Willoughby: ‘Give us good roads and see how quickly we come’
Legends & Legacies
Tourism in Aspen began when the trains arrived, but both locally and nationally, it took middleclass vacationing motorists to make it a viable industry. The prerequisite to that dictated better roads, and that took a movement.
The Good Roads Movement and organization dates to the late 1880s, and for several decades, it was about local roads near cities connecting rural residents to urban centers. It even introduced a new word: highways. When automobiles appeared, the organization grew rapidly. A major advocate and organizer for Colorado was Thomas F. Walsh. In 1905, he was quoted as saying, “From the standpoint of the tourist ‘industry’ of the state, the construction of the mountain roads would in this day of automobiles be a veritable mine of wealth for the entire state.”
He came to Colorado in the 1870s dreaming of gold. Around the time Aspen was founded, he and his wife bought and ran the Grand Central Hotel in Leadville. He educated himself on the finer points of prospecting, and in 1896, he struck it rich with the Camp Bird Gold Mine in Ouray.
He spent his fortune on world traveling, moving to Washington D.C., and on lavish motorcars. He was elected president of the National Irrigation Association in 1901 and then turned to advocating for roads. He gave an address in Denver to the Denver Real Estate Exchange, where he noted that in his world travels, he had been on roads that the Romans built that connected major cities, saying, “The civilization of a country is, assuredly, at least in part, measured by the condition of its roads.” His final pitch was that wealthy travelers he knew toured Europe — but not Colorado — and they said, “Give us good roads and see how quickly we come.”
After that speech, in 1906, he donated a large sum of money to lobby the Colorado Legislature to appropriate $2,000,000 for road work. ($54 million in today’s dollars).
The first major game changer came after his death: the Lincoln Highway. The Good Roads Movement pushed for a national highway in 1913. It was intended to go from Times Square in New York to Lincoln Park in San Francisco, using the shortest route possible. The first iteration looped to Denver, but since that made the journey longer, it was dropped a couple of years later to the mass protest of Denver.
Stephen Mather was the next notable advocate for roads to foster tourism. He was the first director of the National Park System. In 1916, he began pushing his ideas, noting that due to the war in Europe, American tourists had begun touring at home. The number of tourists visiting national parks by car doubled in that year.
He formed the National Park-to-Park Highway Association and, with the American Automobile Association, began pushing for a road system that would connect all national parks and monuments in the Western states. His vision included over 3,000 miles of roads. One of the first he advocated for was to connect San Francisco to Oregon and Washington parks that became what we know today has Highway 1.
He organized a group that started a 76-day trip — leaving from Denver — visiting all the parks and planning routes. They visited Rocky Mountain National Park, formed in 1915, and Mesa Verde, established in 1906. At that time, there were 14 national parks and 19 national monuments; by the time death ended his park service, in 1929, there were 20 national parks and 32 national monuments.
That 1900-20 time period provided the roots for the tourist industry in America, tied to the automobile. The leaders were business and industry owners, most of them from the extractive industries who were interested in preservation of the many beautiful national sites — but also interested in the business aspects of it.
Mather made his fortune, which enabled him to turn to running the parks, from the borax business. He coined “20-Mule Team Borax” to market his product. Walsh relied on his gold-mining fortune to provide him with the resources and time to pitch tourist roads. At the beginning of the period, before there were many cars, there was a glut on the oil market — so many in that industry pushed the ideas to increase oil sales. Timber barons needed better and longer roads to tap into forests.
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 email@example.com.