Willoughby: Basketball trips in the mountains

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
William Henry Jackson photo of the Colorado Midland on Hagerman Pass, 1899. Library of Congress

Artifacts from Aspen’s past show up every once in a while, even today, in odd places. Roger Long sent me a 1920 Aspen Democrat-Times. Roger’s father Dick Long bought Aspen Drug from the Parsons family in the 1960s. Parsons had items in the store that dated back to the 1890s. Long upgraded the store and moved some of the older items to his home on the s-curve at the end of Main Street. Not long ago that house was torn down for a new structure and Roger asked the contractor if they found anything. Parson’s framed pharmacy degree was one of the objects and when Roger pried open the frame the paper had been used as part of the backing.

Aspen’s papers have had many uses. Some have been found in walls where they were used as insulation. It may be that issue of the paper was handy when he framed his degree, or it may have been one Parsons saved for another reason. The front-page article was about March basketball games that sealed Aspen’s championship year.

1919-1920 was one of Aspen’s best basketball seasons. It culminated in March when Aspen hosted Leadville their longtime rival. The girls’ game was a blowout favoring Leadville. Games in those days were low-scoring, the final tally 15 to 7. The boys game was closer with the score 6 to 6 at halftime. Aspen pulled it out in the second half scoring 14 to 2. In 1920 there was no tournament at the end of the season to determine a league winner. Leadville declared Aspen the Western Slope winner. After the game there was a dance and a midnight supper. In those days teams stayed the night on road trips and the host team entertained them.

When Roger read the account he was reminded of his Aspen High School basketball trips and wondered what winter trips between Aspen and Leadville must have been like. Roger remembered a trip to Battle Mountain High School that at that time was on Highway 24 part way up the steeper section of that highway that was originally the railroad route for the D and R G connecting Leadville to Aspen going through Glenwood. It had a small gym, a large Quonset hut that clung to the side of the valley.

On that trip on a snowy night they arrived only to find that the host thought no one would attempt a trip in that storm so they cancelled. The team turned around and headed home, more hours of slow dangerous travel. I remember many winter storm trips too. The worst weather was usually closest to home, above 7,000 feet.

Aspen basketball trips in the 1920s were all by train with Leadville and Grand Junction being the longest and trips to Leadville the most storm-prone. They were longer trips as trains did not speed along at 60 miles an hour like a school bus. Both boys and girls teams traveled together and often they played several games on the same trip at the same location. For instance Aspen might play Salida in Leadville, all towns connected by rail.

At that time there were still two railroads connecting Aspen, the Colorado Midland and the D and R G with daily service. As you can see from the accompanying photo, even in the 1890s railroads had developed rotary snowplows to deal with snow. It is easier to clear one railroad track compared to plowing and sanding a four-lane highway.

Unlike modern times where teams are much larger and junior varsity and varsity teams travel together, in 1920 there were town teams that played each other and from those teams a smaller high school team was selected. It must have been really special in those days being selected to carry the honor of representing Aspen and traveling by train.

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