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Willoughby: I helped build that

Men and machines erected the Grand Coulee Dam during the 1930s.
Library of Congress

Those who came of age during World War II, the so-called Greatest Generation, laid the West’s foundation. Even before the war, manufacturing and construction dominated the job market.

The life of Larry Kelleher, one of my uncles, reminds me that far fewer people had populated the West before he and his generation made life more comfortable through their backbreaking labor. Kelleher’s father had worked as a miner for a number of years in the Hope Mine up Castle Creek. Then he purchased the building that housed the Red Onion and opened a bar on the ground floor. Soon, though, Prohibition pushed him to convert the establishment to a restaurant.

Larry and Dan, who lived in the upper floors of the building, haunted the basement’s billiard tables. During the 1920s Larry’s brother Dan and my father struck up a friendship as classmates at Aspen High School.



As did many miners, Larry’s father dissuaded his sons from mining. Dan took off for the Bay Area. Larry dropped out of high school and traveled to Kansas City to be trained as an auto mechanic. When he completed training, the stock market crashed and the job market disintegrated. The brothers managed to find construction work on and off in various western towns and cities until 1939, when they landed steady jobs at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, California.

Kaiser ran several shipyards where they built Liberty ships. The U.S. didn’t have much of a Navy and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sensed conflict on the horizon. In a mad scramble to create our country’s war machine, Kaiser ramped up operations until they could turn out an entire ship within a couple of weeks.



Larry and Dan hefted, transported and assembled weighty steel frames in the shipyard as a matter of course. Dan and my father had muscled up during high school through jobs in the rail yards behind the Hotel Jerome. Paid by the ton, they shoveled coal from freight cars into bins. For light, they wore old miner’s lamps on their heads as they “worked out” on dark, frigid winter evenings.

When I was 10 years old, I traveled to Oakland, California, to visit my cousin. Uncle Larry took us for a Sunday drive. We ferried across the bay to San Francisco, a stark contrast to my small hometown of Aspen. Larry drove us around the city and showed us construction sites where he had worked. Although Larry conducted his affairs with modesty most of the time, I still remember his outright pride in his work.

Larry’s generation had begun building during the Great Depression, when the government created jobs by funding essential infrastructure where none had existed before. The Hoover Dam, Golden Gate Bridge, Grand Coulee Dam and countless miles of roads grew out of sheer determination to keep our country working. The Civil Conservation Corp. cleared many of our local trails and campgrounds. All these projects relied on manpower as much as machine power.

My uncle’s sense of community stretched from Colorado to California. He had watched the West grow and contributed to its expansion. What deep satisfaction he must have felt when he said, “I helped build that!”

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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