Willoughby: Hazards of spring driving long ago exceed today’s challenges
Legends & Legacies
Springtime, the peak of cabin fever, coincides with the cyclical maximum of unrepaired chuckholes. These road hazards expand and deepen until the asphalt plants rouse to an operational state and the weather warms enough for road crews to function. Meanwhile, you have to switch your vehicles’ snow tires to regular ones, and wash away dust accumulated from highway snowplows and sanding. Decades ago, as now, drivers hated to drive during winter. But they preferred winter to spring, when mud, the seasonal scourge, overtook the roads.
Many Aspen drivers would pull the batteries from their cars in the fall, and leave them stationary until spring. They could walk anywhere in town within a short amount of time. Starting a car — even with the battery installed — might take as much time as it would to walk to their destination.
Who can predict the arrival of spring in the Rockies? Would-be drivers had to consider whether the weather would deliver one more big snowstorm. The season arrives at different times and depends on elevation. Spring comes early to Glenwood. If free of snow in May, Aspen still might harbor banks of ice within the shady parts of canyons that surround the town.
As part of Depression jobs programs during the 1930s, the Forest Service extended Castle Creek Road beyond the Midnight Mine Road. Historically, the Midnight had plowed the road to town, and stopped at a section above the turnoff to the mine on Castle Creek Road. Maroon Creek Road was not plowed beyond the decades-old dump. Independence Pass road was plowed up to, and not beyond, Stillwater.
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No one rushed to open these roads. They trusted free sunshine to complete the job eventually. During the Depression, Aspen’s residents generally considered snowplowing to be a wasted expense, except for the opening of Independence Pass. The pass admitted tourists important to the economy.
Through the late 1930s, state and county road crews drove Caterpillars through the pass in June, when snowmelt had reduced the workload. As the behemoths shoved snow aside, they graded the surface.
Well into the 1950s roads developed another springtime challenge. Other than the highway, they offered no pavement. Narrow and steep roads such as Castle Creek and Red Mountain provided the path of least resistance for water, which would run from rut to rut. Water plus dirt equals mud. The mixture formed as slippery a surface as that of packed snow and ice.
Cars in those days were built with greater mass and higher clearances than are found in many autos today. Although few vehicles back then had both winter and summer tires, the normal tread accommodated dirt as well as pavement.
When the county had enough funds, it would layer the dirt roads with gravel. But a summer’s worth of driving would spray gravel to the sides of the roads, and punch the pebbles deep into the dirt. Driving over a wet, graveled road in spring would bury the gravel deep into the roadbed.
To restore the road required grading. The city and county joined forces to grade Aspen’s streets. In August 1937, the county bought a grading machine. All in one swoop, the machine, called a scarifier, ripped up the street and graded it back to a smooth surface. First used on West Main Street, where the Aspen Times reported a section with “a humpty-bumpty condition for nearly a year,” the price of the process created another roadblock. The annual labor cost for grading operators approached $500 in today’s dollars.
Due to summer’s unbearable dust, top speed on a gravel road remained low. Faster driving would have thrown gravel farther from the rutted tracks. Cue in the most marvelous of inventions, the high centered, deep-tire-tread, four-wheel-drive Willys Jeep.
Time paved the way — figuratively and literally — to Aspen’s year-round thoroughfares, admired and appreciated by locals as well as tourists.
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 email@example.com.
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