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Willoughby: History of Aspen’s S-curves

Midland trestle over Castle Creek 1895 south of the Holden Lixiviation Works.
Aspen Historical Society Shaw Collection

Every town needs a topic to debate, discuss and complain about. The S-curves, the Entrance to Aspen, has been Aspen’s for longer than anyone can remember. It is kept alive because every newcomer who navigates through them during high traffic is convinced they have the obvious solution and wonders why no one else has thought of it. Here are a few historical glimpses into the subject.

Aspen’s streets were laid out and named by B. Clark Wheeler and Charles Hallam when they filed for a townsite. It was a logical system for the space with broad and straight streets. Main Street became the main street through their design. A main street could not stretch across the entire city so Cooper became the other crosstown street. There were no traffic problems on the west end because wagons and stages came from the east over a bridge in the same location as now on Cooper.

The Colorado Midland railroad built its trestle over Castle Creek to enter town slightly south of Main Street. A large smelting operation known as the Lixiviation Works was just north of the Midland trestle. The road to Ashcroft, having crossed Castle Creek upstream from town, rounded the bottom of Shadow Mountain south of the trestle and then connected to Main Street.



The county decided to build a bridge across Castle Creek at the street level to replace the one at the stream level in 1891. The commissioners lobbied the state legislature to pay for its cost and were awarded $12,000 of the $17,300 cost ($468,000 in today’s dollars). Since trestle and the Lixiviation were at the end of Main, the bridge was built as an extension to Hallam Street, creating the S-curves. King Iron Bridge and Manufacturing of Cleveland designed and built the bridge. They waited until July so the river level could drop, built the supporting foundation, shipped the metal trusses in October and finished the construction before the end of the year.

After the Midland shut down the state decided, in 1925, to use the railroad right of way for Highway 82. There was some opposition but lobbying by locals got it approved. With the Castle Creek bridge already there they simply had to route the west end of the bridge to the Midland roadbed where the Castle-Maroon roads meet the highway now. The state also began extending 82 over the old wagon road of Independence Pass.




Charles Dailey, editor of The Aspen Times, wrote that it “puts Aspen on the main automobile road from the Atlantic to the Pacific and during the coming summer many hundreds, yea thousands of tourists will pass through our Home Town on their way to the Golden West or to the Effete East.” So began Aspen’s tourist traffic, very welcome in 1925.

Traffic grew over the years, but it wasn’t until the early 1960s that locals became agitated. Like in 1925, Independence Pass became the focus because the state proposed and began paving it. Traffic counts in September 1961 showed a 10% increase over the previous September. In 1962 a similar study showed a 9.6% increase for February; the car count for one day, the highest for the month, was 3,838.

At the same time Aspen was paving its streets. Main and Cooper were already paved but they were above the grade of the other streets, causing water to form small lakes in some locations. The city asked the highway department to lower the grade and repave. That, along with Independence Pass work, prompted the highway department to study Highway 82 through Aspen.

This was also at the same time that the interstate through Glenwood was constructed. Highway design for it routed, whenever possible, around towns and not through them. It went right through Glenwood, which created some disagreement because of the access to the highway and from the business point of view, discouraging travelers from stopping in Glenwood.

The highway department did their study and proposed to route 82 around Aspen rather than through it, going on the north side and not using the bridges at each end. It seems impossible today that anyone would consider it, but for traffic reasons it was a basic design solution to growing traffic through towns.

Locals were outraged. They wanted traffic through town, not around it. Driving the S-curves even with growing traffic was a better choice.

Converting 82 to four lanes was the final chapter. When it was being planned many locals thought there should be a new bridge at the end of Main Street to avoid having the S-curves. Others argued people at highway speed would continue speeding into town; they liked drivers having to slow for the turns before driving down Main. Too bad B. Clark didn’t make Hallam his Main Street; he just didn’t envision people coming from the west.

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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