February 1940, an Aspen milestone
Legends & Legacies
February 1940 marked a happy milestone for Aspen. Building on the Rocky Mountain Ski Association downhill and slalom championships of 1939, the Aspen Ski Club pushed to expand facilities needed to host national races. The project, completed in February, enabled Aspen to bid for the 1941 national championships. The city’s application won — a first step toward a goal to make Aspen the best-known ski mountain in the country.
When I read the 1940 diary of Fred Willoughby, my grandfather, I feel his excitement. He was Aspen’s mayor, and although he did not ski, he served as a director of the Aspen Ski Club. The city and club applied for and received Works Progress Administration funds to build improvements needed to host important races, a clubhouse to stage events at the bottom of the mountain, a warming shack at the top of Roch Run and a 55-meter ski jump. Construction continued longer than anyone had anticipated. The project dragged into the winter months, which required extra effort.
Fred wrote his observations nearly every January weekend. He would walk up to the bottom of the boat tow and usually note, “good crowd.” The growing success of the endeavor led him to discuss with club President D.R.C. Brown on Jan. 16 the idea of a building a ski tram to the top of Roch Run.
Brown’s family owned most of the mining claims on the face of Aspen Mountain. The two men considered salvaging towers and cable from an existing mining tram to construct the ski tram. The idea seemed feasible because mostly salvaged material comprised the boat tow.
The Works Progress Administration crew blasted boulders on the ski course and the jump landing for weeks. It was easier to blast, rather than push the giant rocks out of the way, because the slope was too steep for earth-moving equipment. All work was done by hand. On Feb. 7, Fred wrote, “W.P.A. finishes at the ski course tomorrow — Ski Club will open lodge with some form of entertainment tomorrow eve.”
Gorden Wren of Steamboat, a member of both the National Ski Hall of Fame and the Colorado Ski hall of Fame, placed fifth in the 1948 Olympics on the large hill jump in St. Moritz, Switzerland. He was the first American to jump over 300 feet. On Feb. 10, Fred wrote, “Wren came up to try jump — not good weather for jumping — made one jump 100’ did not clear top of slope.”
Andre Roch had sketched preliminary jump designs for Frank Willoughby, who was the first president of the ski club and Fred’s son. Before Roch left Aspen, he told Frank that for Aspen to make a name for itself, the city had to host major races. In those days, major races included jumps. Roch proposed a 10-foot-high jump that would land a skier on a 39-degree slope. He believed that design would be sufficient for a skier to clear 200 feet.
No one in America had jumped that far. But after Wren returned Feb. 15, Fred wrote, “Wren made nice jump trying out — seems O.K.”
To celebrate the end of construction, the Elks Club hosted a weekend inauguration of the new facilities. On Friday, Fred noted, “Clear cold five below, plowing Cooper Ave., Hyman, Monarch, and Mill Street to make parking space for visitors tomorrow.” On Saturday he reported, “good crowd skiing, number from outside — Aspen = fine shape. Good crowd for races (1200 turned out), Mill in ideal condition.” On Sunday, the finale, Fred “took Mama (his wife) up to course — slalom races — Frank did well. Wren made two jumps, 158-161.’ ”
Aspen’s sweet roll toward ski fame continued for another year and the city hosted the national championships. But just before those races took place, America entered World War II. Big dreams and happiness had to chill for the duration.
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.
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