Willoughby: Glenwood pool, the center of Colorado’s water wonderland
Legends & Legacies
You may not have thought of the Glenwood pool in the context of location. But the monstrous pool and historic buildings stand as a monument to multiple water sources. The hot springs pool, fed by waters heated in depths below, supports a comfortable swim throughout the winter months. The Colorado River flows alongside the pool, on a journey to Mexico. Just downstream from the pool, the Frying Pan and Roaring Fork waters join in, and double the river’s size.
These geographical observations did not enter my father’s mind in 1913, when he swam for the first time in the pool. Father loved swimming and frequented local streams and ponds in the North Fork Valley. The wonderfully warm water and size of the pool attracted him, as a pre-teen, to Glenwood. Slides and diving boards enhanced his play.
Father had not previously heard of the pool. But tourists and travelers had enjoyed it, and its associated grand hotel, for nearly 25 years. A major railroad line cut through the area, just across the river.
The pool was built in 1890. At $2.3 million in today’s dollars, people of any decade would consider it an extravagance. Stonework fashioned the pool’s sides and the building that housed dressing rooms and entertainment. The same peach-blow sandstone covered Aspen’s large buildings. In its weathered form, the rock continues to capture interest through its texture and size of building blocks. When fresh cut, the peach color approaches “pink” in our parlance.
The stunning stonework and pool size dazzle the eyes. The main pool approaches 400 feet long and 100 feet wide. The therapy pool, which holds nearly scalding mineral water, adds another 100 feet to the length. Larger pools of the world, some six times as long, challenge swimmers today. But in 1890, the Glenwood pool rivaled any pool anywhere.
In 1896, San Francisco’s Sutro Baths outdid Glenwood. Topped by a high glass ceiling, the series of side-by-side pools stretched 500 feet by 250 feet. Built on the Pacific Coast, the operation used ocean water. If you ever dipped a toe into the ocean near San Francisco, you have felt the frigid temperature that would threaten your health. Glenwood’s warm mineral water achieves the opposite effect.
As a tot, I celebrated a trip to the Glenwood pool, a treat we enjoyed only once a year. My father would roll onto his back, put me on his chest, and swim around the pool. I did not take swimming lessons until Aspen’s public pool opened a couple of years later. I appreciated my father’s skill more when I had learned to swim on my own. I tried to swim the length of the pool, but had to stop frequently, hold onto the side, catch my breath and rest.
By that time, the late 1950s, the Glenwood pool needed to be cleaned and upgraded. As I recall, thick moss and algae coated the sides. A boy who thought nothing of mucking in the mud of the Roaring Fork, I nevertheless did not want to run into things that slime the side of a pool. And I found no respite in the cold dressing rooms.
But: warm water!
I had waded local lakes and streams, where feet turned numb during the shortest shrieking exposure. In contrast, the water in Glenwood warmed the spirit, like a hug. More than a half-century later, my internal thermometer compares every swim to memories of Glenwood.
The Glenwood slides offer adventure. But if you want a bigger thrill, climb to the top of the grass knolls and watch rafters glide downriver. The view from there shows where Glenwood fits within Colorado’s water wonderland.
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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