On a Denver sidewalk in 1932, John Markalunas suffered a lung hemorrhage, leaving his wife, Elsie, a widow at the height of the Depression. Traveling between Colorado and California, she worked various jobs to support their son, Jim, who spent the better part of his early childhood at Mount Saint Vincent’s Home orphanage.
During World War II, she worked at an ammunitions plant in Denver, while Jim stayed part time with family friends in Aspen, Elsie’s hometown.
Back then, a train ran along what is now the Rio Grande Trail, and every weekday morning, a whistle blew, letting Aspen know the mail had been delivered. The field — where locals play sports and bring their dogs today — was a stockyard. Clark’s Market was known as the “Y,” the turnaround for train engines.
“The mail was sorted, and it was kind of a social gathering place,” the 83-year-old Markalunas recalled from his West End home Monday morning. “Aspen was a small town then, somewhat clannish and ingrown.”
In 1949, Jim graduated in a class of seven from Pitkin County High School. Faced with the possibility of being drafted into the Army in 1950, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps, which “really upset my mother.”
“But I had to get out from underneath my mother’s wings anyway,” Markalunas said. “It was a good opportunity to do that, even if it did cause her some stress.”
After boot camp in San Diego and basic training at Camp Pendelton in San Diego County, Markalunas served two years in the Korean War, followed by seven years in the Marine reserves.
Returning to Aspen in 1952, he looked for a job at the Castle Creek Power Plant, where he had worked part time as a teenager. But the job was no longer available, so Markalunas moved to Denver and was hired by Western Electric, a telephone-exchange installation company.
On the weekends, he would drive over Independence Pass in his black 1950 Mercury with his girlfriend Ramona, whom he met in Denver and married in June 1953.
Around that time, Markalunas was making frequent business trips to Wyoming for Western Electric, and it wore on him. “I got tired of being on the road, and in 1954, (Ramona and I) moved back up to Aspen, and I got back my old job at the power plant,” Markalunas said.
Two years later, they bought three lots in Aspen’s West End for $2,000.
By the early 1960s, it was clear that Aspen had a water problem, resulting from an archaic utility system built in the mining era.
A section titled “Muddy Waters,” from Markalunas’ book “Aspen Memories,” describes when Aspen lodges served dark-colored drinking cups to visitors so they wouldn’t see the effects of spring time runoff.
“People who lived in Aspen were used to (the water), but it was the visitor that wasn’t used to it. So when you came to Aspen, you suffered from gastrointestinal problems,” he said.
By the mid-’60s, Markalunas was working for the city’s water department. After helping replace the entire water system, he became head of the department, serving in that position until 1990, when he became “tired of the politics.”
Asked if political squabbles have always been part of Aspen, Markalunas said, “I think it became a little more so as we got into the ’60s and had lots of problems going on, a lot of growing pains.”
After retiring, Markalunas turned his attention to light rail in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“It’s one of the things that I wish we had (accomplished),” he said, remembering the last light-rail demonstration in Aspen in 1997, when 3,000 riders tested a self-propelled diesel unit. “We had the perfect situation for light rail, which was like the old steam railroad.”
Markalunas argues that today’s buses are only so good without trains to supplement them. He points to Denver’s light rail and Europe’s train system as models of efficiency.
“In spite of the bus system we have, steel wheels on a steel track is still the most efficient form of transportation,” he said. “It’s an incomplete (transit) system without rail. ... The problem with buses is they get caught up in congestion on the highway.”
Markalunas remembers an ad campaign against light rail that portrayed a steam engine barreling through Aspen. He said similar tactics were used recently, when he began advocating for restoration of the hydroelectric plant on Castle Creek.
“We were basically outspent by a campaign of misinformation,” he said.
“It’s a good concept, and it would make Aspen energy independent,” he said. “That was the goal of Aspen: to have 100 percent renewable energy.”
In 2007, he and Ramona were inducted into the Aspen Hall of Fame. Ramona — Aspen’s first female council member, serving from 1971 to 1975 — fought for the preservation of the ghost towns at Ashcroft and Independence. Jim remembers 1975, when the hotel at Ashcroft collapsed in a snowstorm.
“’Well, I guess that’s it for the old hotel,’ I told her,” said Jim, who served his own term on the council from 1997 to 2001. “And Ramona said, ‘No it isn’t.’”
“Ramona was my inspiration,” Markalunas said of his wife, who died in 2012, just before her 80th birthday. “She did so many things for the community.”
After purchasing their three West End lots, in 1956, Jim and Ramona borrowed another $15,000 to build a bungalow. Four children and four grandchildren later, Markalunas is still sitting on the property, which the Pitkin County Assessor’s Office estimates to be worth nearly $2.5 million today.
“I have no intention to sell. It’s only a number to me,” Markalunas said, adding that his roots are in Aspen, where he hopes to remain with his children and grandchildren. “It’s my home. ... I didn’t come to Aspen to make a pile of dough.”