Willoughby: 1886 – final pieces all coming together

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Military and naval salute at President Cleveland’s arrival at Liberty Island in 1886.
Library of Congress

Aspen, like the rest of the country, was fascinated with — and followed the progress of — the Statue of Liberty in 1886. At that time, Aspen papers referred to it as Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty Enlightening The World.

Reporting began in 1884 with updates always saying it would be shipped from France soon. It finally arrived in June 1885, but there was more to do: raising funds, building the base and then assembling.

The project was completed, and an opening inauguration ceremony — with Pres. Cleveland presiding — dazzled New York, including a seven-mile parade with an estimated 800,000 participants.  All of this was covered in The Aspen Times, but, if you have visited it, you were likely shocked at the scale of it compared to what you thought from photos.

For Aspen readers, it was even more removed, as there were no photos in papers then. Aspen readers of Leslie’s Illustrated would have seen items like the one pictured with this column. Since the largest building in Aspen at the time was only three stories, it must have captivated their imaginations.

Aspen in 1886 also began to experience long-awaited progress and to see the vital pieces coming together they knew would help Aspen reach its potential. The shipping and assembly of the statue gave them hope.  If that could be accomplished on something that large, their challenges seemed do-able. 

The Aspen Times reported the purchase and delivery of two huge train engines from Schenectady Locomotive for the Midland Railroad. At the time, the Midland connected Leadville with Colorado Springs. As part of the long description, it noted the engine had 234 tubes in the boiler each 13 feet long and two and a half inches in diameter.

That boiler was similar to the boilers and engines that were being deployed to Aspen’s mines to power the ore lifts, sawmills and other needs. In just a few months in 1886, the paper reported three mines adding boilers.

The Midland boiler was a train-engine boiler, and it arrived on the tracks. Aspen’s mine boilers had to be hauled by wagon and mule teams over Independence Pass and then up the steep mountain grades to the mines.  Everything the town used — from shovels to Stetson hats — had to be transported similarly. But, the final piece to Aspen’s success was in view.

The Aspen Times reporting on a new discovery at the Silver Bell — one of the claims near the top of Aspen Mountain — editorialized what it meant with the following: “Like all new and isolated mining camps, it is the strikes of rich ores in large quantities which gives it the start. These create favorable impressions, and a railroad is the inevitable result. With the advent of the railroad the low-grade ore mines came to the front and virtually, as has often been so often demonstrated, became to the camp its greatest source of revenue.”

Moving boilers by train to Aspen signaled that moving anything, even a Statue of Liberty, seemed possible. But, as the paper noted, the railroad defined profitability for many mines, and, while they did not know it at the time, it would be that way for many decades. The cost of moving silver ore over the passes to the Leadville smelters by mule train or wagon load was too costly for lower-grade ores.

The Colorado Midland and the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad were both laying track to Aspen in 1886, initiating a frenzy of activity, mine expansions, building projects in town and the opening of many new businesses. While the statue delivery date stretched on and on, the railroads were competing to see who could get there first, to give them an edge for signing shipping customers. They both made it to town the following year.

The statue’s “enlightening the world” was not just a metaphor. The electric lights in the torch lit up the sky, demonstrating the marvels of the new power source. Aspen did not miss that connection, either, as electric lighting had been in existence for a year, and mining engineers were already working on the applications of electricity to mining. All the pieces of a successful future were coming together in Aspen.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at