Willoughby: 2022 Aspen has much in common with 1941 Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: 2022 Aspen has much in common with 1941 Aspen

Aspen is recovering from the economic setbacks during COVID-19 and pressing forward with longer-range plans, but with a war in Europe increasing angst for anyone trying to foretell the future. Aspen in 1941 experienced the same, emerging from the depths of the Depression with mining getting back to normal and making progress initiating a new enterprise, skiing, with the war in Europe growing worse by the day.

Here are a few highlights of 1941 paired with what locals were reading about the war:

Aspen, like the rest of the nation, had low employment during the Depression and applied for Works Progress Administration funding. It received WPA funding to build its jumping hill, a building for the Ski Club for hosting races and for street repairs. In July 1941, the WPA announced it was ceasing to fund in Pitkin County because unemployment had dropped below the qualifying numbers. That was news that affirmed that Aspen was rebounding. On the same day, The Aspen Times reported that President Franklin Roosevelt had ordered the American Navy to occupy Iceland to protect the lend-lease activities.

Crowd at an early Aspen Ski Club race.
Fritz Kaeser photo/Willoughby Collection

April featured more positive news. The Denver Mining Record reported that the war would raise the price of silver. It had already been raised by Roosevelt when he included setting the price of silver at $1.29 an ounce ($21.50 in today’s dollars), up from the lowest during the Depression of $.25 an ounce. All silver was being purchase by the U.S. Treasury and the world was increasing the use of silver for monetary exchanges.

Colorado’s governor in April signed the Hayden Tramway Bill that would lend money for the Highland Bavarian Ashcroft project to build “the longest and highest in the world.” This was the result of great effort lobbying the Colorado Legislature. The same day the funding was announced, German forces occupied Athens.

March 1941 was the most consequential month because Aspen hosted the National Ski Championships. This was the culmination of the Ski Club’s efforts to establish Aspen as a premier ski area. They followed André Roch’s advice that in competition with all the other fledgling ski areas Aspen could establish itself by hosting significant races. That is why he laid out Roch Run and it was the first to be cut. It was the best run for downhill racing in the country.

The two-day event was broadcast nationally, and thousands showed up to watch. Even though the downhill race was during a vicious and cold storm, an estimated 5,000 spectators showed up. The first edition of The Aspen Times covering the events, on the next page, reported that, “Nazi soldiers marched into Bulgaria.”

In September the Midnight Mine announced it would pay dividends to its 700 shareholders. The Midnight was operating with three shifts each day and the Durant Mine had also expanded operations. The mine had survived years of low silver prices, but profits were reinvested into the infrastructure. This was its very first dividend, $19,000 ($317,000 in today’s dollars). The Midnight announced years more of dividends were likely. The same day as that announcement, Aspen read about Cairo being bombed.

In October, the Ski Club announced Aspen would be hosting the Southern Rocky Mountain Ski Association cross country and jumping championships in 1942. The war news that day was that after 17 weeks of Germany moving north into Russia it predicted it was close to taking Moscow.

That mixture of Aspen making progress while the war in Europe raged dominated the whole year. Just when skiing was taking hold and Aspen was taking hold of the ski market, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. You have some idea emotionally what 1941 was like if you lived in Aspen then, the days of progress tempered with an expanding, or fear of expanding, war in Europe.

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 redmtn2@comcast.net.