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Willoughby: A lot can happen in a decade

The American West experienced tremendous change between 1850 and 1900. It would have been exciting to have lived through those years. Tremendous change was evident even in a single decade. Imagine living through moving from being a territory to being a state.

Colorado, the Centennial State, the 38th state, moved from a gold rush to a state in just a little over a decade. Aspen was not settled when statehood took place, but Leadville having its second mineral rush was. Many early Aspen settlers lived through that transition.

Joseph K. Toole, first governor of Montana, photographed by C.M. Ball.
Library of Congress

There were proponents and opponents to becoming a state, but for most it was a matter of pride. Being admitted into the Union indicated a form of approval that pioneers took pride in. Here is an example of that pride from the Colorado Weekly Chieftain in 1876: “All hail them, the proud Centennial State of Colorado! The only state in the American union whose waters flowing down its bright mountains go to swell the tide of both oceans; whose white bosom is ever bathed in the kisses of a cloudless sun whose upheaved summit is the precious keystone in the arch of the republic; who will come into the temple of the union bearing gifts of gold and silver and precious stores and whose step will be buoyant with the beauty of youth and the strength of health.”



There were several years of efforts beginning in the 1860s to become a state; the first few failed when Colorado voters turned down the idea. Later it was a national issue mostly centered around if it would be a Republican state. Once Grant was elected president, Congress in March 1875 approved it if the residents voted for it. The population at the time was around 150,000.

Residents voted in July 1876 to approve the state constitution and to become a state. Colorado Springs and Greeley voted against it. Denver, the largest city then, had a 5,000-vote majority for statehood and after the final tally, statewide, it won 15,443 to 4,062. The Colorado Banner, a champion for statehood, proclaimed, “The sun that morning rose as a territory, its last beams had fallen upon the same country transformed by the power of the ballot into a state.” President Grant signed a proclamation making it official Aug. 1, 1876.




A decade later, Montana went through a similar process to attain statehood. Colorado and Montana were mineral rivals. Investors, prospectors and miners often worked both states. Aspen’s early pioneer B. Clark Wheeler, not long after filing claims in Aspen and working to get the town started, made a trip to Montana because he wanted to be sure Aspen was where he wanted to commit to. He had been in Colorado for a number of years and was very excited about Aspen. His conclusion after his trip was that Aspen and Colorado were progressing faster, that it would be longer before Montana would catch up.

That was a prophetic assessment with about a 10-year difference that also matched population growth and statehood. For Montana it was also a different mineral, copper. In 1888 when Montana was pursuing statehood, copper dominated the state’s mineral production with 97,087,908 pounds produced. At that time copper sold for 15.5 cents a pound, about $4 in today’s dollars.

The Senate debated bills for statehood for the Dakotas, Washington, New Mexico and Montana. The debate mostly focused on if there should be two Dakotas. Montana approved its constitution and, President Grover Cleveland proclaimed Montana the 41st state on Nov. 8, 1888,

There was not the joy that Colorado had on that occasion. The state was embroiled in political fights. Prior to the admission a Democratic governor was picked, Joseph Toole, but his election was contested. Also, members of the legislature were closely divided between Republicans and Democrats and each were vying for control. There were allegations that the Northern Pacific Railroad pushed its employees to vote Democrat and that Republicans were buying votes.

The dispute continued into 1890, so the legislature did not function. Court battles left the legislature evenly divided. The biggest battle was over selecting senators to send to Congress. Each party picked two and sent them to Washington where it was decided with the Republicans selected because Republicans controlled the Senate. Then discourse shifted back to normal, back to mining.

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 redmtn2@comcast.net.


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