Aspen community celebrates 75th anniversary of lift-served skiing on Ajax
Original Lift 1 dedicated during wild party Jan. 11, 1947, and a few hundred came out Tuesday to mark the occasion
Aspen Skiing Co. officials and a couple hundred well-wishers gathered Tuesday at Willoughby Park to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the christening of the original Lift 1 on Aspen Mountain.
Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan and managing partner Jim Crown broke bottles of champagne — each after a few swings — against the remnants of the old chair to reenact the ceremony from Jan. 11, 1947.
“This wasn’t the first ski area in the nation, but we always aspired to be the best,” Crown said Tuesday in comments to the audience. “We still have that as our North Star. That is still our guiding light, to be the best.”
The Crown family bought into Skico in 1985 and took full ownership in 1993.
Kaplan marveled that an estimated 2,000 people turned out for the original grand opening of the chairlift. The original Lift 1 was 15,000 feet in length, required a 45-minute ride and was able to haul 275 passengers per hour.
“It was cutting edge,” Kaplan said. “It was the world’s best and longest.”
Dignitaries and journalists swarmed the town for the original event, including Colo. Gov.-elect Lee Knous. U.S. Sen. Edwin Johnson had to cancel flying from Washington, D.C., to Aspen because he had the flu.
Kaplan noted the similarities to this year. Gov. Jared Polis had planned to attend, and U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper were “working” on plans. All had to cancel attending because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kaplan said. Plans were also scrapped to have the Denver Nuggets Drum Line march from the Silver Queen Gondola Plaza to the old Lift 1. A skier and snowboard rider parade from the summit to the base was still held and well attended.
“On January 11, 1947, the day was very much like today,” Kaplan said. “It was described as blue skies, cold but not too cold and really, really deep snow.”
Current Aspen Mayor Torre recited the proclamation read by then Mayor A.E. Robinson at the 1947 ceremony. “This ski tow will make Aspen the ski center of the world,” Robinson declared.
Aspen was already a ski town before the addition of a fancy chairlift. The first trails were cut for the 1937-38 winter. There was a big winter sports carnival in the winter of 1937, and the mountain hosted the Southern Rocky Mountain Championship ski races in 1938, 1939 and 1941.
A boat tow and a rope tow were used to get skiers up the mountain before the first chairlift. But U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division veterans Friedl Pfeifer, Percy Rideout and John Litchfield had big plans for a ski area. Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke helped line up investors to make it happen.
The Aspen Skiing Corp., predecessor of Aspen Skiing Co., was incorporated Jan. 21, 1946. One of its first goals was to raise capital to build Lift 1 and Lift 2. Lift 1 went from the base to Midway, near where the upper terminal of the current FIS chairlift is located. From there, Lift 2 took skiers to the mountaintop and Sundeck. Combined, the single-passenger chairlifts were the longest in the world.
Despite Robinson’s bold proclamation, he admitted to a reporter in an interview that day that “maybe, just maybe we have something here,” according to Kaplan.
“It was far from a given that people would come here at all,” Kaplan said. It turned out to be a vision for economic revival.
“Looking back, I think it has happened,” Kaplan said. “Some might say, ‘Wow, we’ve overshot, the economic revival is alive and well, and are we getting too busy? We made this place too attractive.’ I’d submit yes, we’ve got to keep focusing on that. We’ve got to keep working on that as a community to make sure we strike the right balance.”
But skiing still hold the same “magic” for Aspen now as it did 75 years ago, Kaplan said. He said he saw it in the eyes of skiers and riders during the epic storm cycle that dropped several feet of powder on the slopes over the holidays and led to days of face shots.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams complimented Skico at Tuesday’s ceremony for its long, successful run.
“Seventy-five years in our kind of throwaway society is a long time,” Fitzpatrick said. “A lot has changed since 1947. The town has changed a little bit, but this mountain really hasn’t. We’re going to change a little bit with Pandora, but this mountain is still that big little mountain that still has that coziness and that feel that a lot of places don’t anymore.”
The reference to Pandora was the approved addition of 153 acres of new terrain and a chairlift on the upper east side of Aspen Mountain. Infrastructure work and tree removal will begin in summer 2022. The chairlift will be installed in summer 2023 for opening of the terrain for the 2023-24 winter. That is the first significant addition to the mountain in nearly 40 years and a step that officials said will help keep the ski area vital for another 75 years.