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Walking the gilded path downtown with the Aspen Historical Society

Aspen is, and always was, more than a ski resort

Winding through a three blocks of the Downtown Core, the Aspen Historical Society Downtown Walking Tour focuses on exploring what the business district was like during the mining era, harkening back to a time when Aspen was the third-largest city in Colorado.
Aspen Historical Society/Courtesy photo
If you go: What: Aspen Historical Society Downtown Walking Tours Where: Meet across the street from the Wheeler Opera House When: 10:30 a.m. to noon on Wednesdays and Fridays during the summer (June 15-Sept. 30) More Info: The society offers nine different tours. To register, visit aspenhistory.org.

Winding through a three blocks of the Downtown Core, the Aspen Historical Society Downtown Walking Tour focuses on exploring what the business district was like during the mining era, harkening back to a time when Aspen was the third-largest city in Colorado, behind only Denver and Leadville, and produced a sixth of the nation’s silver.

Aspen has gone from home of the Ute to a bustling mining city to nearly a ghost town and back to the thriving ski town community it is today.

Aspen Historical Society Vice President of Education and Programming Nina Gabianelli emphasized that Aspen has much more to offer than just the ski resort.



“We are not a ski resort. We’re a community that has a ski resort,” Gabianelli said. “We are first and foremost a community with a ballet company, an opera company, a theatre company, a contemporary art museum, a film festival, in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, 15 minutes to wilderness. It’s this incredible mix of everything mishmashed together.”

Rather than emphasizing dates and other information with no emotional connection, Gabianelli, who created the Downtown Walking Tour, designed the tours to focus on the personal aspect of Aspen’s history. When creating the tours, Gabianelli worked with the National Association for Interpretation’s guidelines for how to be a guide and how to put together a tour that uses interpretive methods that contribute to the thematic purpose of the tour.




“I’m more interested in people understanding the story of how we grew, of how the town actually was founded with the idea of taking care of each other, this supporting each other that we still have in Aspen today,” Gabianelli said.

Part of what makes Aspen unique is its role as a melting pot of people who have been drawn to Aspen because of its spectacular setting and natural resources, she said.

“Aspen is about people from different backgrounds, different nationalities, different finances, different politics, gathered together in this special place because of the beautiful resources that are here: the mountains, the rivers, the music, the hiking, the biking,” Gabianelli said. “This destination of where we are — that one road in, one road out — has over the years played to our benefit and our detriment, but the benefit being that we grew as this incredibly unique, self-supporting community.”

Winding through a three blocks of the Downtown Core, the Aspen Historical Society Downtown Walking Tour focuses on exploring what the business district was like during the mining era, harkening back to a time when Aspen was the third-largest city in Colorado.
Aspen Historical Society/Courtesy photo

Aspen has seen four key stages in its development: home to the Uncompahgre band of the Ute tribe, a mining town, a ranching town and of course, today’s economy centering around the ski industry.

DRIVEN OUT

The transition between the area as primarily the home of the Northern Ute tribe to a mining town was far from smooth. In 1880, Gov. Frederick Pitkin forcibly removed the Ute people, who had maintained a nomadic existence in the area for generations from the land, sending seven tribes to three reservations across Utah. 

Today, Skyler Lomahaftewa remains the sole member of the Northern Ute tribe who still lives in the Roaring Fork Valley. Lomahaftewa and Gabianelli travel to schools throughout the valley to educate students on the indigenous history of the land.

The Aspen area is a historical reminder of trauma for many Ute people of their forcible removal, according to Gabianelli, based on conversations she has had with members of the tribe. However, Gabianelli said Lomahaftewa is hoping to bring some of his indigenous culture back to Aspen.

With the changes Aspen has seen throughout its history, the essence of Aspen’s culture has changed as well.

The ghost town of Ashcroft, just outside of Aspen, is a popular spot for local history buffs.
Aspen Historical Society/Courtesy photo

“It seems to me as if people were much more interested in the success of their new community, making sure that everything was successful right in supporting each other (in Aspen’s early years),” Gabianelli said. “Although I do believe we still have a bit of that here, I do think it gets diverted into, ‘What’s great for me?’”

Still, the supportive environment found among Aspenites has endured to some extent throughout the decades. The volunteer fire department, founded in 1880, is emblematic of the lasting community of neighborly care that Aspen has had since its founding.

“​​Our population may boom and bust, things may come and go,” Gabianelli said. “We’re always going to argue about transportation, we’re always going to argue about housing. … We just need to move forward as we can, supporting each other rather than fighting each other.”

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