Willoughby: Aspen’s 1890 Christmas on the ice

The 1939 skating party sponsored by the Aspen Ski Club the week of Christmas at Maroon Lake when snow was late in arriving.
Willoughby collection

Christmas day 1890 was memorable for locals. The weather was perfect and the ice on the Roaring Fork east of town was just right. Hundreds turned out including many who came in their buggies and carriages just to watch the skaters.

Judging by the column inches devoted to the event in The Aspen Times, it had to have been a major event since the paper rarely devoted that much coverage to gatherings. The opening few sentences suggest the editor’s delight: “Did you ever go skating on Christmas day? You never did then you have something yet to live for. Things are what they seem and life is not a mockery to him who has spent Christmas day on the ice.”

The location was about a mile east of town where the first ranch was located. One of the few negative comments of the day was a skater who complained that “it was odd to have to walk over such dusty roads to go skating in the wintertime.” The location was at the downriver end of what was known as Stillwater and the main gathering place was at that last bend in the river before the gradient changes. The first half mile was the safest so most of the activity was in that section, but, as the paper put it, many wanted to see how far they could go upriver.

There were holes in the ice and several places where skaters took their skates off and walked around a dangerous area. The estimated distance upriver covered by those who were the most adventurous spanned three miles. There was an icehouse on the river where ice was being cut and stored leaving a large hole to skirt around.

One female skater broke through ice and fell into where “the water went almost over her head.” There were many falls and collisions because many were first-time skaters, but no one was seriously hurt. The paper described beginners, “people are not born skaters — the whole problem is the communication between the feet and the brain is too slow. The best thing you can do is to fall as gently as possible.”

Boys formed groups of about twenty and skated in circles with the one at the end pulled at a high speed until they fell. They also formed two lines and did a skating version of “red rover” where one was called out and skated across and tried to skate through the line of boys all holding their hands.

Contrasting the boys’ activity the paper reported, “Did you ever watch a pretty girl skate? It makes a picture you will long remember to see a youthful maiden skating on the ice. There is poetry of motion for you that excels anything seen on the stage or in the drawing room. Nothing is more pleasing to one’s sense of harmony and grace than a lady skating who understands the art.”

The event, not one organized, just word of mouth, went on into the evening. After declaring it would be great if Christmas 1891 could have such glorious weather again it ended with, “there was a merry party gathered on the ice when the moon rose.”

Years when there is no snow on the ground at Christmas in Aspen are rare. The next year like that one was in 1939 captured in the above photo. Should there be another year with no snow — go with the tradition and organize a Christmas skating party on the Roaring Fork or Maroon Lake.

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


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