Willoughby: Milestone worth pondering
The Aspen Skiing Co. is celebrating its 75th year, but there is another achievement few have noted: skiing has now lasted longer than mining as a base industry in Aspen.
I make that observation with a caveat; it depends on what you call the beginnings and endings. Mining began in Aspen in 1879. The ending is harder to pin down. Aspen’s silver mines, and most nationally, ceased production between 1950-52, so that would be 71-73 years, but work on one of the longest tunnels in Aspen did not end until 1963 and mine dumps were milled for silver in the 1960s, so around 83 years. I am leaving out the iron mining that ended at an even later date.
Skiing began with the Aspen Ski Club’s Aspen Mountain operation and the Highland Bavarian Little Annie business in 1938, so 83 years. The Aspen Skiing Co. operation, 75 years, so depending on which endings-beginnings you choose, it is safe to say that skiing has now exceeded mining.
When the Aspen Ski Club was raising money for its boat tow the elder generation scoffed at the idea. In their view, skiing was a fad that would pass, where mining was certain to continue much longer. They felt safe in that conviction since Aspen’s mining had begun around the time they were born, so it seemed eternal. They had lived through the ups and downs of silver prices and had just witnessed a major increase in silver price and production.
The early Aspen Ski Club operation was more of a non-profit with lots of volunteers. With the exception of ski instructor Florian Haemmerle they hired to have a ski school, they were not thinking of skiing as a business that would end their mining operations and turn their full-time attention to, even though they had dreams of it being a viable business in the future.
The Aspen Skiing Co. did not turn a profit in its early years. Skiing in the late 1930s was picking up patrons, but the war slowed expansion. Around 1950 it began expanding again and Aspen, with an already established reputation, seemed like a place the industry could be profitable. Thankfully, like the early prospectors and businessmen who followed the silver rush to Aspen in the 1880s, there were those who thought skiing, and Aspen, held potential.
Today, jets come from everywhere and commercial links to many cities make Aspen an easy destination resort to go to. In the 1930s, Aspen built a skiing base with ski clubs who mostly arrived by train. It was not a weekend trip for most clubs, some from other states.
Those who came were dedicated skiers. It was not much different when the Aspen Skiing Co. started — Aspen was a destination resort, even Denver was a long drive in those days before the Loveland Tunnel and a four-lane Vail Pass were constructed. The Music Festival added another tourist season, but spring and fall “offseason” was so long businesses struggled.
There were similarities for mining. Aspen was not immediately the Silver Queen. For several years Ashcroft held more interest. Like for skiing, Aspen was isolated and ore in the beginning was hauled over the Continental Divide by mule pack trains. It wasn’t until the railroads arrived in 1887 that the town began to thrive and most mines were viable.
Comparing the price of silver and the price of ski tickets suggests which one has had a long-lasting economic growth. The price of silver, in today’s dollars, ranged from around $25 an ounce at its peak to a Depression basement of around $4. The high matches the current value of silver, $23. The early daily ski ticket rates, in today’s dollars, was about $40. There has been a steady growth to this year’s peak season ticket price of $200. There were more ounces of silver than the number of skiers, but profit from a single skier may be higher.
Like skeptics about skiing being a short-term industry in the 1930s, there are those today with similar prognostications. There is the rapidly aging core of skiers not being replaced by a younger generation and the threat of global warming. Skiing has matched mining in its Aspen longevity, and it will likely exceed that milestone number by a significant margin.
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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