Aspen, sidewalks and snow — the century-old duty continues
Legend & Legacies
The photo from the Aspen Historical Society grabbed my attention like a smack from a snowball. Few photographs from the mining era depict a snowstorm in progress. Close examination of this one shows how the town dealt with storms during the days before technology. Back then, no snow blowers quickly pushed yards of snow out of the way.
In the photo, snowbanks line the streets, and wood sidewalks rise above street level. The height keeps pedestrians out of the mud, and defines an area for businesses to shovel. Traffic negotiates its own way through unplowed streets, packing snow hard as it rolls along.
My mother told me that when she was in grade school, her grandfather, a teamster, would hitch a horse to a log after a storm. As the horse walked the streets, the log would depress the snow. My mother and her sisters would trail behind the log, on firm snow, to get to school.
When snow complicated carriage transportation, passengers shifted to sleds. Just as we use four-wheel-drive vehicles, in those days they resorted to four-hoof-drive wagons. Horses fared better in snow than did automobiles, and the associated inconvenience could be forgotten until spring. Then manure-packed snow melted and turned streets into mud.
Before the railroad connected towns — and to access towns not connected by tracks — it was necessary to plow the snow on the passes. In 1896, a 12-foot-wide horse- drawn plow cleared Independence Pass.
By the time railroads arrived in Aspen, 1887, trains engaged huge snowplows to clear the tracks. As snow drifted higher, engineers would connect more engines and increase the pushing power. A report from 1890 indicates the Midland Railroad ran snowplows up the Frying Pan twice a day to keep up with a December storm.
In 1891 the railroads employed a new technology, the rotary snowplow, which handled the challenge faster and with less power. Nonetheless a headline, “Snow is expensive,” described a section of the Rio Grande near Silverton. There, the railroad overcame 53 days of snow storms. In addition to employing the rotary plow, they hired up to 200 shovelers at $1.00 per day.
For residents who needed to get around town, a cleared pathway was the most important adaptation to winter. Although a town in Maine had created a snowplow club to raise money to clear sidewalks, Aspen took a more punitive approach. The city council passed an ordinance in 1890 that required people to shovel their sidewalks. “Clean the walks or go to the jug.”
Most people complied. But those who did not faced the town marshal. During 1892, W. C. Mitchell received an order to shovel his Mill street sidewalk in front of his office by 4:00 p.m., “without regard to circumstances the snow must go.” Mitchell did not comply, fell under arrest, and the next day faced the judge. As it turned out, Mitchel did not own the business in question. The judge threw the case out.
As you can imagine, snowbanks grew higher as winter wore on. No one hauled it away as they do today. Early in the season, residents liked to say that Old Sol would take care of everything. But as the banks built up, the sun alone could not remove the snow.
Shoveling employed many locals during the winter, not only for sidewalks. Snow piles on roofs, especially the flat ones on downtown buildings, threatened to create leaks and collapse. Alleys had to be cleared behind stores that loaded material from their back doors. In one case, men shoveled out four feet of the white stuff from an alley behind the Al Lamb drug store.
The automobile demanded new adaptations for snow. During 1916, downtown businesses replaced wood sidewalks with cement ones. By 1925 the county proposed to keep the road between Aspen and Basalt plowed, with the help of ranchers who owned property along the road. As the nation plunged into the Great Depression, the county remained steadfast in its responsibility to plow all roads that connected to Aspen.
Charles Dalley, the Democrat Times editor during the early 1900s, posted a note every few weeks that extolled residents’ civic duty to shovel the walkways. He quoted the Chicago News, 1899, with a sentiment that feels as relevant today as it did then. “Blessed is the man who smiles when he discovers that he has accidentally cleaned the snow for a part of his neighbor’s sidewalk.”
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at email@example.com.