Willoughby: When Aspen awaited technology’s arrival | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: When Aspen awaited technology’s arrival

Ethel Frost joined Aspen residents to one another through the telephone office. Eura Vagneur, Ruth Wheeler, Freda Bowles and Howard Adams surround her.
Willoughby collection

We yearned for TV to come to Aspen. We waited and waited some more. Yet impatience didn’t bring the technology to town any faster. Finally, the booster that relayed the Grand Junction TV station to Sunlight Mountain, to Smuggler Mountain and into town switched on in December 1958.

Snow, white specks of interference that blurred the screen at the outset, did not diminish our excitement for TV. But the arrival of telephone service in a different generation generated a greater stir.

The list of American cities with telephone service grew long during 1885, but it fell short of Aspen. Hope soared that year, when Aspen Mining and Smelting Co. installed its own telephone system to connect mines on Aspen Mountain. Locals followed the battle between Pan Electric and Bell Telephone as each attempted to form a national monopoly. Months of political wrangling in Congress ensued.

Similar to today’s contingent of cell-tower activists, the so-called “telephone freaks” of 1886 feared that fundamental means of communication. Their concern focused on the problems encountered when electric lines and phone lines shared conduits. Aspen’s phone, telegraph and power lines hung on the same poles. Only the mine used the telephone line in the beginning, and one of them dangled near the ground. It shocked two people when they grabbed it to move it. The short in the system temporarily damaged the telegraph connection between Leadville and Aspen, and wrecked the trust of wary residents.

In 1886, before all cities connected, every state except Connecticut prepared for the coming of telephone service. They passed laws to regulate the industry, such as banning profanity on the lines.

As happened later with TV, frequent news stories about the coming of the phone built and dashed locals’ patience. The Glenwood Springs Carbonate and Eagle River Wagon Toll Road Telephone and Telegraph Co. announced their intention to connect Glenwood and Aspen in 1885. Despite their optimistically specific company name, the deal fell through. Three years later, Aspen City Council awarded P.M. Johnson and H. D. Young the right to erect and maintain telephone lines.

With an announcement by the Colorado Telephone Co., which handled service in Denver, phone service for Aspen entered the realm of possibility in June 1888. The company would provide the service if 50 subscribers put up $3,000 of the $5,000 needed for the equipment.

The Wells Fargo Express signed up early as telephone number 8. The Shaw Transfer Co. dealt with mining stocks and received number 12. West End Grocery subscribed for number 49. Service began in July and subscribers doubled by the end of the year.

The internal exchange connected Aspen’s subscribers among themselves, but not to other towns. Intra-city communication took place by telegraph through the end of the decade, when lines began to connect city to city. A Leadville-to-Denver line was underway in 1889. Lines from Aspen began to connect to residences on down the valley in 1890. A major milestone: 1891, when a line connected Chicago to New York City.

In 1895, long-distance service arrived in Aspen through a line strung over Independence Pass to Leadville. Later, complete long distance service extended to Denver, Cripple Creek, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Boulder and Golden. The last stage connected Aspen to Glenwood in 1899.

The advent of the telephone did not produce as profound an effect as the coming of the railroads. And audio communication felt anticlimactic when compared to the initial stunner of real-time communication through telegraph lines. But both advances connected Aspen’s residents to a broader and more immediate world. Locally, a shopkeeper could call the police, a worried father could call the doctor and a busy mother could order milk delivery. Basic daily communication grew easier and timelier.

As with any innovation, complaints arose. The tangle of dark wires strung between parallel poles across great distances blighted the view. Winter storms wrecked havoc with communications and power. Neighbors eavesdropped on the conversations of those who dominated party lines, and chafed as they waited their turn. Despite these imperfections, the rewards had been well worth the wait.

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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