Willoughby: The Spanish-American War united Aspen at first, and later split loyalties | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: The Spanish-American War united Aspen at first, and later split loyalties

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Theodore Roosevelt organized a cavalry of volunteers, the Rough Riders, who fought in Cuba.
Library of Congress

Remember the Maine? The context — America’s war with Spain during 1898 — may spark your memory. The conflict started with the sinking of the Maine, a U.S. battleship, and Teddy Roosevelt captured headlines with his Rough Riders. In Aspen’s newspapers, no topic grabbed more attention than the war.

Although the foundering of the Maine precipitated our declaration of war, doubt surrounded the claim that Spain had torpedoed the ship. In 1998, National Geographic studied the wreckage and proposed a more likely explanation for the ship’s downfall: a coal fire had led to detonation of the ship’s explosives.

But long before the Maine disaster, resentment toward Spain had taken root among the citizens of Aspen. Between 1896 and 1898, The Aspen Times published over 100 stories about that country’s inhumane attempts to stop a Cuban revolution.

Aspen’s citizens felt especially captivated because Colorado Sen. Henry M. Teller played an important role in the development of war policy. Teller introduced a war resolution in Congress that said America would not annex Cuba — we did not intend to become an imperialist country. Although many Americans had wanted to add Cuba to the United States, others envisioned the U.S. as a white Protestant country and rejected the diversity an annexation would bring.

Teddy Roosevelt made headlines in Aspen. But so did Aspen’s own Will Garland, who volunteered early in the war and fought two major battles in Cuba. As did many soldiers, Garland contracted malaria. He lost 38 pounds and traveled home to recuperate. When he arrived, a large group of locals performed a patriotic program of songs in his home, to honor him.

Locals followed Senate debates, and Teller supported intervention. But as war progressed, the U.S. countered an insurgency in the Philippines much as the Spaniards had in Cuba. Teller, a Republican, turned against the president, a man of his own party.

Because he opposed the coinage of silver, President William McKinley had never gained popularity in Aspen. B. Clark Wheeler, owner and editor of The Aspen Times and a Republican, railed against McKinley. He indirectly criticized efforts of McKinley as commander in chief when he quoted Colorado’s Democratic newspapers.

The war dragged on and patience for McKinley waned. The election of 1900 began to divide the Republican Party into Silver Republicans and regular Republicans, as had happened in 1896. Teller and other Silver Republicans supported William Jennings Bryan, the Democrat. And Aspen’s residents voted for Bryan almost unanimously.

But McKinley won.

Wheeler reprinted from the Manitoba Free Press, “If the American people would take their minds off of Cuba for an hour and seriously ponder with themselves what the situation would be if they had elected Bryan instead of McKinley, they might derive a world of good and reflection.” While some cities remained united for the war, Aspen seesawed between patriotism for the war and political distrust of McKinley’s gold standard.

The Times, or more likely Wheeler, began to turn against Teller. Late in the conflict, someone questioned the roots of Teller’s allegiances. Did he indeed oppose American imperialism? Or did he act out of a debt to Charles Bewick, the Colorado sugar king? The sugar beet industry ranked among the state’s most profitable, and Bewick favored an independent Cuba, rather than U.S. annexation. Independence would allow the U.S. to protect Colorado beet sugar and levy tariffs on Cuba’s sugar cane.

In 1898, Aspen stood out as one of the larger cities, compared with others west of the Rockies. This relative size imbued town leaders with respect and influence, and common experience united its citizens. Locals had fulfilled Manifest Destiny, a belief that they were justified in settling North America. Many had served in the Civil War a few decades before, or their lives had been shaped by it. Citizens felt more attuned to the Yukon, where Wheeler and other locals headed to find gold. Despite this long history of shared values, the Spanish-American War split Aspen’s loyalties.

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.