Willoughby: 2020 fires, pandemics, and other calamities the norm not the exception

1941 fire that burned half a downtown block. Willoughby collection

Especially in our 24-hour news cycle the calamities we experience are billed as the ‘worst ever’ so often we begin to wonder if we will survive. The anecdote is to recall the stories our parents and grandparents told us contrasting our ‘poor me’ complaints to their life stories. The perspective of hearing historical references can balance our myopic view of what we cope with.

Let’s start with the very beginning of Aspen. Those first pioneers trekked over the Continental Divide in winter into unknown territory and celebrated when they found streaks of silver in protruding ridges. But imagine what a bad day it was for the Utes witnessing that invasion into their pristine hunting grounds and unspoiled rivers.

High spring runoff? Today it is celebrated as a challenge for rafters, but think about what it was like before there were bridges. Add to that greater water depth because there was no water diversion to the east side of the state. There is a great river story about Aspen’s early pioneer and owner-editor of the Aspen Times, B. Clark Wheeler. Wheeler, the penultimate entrepreneur, cut down a tree so serve as a bridge over the Roaring Fork and charged to cross it and it would be well worth whatever he charged to not risk your life or at the very least frozen legs crossing it.

COVID got you down? The Spanish Influenza decimated Aspen’s younger male population, a quick and frightfully vicious and painful death with not only no cure but no mitigating help. It also claimed pregnant women and babies. Go to Ute Cemetery and check out the few remaining 19th century headstones and you will notice that even without that pandemic many mothers died giving birth and many babies died before they were three.

A 2020 forest fire spewed smoke and inconvenienced travelers on I-70, but compare that to the 1941 downtown Aspen fire that wiped out all of the structures on the north side of Hyman from Mill Street to the middle of the block. Locals turned out to fight it and for hours feared it would rage out of control and spread through the whole downtown. It was a significant enough event to force the town to reorganize and modernize its volunteer fire department.

Transportation nightmares? A Rocky Mountain blizzard today closes schools and an avalanche or severe conditions can shut down the airport and slow traffic. But we have a fleet of snowplows and sanders, not to mention snow tires, to relieve the challenges. Well into modern times winter in Aspen meant automobiles went into storage. Before that buggies had to be swapped for sleds. Traveling to Denver- take a sled over the pass before there were trains. Snow could stop train travel with some storms requiring hundreds of men shoveling the miles of track to reopen. Car crashes are sometimes fatal, but imagine passenger train wrecks.

2020 had an economic crisis with COVID shutting down the ski industry. Compare that with the Panic of 1893 where about a third of the state’s men lost their jobs.

Global warming? The environment is changing in so many ways and even though it is a long-term condition we note everything from the appearance of moose to the challenges of warmer weather on snow conditions. We have mitigations like snow making these days. In geologic time our subservience to mother nature provides a stark comparison, continental glaciation. There wasn’t anyone around to complain about it then, but Aspen was completely covered by ice, a chilly reminder of our insignificance.

Earlier Aspen residents survived Grover Cleveland’s switch to the gold standard, two world wars, three major recessions and the Depression. There have always been calamities to contend with and the next one is just around the corner. With a little perspective and a sense or humor we will survive. Happy New Year and may 2021 be better.