Willoughby: 1890s Aspen exemplified the sought-after urban experience of today
Legends & Legacies
The upcoming generation of Americans has been reversing suburban sprawl. Responding to the allure of the tightly packed urban core, they find a more condensed and fulfilling lifestyle. Although our official name is City of Aspen, we rarely think of our home as a city. But during the 1890s, Aspen’s size and lifestyle set the stage for an urban experience. Parallels to that time abound today.
Most contemporary Americans lived rural, agricultural lives. Within city limits, Aspen’s 1890 population added up to 5,000 residents, and many more lived in the surrounding area. Some newspapers inflated the overall number to 10,000. Los Angeles harbored 50,000. About 107,000 lived in Denver, the 26th largest city in America. Compare these Colorado cities to San Francisco, the eighth largest city, peopled by 300,000 citizens.
Aspen attracted an adventuresome lot. Jobs ranged from typesetting to mining, and these union occupations paid well, especially for men. Many trades apprenticeships and entry-level positions foretold opportunities to develop a lifelong career. City life in the Rockies with a well-paying job and future prospects sounded more attractive than did labor on a southern farm. These attractions found Western cities rich in jobs and poor in applicants.
Young adventurers found affordable housing in boarding houses close to Aspen’s business core. As urban core job seekers appreciate today, early Aspen workers accessed all needs within blocks of their housing — work, food, entertainment and recreation. Car-free urbanites today ride-share their way around town. Similarly, at the end of the 19th century, those needing to visit a crosstown friend, or haul a load, would rent a horse or a rig from a downtown stable. Those who wanted to travel out of the area would board a train at the depot, another short walk from home.
Urban dwellers flock to a particular scene — microbreweries, coffee houses, restaurants and a busy social street. Aspen had its own brewers, a saloon on every block. Restaurants served oysters from the coast, elk steaks and spirits from France. You encountered acquaintances at the post office, met friends and coworkers for a drink at a saloon, and passed evenings in the boarding house common area, where you joined house mates for breakfast the next morning.
Urban areas foster the arts, many within walking distance; rarely has a dull moment tarnished Aspen’s artistic luster. Nightly, the Wheeler Opera house and Rink Opera House hosted a lecture, play, musical, music concert, prizefight or political rally. The city attracted entertainment a cut above that which frequented rural towns. And Aspen’s residents, with income that surpassed national wages, could afford such luxury often.
Urban dwellers demand exercise venues such as a yoga studio or a gym. Aspen offered a variety of choices that included a social component. You could join the Alpine Club for hiking, and the skating club in the winter. The Rink Opera house offered roller-skating. The Armory Hall, now City Hall, housed a gym outfitted with a boxing ring, weights and gymnastic equipment. For more solitary pursuits, you could fish on Hunter Creek and the Roaring Fork, or hike up either Aspen or Smuggler mountain. Competitors joined baseball teams, prepared to win exhibitions of miners’ rock drilling and bet on horse races.
Members of Aspen’s social lodges met to pursue many interests. Men could join the Freemasons (for women, the Order of the Eastern Star), Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, the Grand Army of the Republic, Woodmen of the World, Scandinavian Club, Elks, and Eagles, to name a few. Various unions met frequently. In addition, the lodges hosted informal gatherings and sponsored dances, recitals, lectures, debates, banquets and balls.
Hipster-equivalents of the 1890s may have preferred the urban excesses of New York or Chicago. But then, as now, Aspen offered a mini-version of the cosmopolitan lifestyle, with the addition of mountains to ensure a peak experience.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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