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Fourth of July and 5-Cent Beer

Aspen Times Weekly
Willoughby collectionAspen's most popular Fourth of July event, circa 1905: the drilling contest.
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Aspen’s Fourth of July features predictable crowd-pleasing events. Visitors look forward to a small-town parade, with more spectators than participants, lots of horses and roaring cycles, marching bands including El Jebel bagpipes, and floats created with a sense of humor. What could be more American than a concert of John Phillips Souza compositions with lots of brass and punctuating piccolos?

Members of the fire department serve as official hosts. And no Fourth of July would be complete without fireworks. There is not a more heart-stopping display than reverberating explosions and bursts of light enhanced by the natural amphitheater of Aspen and Smuggler mountains.

Even a century ago, Aspen attracted visitors for the Fourth of July, but the events ran along mining themes. The 1905 celebration was typical of the period. Sponsored by the Eagles Lodge and Commercial Club (the equivalent to today’s chamber of commerce), events took place from dawn to dusk.

Throughout the week before the Fourth, the Rio Grande Railroad added an extra day train to its schedule. You could catch the Colorado Midland in Basalt at 10 a.m. for an 80-minute trip to Aspen returning as late as 9 p.m., or take the Rio Grande from Glenwood at 9:30 or 10 in the morning. If you spent the night, you could return on the 6 a.m. train. People from all over the valley came to Aspen for the Fourth.

The day began with sporting events. At 9:30 a.m., the 100-yard dash, a main attraction, offered a $5 first-place prize. A 16-pound shot-put competition and a standing broad jump rounded out the morning adult challenges. Boys under 14 could compete in a 500-yard dash with a $3 first prize, as well as potato sack races. Unfortunately, women were not allowed to compete.

Modern events center around Wagner Park, which was full of buildings in 1904. Back then events where held in the streets, with starting lines at the corners of Cooper and Galena or Mill and Hyman.

The afternoon and evening events took place at a park by Hallam Lake. The most popular events were miners’ drilling contests. A 5-ton granite boulder was hauled to the lake where miners competed to see who could drill the deepest hole in a prescribed period of time. There was a single-handed contest where a sole miner drilled a hole, but the spectacular attraction was double-handed. One man held and twisted the drill rods while another swung the 12-pound sledgehammer. These were dangerous competitions; one slip could result in mangled fingers or worse.

The drilling contests were not amateur events. In the mining West, drilling contests were as popular as boxing, attracting competitors from hundreds of miles. Aspen’s Fourth of July contest offered a $150 first-place reward. That doesn’t sound like much now, but in 1904 a man could buy a whole suit for $15. A beer sold for 5 cents; a generous winner earned enough to celebrate by buying beer for a jubilant crowd of 3,000.

Cooper’s Book and Stationery store on Hyman Avenue advertised fireworks and firecrackers with the slogan, “Fourth of July comes but once a year and everybody should celebrate.” The official fireworks display at Hallam Lake followed a vaudeville show and a dance in the large lakeside pavilion. Viewers enjoyed the fireworks from rowboats, or, as today, on a blanket with their families after an exhausting day.


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