Willoughby: The politics of elections past

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
A political cartoon from 1885 roasts Aspen’s least favorite president, Grover Cleveland.
Library of Congress

Pundits proclaim our times to be the most partisan ever. But we have heard that sorry lament more than once. When reading old Aspen papers, I take comfort in the discovery that not much has changed in Aspen over the past century or so. When I compare vitriol in the press, 2018 ranks no worse than 1885.

During the mining days, every elected position from surveyor to mayor simmered in overt partisanship. Each party, often more than two, submitted a slate of endorsed candidates. And many voters strictly followed the slate.

No city election took place in 1885. But during the county election, the candidacy of William B. Root festered at the heart of acrimony. When the county was established, the governor appointed all county positions to start the new government. At that time, Gov. Pitkin had appointed Root as clerk recorder. After his first term, Root had to woo the will of the people on his own.

B. Clark Wheeler chaired the county Republican party from Aspen’s earliest days until his death. He wielded influence not only as chairman, but also as the owner-editor of The Aspen Times. With this power he could single-handedly wage a campaign for or against any candidate. In 1885, the Times did not print any slate other than the Republican’s.

Although he shared Root’s Republican stance, Wheeler did not like him. When The Aspen Times published the Republican slate, a blank line rather than a name followed one position: clerk recorder. To grasp such animosity you have to understand Aspen’s early years when both men, pioneers, invested in mining.

After they staked claims on Red Mountain, Root and his brother Warner, one of Aspen’s early judges, founded the Antelope Mining Co. According to Wheeler, they started the company with gambling money. Locals knew that red sandstone would not likely harbor silver. As expected, none appeared on Red Mountain.

According to Wheeler, Root traveled to Denver and promoted his claims, conning others into putting up money for his company. When the ruse became known, Wheeler and others had to work harder to sell their mining shares in Denver.

Wheeler described Root’s candidacy: “There is a laughable combination here between a lot of tenderfeet and the barnacle of the recorder’s office to hoodwink the voters of the county into re-electing said barnacle as clerk and recorder.”

Wheeler claimed “illegal and fraudulent expenditures were made by the county” and accused Root of not reporting all county expenses to the public. He estimated that the county shouldered a debt that exceeded $350,000 (about $8 million in today’s dollars), and asked, “Are we to continually elect and re-elect men who will not raise a hand to prevent this wholesale extortion of plunder of the people?”

He suggested some spending was either illegal or unethical, such as spending for the county construction of the Twin Lakes toll road, Independence Pass. He also suggested that Root had bribed others to place his nomination on the ballot.

When Root bragged “that the books are right,” Wheeler threatened to print all of the county records between 1881 and 1885 in the Times.

Every few days before the election, using short inflammatory sentences, Wheeler attacked Root. And Root lost the election. Thereafter, Wheeler himself won many elections, including twice to the state legislature.

But it’s time to turn away from the political destructions of the past. Instead, let’s consider candidates who would build a better future.

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