Willoughby: Early days of Aspen’s Fourth of July fireworks | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Early days of Aspen’s Fourth of July fireworks

Hallam Lake, 1887, on the Fourth of July you could win $50 if you rode a bicycle down the chute on the left into the lake. | Aspen Historical Society photo

Spectators gather by the thousands to see Aspen’s Fourth of July fireworks. Shot high into the sky from elevated points on Aspen Mountain, they soar overhead and light up the whole valley. The surrounding mountains heighten the sound. Is there a better show? That was also the bragging line 140 years ago.

The first newspaper reference to Fourth of July fireworks was in 1882, but not in Aspen, in Ashcroft. The town, only a few years old, planned fireworks and a grand ball for the evening. Since the valley there is even narrower, it would have been quite a show. It was also common for miners to set off a few dynamite blasts as well.

The first fireworks reported in Aspen were in 1885. They were part of festivities held at Hallam Lake that included boat races, shooting matches and dancing. Fireworks were listed along with “flight of balloons.”

The following year Aspen initiated its effort to be the regional host of grand Fourth of July events and hoped to attract a crowd from Denver. Organizers put out an appeal to raise $3,000 ($79,000 in today’s dollars). They planned “fireworks from Aspen Mountain, our treasure box, not apex or side line fireworks, not democratic or republican fireworks, but fireworks for the entire people.”

The reference to side line and apex was a different form of fireworks going on that year, the legal battle over ore ownership making its way through the courts and stymying silver production and the town’s growth.

The celebration was a grand success with a crowd of between 5,000 and 6,000. Locals and businesses decorated the town. A parade with many floats, bands and dignitaries delighted spectators.  Popular at the time, there was a miner’s drilling contest where miners drilled holes in boulders using sledgehammers and steel chisels. Horse races of different lengths entertained visitors in the afternoon with the quarter mile the most popular with a $75 (nearly $2,000 in today’s dollars) prize.

The most popular event of the day, and one that attracted the largest crowds for years, were the hose races featuring fire departments pulling a cart with a long length of hose for a short distance and connecting the hose to a hydrant. Aspen’s best team, J.D. Hooper Hook and Ladder #1, lost to a Denver team.

Like today, the culminating event featured the fireworks, and they were set off from Aspen Mountain. The Aspen Times reported “they loomed up magnificently from the Enterprise tunnel.”

Jumping a few years to 1891 when Aspen was much larger, fireworks moved back to Hallam Lake. We think of Wagner Park as the Aspen gathering place for events like fireworks today, but in 1891 it was the location of Aspen’s largest hotel, the Clarendon. At Hallam Lake, a short walking distance for all Aspen, you could paddle a rowboat, have a picnic and enjoy the setting. A pavilion provided for dancing.

Like contemporary Aspen using Aspen Mountain to launch fireworks to increase the height above the crowd, the fireworks at Hallam Lake were “fired” from the town level above the south side of the lake. In addition to the evening fireworks (earlier as before Daylight Savings Time) a dance at the pavilion closed out the day’s events with Professor Ide’s Orchestra. At one point that night in 1891, someone counted 608 dancers enjoying their Fourth of July.

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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