Willoughby: Aspen’s forests fueled cycles of growth | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Aspen’s forests fueled cycles of growth

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

At one of Aspen’s earliest stores, shoppers purchased goods they could not make, mine or chop down.

Aspen surely grew during 1981. But a century earlier, 1881, shines as one of the years of greatest growth. The discovery of a significant silver lode attracted pioneers overnight, each seeking his fortune.

Although the following letter resounds with hyperbole, its tone reflects the excitement and optimism of the time. C.C. Myers, a real estate and mine broker, wrote it to an acquaintance. Then the 1881 Aspen Times Weekly printed it.

"Aspen at present is, of course, in its infancy, having been snowed in all winter, there being no toll roads opened, and last summer consisting of not more than three or four log cabins; but now houses are going up very rapidly, as fast as two good saw mills can turn out the lumber. We have even now several large stores and hotels, and will have smelters as soon as they can be gotten in. All eyes in Denver and Leadville are turned to this camp, and as soon as the snow goes off there will be a big boom, and in the spring and summer the tide of immigration will rapidly flow toward this camp. No doubt, before the summer will have passed, we will have four or five thousand inhabitants, and consequently the conveniences, evils and everything incident to a mining camp, composed of all the different elements of society; dry goods and grocery stores will be found; dance halls and bar rooms, where will be heard day and night the singing notes of the violin; hotels and business houses of every description, and gambling houses and variety theaters, where vice in all of her alluring garbs will hold high carnival; regular pitfalls to the unwary youth just from the states."

Pitkin County had just carved itself out of Gunnison County and Aspen became the county seat. No one had shipped any yet, but prospectors had found quality ore. Getting there cost innumerable discomforts. But Taylor Pass toll road opened new horizons for the stagecoach business, such as a one-day passenger trip from Leadville to Aspen. Mail arrived a week later. The paper noted in April that 54 buildings climbed skyward from Main Street: 24 on Cooper Avenue and 30 on Hopkins Avenue.

Aspen rivaled its neighbors. Independence harbored a population of 500. Ashcroft touted four stores, four saloons, a market, a real estate office, a surveyor's office, two assay offices, a shoe shop, a hotel, a bakery, six residential structures and many tents. In addition, active construction promised three hotels, a laundry, a restaurant and a newspaper office.

Prospectors, merchants and business professionals such as nine new attorneys headed for Aspen that year. Ranchers arrived to homestead along the valley floors.

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In May 1881, Aspen's newspaper ads promoted three livery stables, four saloons and a beer hall, a meat market plus three grocery stores, and two barbershops. Drugstores tripled business by advertising liquor and tobacco. Competing ads promoted four hotels and a boarding house. Two bakeries vied for customers. A couple of doctors and a blacksmith announced their talents with people and other animals.

The sheer number of advertisements for builders spelled out BOOM TOWN. Several civil engineers, a surveyor's office, seven building contractors, two lumberyards and a hardware store offered everything to complete a structure, from blueprints to the last nail on the roof.

By December of the same year, the newspaper touted even more of the above plus two billiard halls and a bank.

Imagine the frenzy and fervor of that year of rapid settlement! Each newspaper edition listed new silver discoveries. Early settlers must have felt torn between fear of missing out and pride in possibility. Some settlers also felt concern. They noted that growth was "slaughtering the trees" at an alarming rate, to frame buildings and prop up mine interiors.

Nearly 50 years later, the gold of autumn aspens graced the previously denuded flanks of Aspen Mountain. Yet newer settlers repeated the same old outrage for the trees. The latest growth spurt slaughtered aspens to clear ski runs.

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.

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