Willoughby: The 1907 hose team of Aspen’s championship season
Legends & Legacies
Amused at the popularity of hose team competitions, I wondered why I had a photo of Aspen’s 1907 team. John Sheehan, my grandfather, and Tim Kelleher, my uncle’s father, both competed. Sheehan joined the 1906 team at age 21. But no family member manned the 1907 team. Further research revealed the story of that team’s renown.
Hose races drew large crowds and offered cash prizes. In some ways, the contests resembled football. Ten members comprised a team with multiple positions: spike, hose breaker, nozzle man, wheel, swingmen, hose pullers and a plugman. Contestants pulled a fire hose cart 750 feet, connected the hose to a hydrant and got water to flow out of the hose. Teams who completed within 30 seconds stood a good chance to win.
The wagon consisted of a simple axle that connected two large wheels, with fire hose wrapped around the axle. Before automotive engines, firefighters pulled these wagons through the streets to a fire, on foot.
Aspen’s town team practiced on Cooper Avenue with many bystanders. For residents, the team ranked second only to the baseball team and represented the city’s pride. Newspapers followed the racing season and referred to the teams as “our fine boys.”
Groups vied for official recognition as the 1906 Aspen team. Two teams had organized from several fire stations that served Aspen at the time. With the approach of the annual Fourth of July competition, a new group — the so-called Independent team — formed, with Sheehan as a member.
The 1906 event raised $580 in today’s dollars from Aspen City Council, plus more than $100 from local businesses. The fire department allowed the Independents to use their equipment, so they charged an entry fee, $25 for each team member. The price squeezed the Independents out of the competition.
For out-of-town games, the Aspen team drew members from the local teams. During a nine-team event at Georgetown, Aspen won second place.
Next, Aspen beat Grand Junction in the two-team contest at Grand Junction. The competitors started first and ran into trouble when they coupled the hose to the hydrant. The Aspen team learned by watching, took time to get the coupling right and pocketed the $125 prize.
The Tri-County Fair hosted the next games with three separate events competing for a $4,650 purse. A crowd of 5,000 watched Aspen nail two out of the three games.
The city favored the 1907 team, and sponsors held dances to raise money for travel expenses. When teams arrived by train for Leadville’s Fourth of July competition, locals welcomed them grandly.
The Trinidad team may have been a contender for first place. But during practice the day before, a star member sustained an injury. Within a few hours, he died. The Aspen team felt intimidated by the Buena Vista team’s large, husky members. In the end, Aspen won the Leadville event and the town met them at the train station to celebrate their return.
The team’s win kept the town awake into the night. And after the party, townspeople slept with greater trust in their firefighters’ superior skills, strength and endurance.
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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“Life sometimes takes its turns unexpectedly, but it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” said Carrie Besnette Hauser, president and CEO of Colorado Mountain College. Congratulations to all the recent Colorado Mountain College graduates!