Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘Early Aspen, 1879-1930’

by Andrew Travers


‘Early Aspen, 1879-1930’

Douglas N. Beck

126 pages, softcover: $21.99

Arcadia Publishing, 2015

Historian Douglas N. Beck has written a sort of people’s history of Aspen before the ski industry took hold, painting a portrait of the town from the time of its white settlement in 1879 up to 1930.

Early on in his new book, “Early Aspen,” he tells the reader that he won’t be retreading the familiar ground of lionizing the Hymans and the Wheelers and the Browns and how they shaped the mountain town, attempting to differentiate his mission here from other history books.

“The subject matter was often the people with all the money and not the year-round locals who eventually lived there for many generations,” he writes, “some of whom still live in the valley. This book has opened my eyes to the characters both good and bad who shaped Aspen’s past and future. … Names I grew up admiring turned out often to be on the wrong side of history, while others often relegated to mere footnotes were the real heroes.”

“Early Aspen,” unfortunately, could have been titled “white Aspen.” That civilization began with two teams of prospectors arriving on July 4, 1879 and settling where the native Utes had previously made a home. I would have liked to hear more – or at least something – in these pages about the valley’s native peoples and how whites laid their claim.

The book is at its best when it captures the rhythms of society during the silver boom and the “quiet years” that followed the Sherman Act of 1893. Today’s stratified Aspen of worker bees and barons of industry is not so different from boomtown of the 1880s.

“The age-old conflict of the working class versus the social elite seemed to exist almost like a birthright for entry to aspen’s society,” Beck writes.

There are some priceless factoids here, some of which shed light on how Aspen became Aspen and some of which simply make for good cocktail conversation. For instance, legendary lawman Wyatt Earp lived here from May to November 1885, was part-owner of a bar called the Fashion Saloon on Cooper Avenue and once arrested a stage coach robber in town. Some other highlights:

* While single men in today’s Aspen often complain about the skewed male-female ratio, consider how far we’ve come: in 1880, 79 percent of the population was male.

* I also learned a bit about the namesake of the street on which I live, named for Henry Cowenhoven, who came here in the 1880s, got rich on land and silver, and left his fortune to his son-in-law, D.R.C. Brown, who would go on to found the Aspen Skiing Company.

* A local actor named Tom Flynn was the first American aviator killed in World War Two (he’d volunteered for the British before D-Day).

This latest entry in Arcadia Publishing’s elegant “Images of America” series, with many photos from the Aspen Historical Society, the lavishly illustrated “Early Aspen” is a welcome addition the Aspen bookshelf.