Willoughby: Know your Aspen
Legends & Legacies
The Aspen Times created a pastime for readers in 1956, a contest called Know Your Aspen. Those who properly identified a photo printed in the newspaper would win a reproduction of a mining era map, a bird’s-eye view of Aspen. The contest photographer picked places that pedestrians frequented and focused on a small portion of an object in plain view, such as a section of roof or a decorative symbol carved into a stone building. Often children won the prize because their eyes are low and they notice things that adults often ignore. As a child of that time, I never won the prize, yet I did pick up on characteristics of the city that some may remember and others might observe for the first time.
Traffic noise is a terrible distraction, but early in the morning or during a lull in the evening you can locate the center of Aspen’s pigeon population. You zone in on the location first by listening, but to see it you have to venture down Aspen’s alleyways. As you may suspect, they favor the two alleys in the middle of town. Because buildings are taller and form an urban canyon there, the birds’ cooing echoes off the buildings. That also has been the location for decades of the most bird-accessible garbage.
When you look down on town from Aspen or Red Mountain the city appears flat, but Aspen is not flat. Whether you travel on foot or a bicycle, the ups and downs reveal themselves memorably when you head south on Galena Street between Hyman and Cooper avenues. Even the center of town was established on dips and mounds.
My friends and I sought out the steepest sections with our bicycles and homemade soapbox vehicles. We called the most challenging one Ringle Hill. The editor of the Aspen Times, V.E. Ringle, owned the large Victorian on that block at 214 Hopkins Ave., between Monarch and Aspen streets. The second-best thrill ended in the same intersection, by Paepcke Park on the corner of Aspen Street between Hyman and Hopkins avenues. Those same drop-offs do not seem as steep these days. But at that time, unpaved roads had to slope enough for a wagon to roll downhill despite impediments from rocks and ruts.
The low point in Aspen is Paepcke Park. Stand on the Hopkins Avenue side and look toward Main Street — you see quite a grade. We were acutely aware of that basin and favored that location for pick-up baseball games. At that time the bandstand remained where it had been built beside the firehouse, and few trees grew in the park. That left plenty of open space to field balls. During spring, snow melted first along the pavement of Main Street and flowed downslope. And then it drained to the low point, a bog at the corner of Hopkins Avenue and Garmisch Street.
Do you know why the Aspen Mountain ridge is called Shadow Mountain? The center of town has moved south of Main Street, with condos crowding every block. When the sun slips down behind the ridge early on a winter afternoon, those buildings stand within the mountain’s shadow. A child who wanders through town would see nearly all of Aspen’s grand Victorians north of Main Street, clustered in the northwest quadrant. By standards of the previous century, the best lots in town avoided the mountain’s creeping shadow longer on a winter evening.
Children keep their eyes to the ground when they walk. Mine attended to metal grills that covered portions of sidewalk in front of the Elks Building and the Hotel Jerome. The metalwork supported pedestrians as they crossed over wells that allowed light and air to reach windows to basements below. I feared one would collapse and I would fall through the cavern, or that I would drop something that would disappear forever. But that hesitation did not prevent me from peering below, to a realm no camera’s eye could reach. I would mistake golden bottle caps for coins and wonder how I could retrieve that fortune.
Unlike most of Aspen’s homes, the largest Victorian commercial buildings harbored basements below. The first time I entered the basement under Tom’s Market in the Elks building I felt flabbergasted. The dark and empty space reached far beyond my comfort zone.
The Times should revive Know Your Aspen. Any of us would discover something valuable once we begin to look carefully at our town. If you guessed that the photo above shows the Cowenhoven Building, you are correct. But to collect your reward, you would have to make the first call to the Times when it ran the photo … in 1956.
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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