Willoughby: Aspen’s cosmopolitan side, now and then too

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Actor at the Wheeler circa 1900. Aspen Historical Society/Courtesy Photo

What both resident and visitor love about Aspen is that while it is a tiny town it has the amenities of the largest cities. The word cosmopolitan denotes its character. The contrast with provincial communities is obvious. The definition of cosmopolitan includes words like multiethnic, international, knowledgeable and refined. Many ascribe this to the ‘modern’ Aspen, but mining era Aspen, for its time, would have been defined in a similar way.

Fine dining defines Aspen today. Going all the way back to the California Gold Rush miners parted with their new found wealth for extravagant meals. Fresh oysters were a favorite even in Aspen far from the oyster beds. The Clarendon Hotel in 1891 featured: blue points, consommé imperial, chicken gumbo, baked Columbia salmon, boiled capon a la crème, braised fillet of beef aux champignons, French soufflé fritters, stuffed turkey, prime sirloin from Kansas. The chef there had also worked at the Jerome and later opened his own restaurant, the BonTon.

Aspen had strong connections to New York City because its mines were listed on exchanges there. Jerome Wheeler, investor in Aspen and builder of the Jerome and the Wheeler, married the niece of the founder of Macy’s and was a junior partner there before investing in Aspen. There was a constant exchange of Aspen businessmen going to New York and investors from New York coming to Aspen. That is just one example of the interchange with other cities, hardly a provincial town.

Like today, you did not have to leave Aspen for major entertainment. Circuses came to Aspen. Entertainers booked performances at its two performance centers. Opera was popular in Aspen. In 1890 the Grau-Fitzgerald opera company performed in the Wheeler. Maurice Grau was a major partner at the Metropolitan Opera. One of Aspen’s major mines was named after the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind, who charmed America on her 1850-52 tour.

Affluence is often a major ingredient in creating a cosmopolitan city. Affluence was evident in Aspen with its productive silver mines. The wealthy built mansions and were patrons of the arts, civic activities, and ponied up donations for everything from improving parks to sending food to earthquake victims in San Francisco.

Travel is not common in provincial towns. Aspen had two railroads competing for passengers. Several trains arrived and left daily taking locals to other cities and bringing tourists and businessmen to town. Many locals traveled to Europe. Risk taking locals participated in the Yukon Gold Rush. San Francisco, Chicago and New York were common destinations.

Definitions of cosmopolitan include diversity and multi-ethnicity. Like much of the West settlers to Aspen came from diverse locations and backgrounds. The community included Cornish, Swedish, Irish and Italian immigrants. There was an African–American population. Like today’s immigrants to America, these were the risk takers.

If you have lived in a provincial town you know they are generally quiet at night and events are few and far between. Aspen mines ran round-the-clock with three shifts. Saloons and restaurants catered to that schedule. Civic activities like fraternal and maternal orders filled every week with meetings and activities. The opera houses were not weekend only entertainment spots, nearly every night was booked. In those days speakers entertained and educated the public, Aspen turned out. Dances with orchestras were common. Churches, and there were many, offered services and social events weekly.

Unlike current day Aspen, workers did not commute. The town did not empty out at the end of the workday. It was a bustling thriving town.

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