real estate interests grew. These twin-base industries have had a long ride: three generations. What future economic forces and technological innovations will test Aspen's endurance?
Tim Willoughby's family story parallels Aspen's. He began sharing folklore while teaching for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.