Willoughby: Making historical sense of the census

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

Taking the census in the early 1900s. Library of Congress/Courtesy photo

Compared to census news in previous centuries the 2020 census has made little news. Nationally, reports have focused on states gaining and losing House representatives and during the taking of the census the attempts to politicize how the census was conducted. The census has important consequences for Federal funding so many states focused on possible undercounts. Census numbers in early decades of Aspen were front-page news for months. Aspen was as interested in changes in Cincinnati or Chicago as they were about local results.

Aspen has 7,401 residents up from 6,658 in 2010. Pitkin County’s 2020 numbers are similar to 2010 with a total of 17,767, up 632. Colorado had a 14.5 % population increase, now at 5,778,736 and the state bragged about its 99.9% household census contacts, one of the higher in the nation.

Wandering around town it is hard to sense the census results since a large percentage of people you see are visitors. Aspen seniors over 65 account for 19% and those under 18 come in at 16.2% suggesting it is a normal family town. We are different however as 95.5% of all households have a computer and 66.3% of residents have at least a bachelor or higher education, around double the national average.

The population of Aspen for 1880, its second year, is complicated because it was not an official town when the census was taken, but reports suggest that by the end of the year it had over 800 people with 200 homes.

The 1890 census, the nation’s eleventh, was like today’s skier counts, a sign of growing prosperity. Towns took it seriously, Leadville thought it had 18,000 residents and thought the count was not being done correctly. The Leadville paper advised, “do it in three days, have the newspaper record each day …this would add to the public interest in the work and people would be stirred up to the necessity of bringing in every available name.” Denver was convinced that the census missed 25% of its citizens. Leadville, officially totaled 10,500, Denver 125,000. Colorado’s total came in at 410,115 nearly doubling its 1880 count.

It took six weeks using machines to count the nation’s population, to be accurate it counted twice, resulting in 62,480,540 up from about 50 million in 1880.

Aspen’s count for 1890 totaled 6,645. Pitkin County came in at 8,808, the highest during the mining years. Aspen was one of the largest Colorado mining towns, but was far smaller than its rival Leadville. Boulder had a population then of 4,100 and Colorado Springs 11,200.

Subsequent census results through 1920 garnered as much news interest in Aspen as earlier ones. Locals must have delighted in following changes in different cities, maybe their hometowns. France’s census was done on the same cycle, so even its results made the news in Aspen.

Aspen’s population dropped in 1900 to 3,303, about half of 1890’s number. Pitkin county lost 1,909 ending with 6,899. Instead of Leadville complaining about a low count it was Cripple Creek where its paper claimed, “the census of this decade, so far as Colorado is concerned, degenerates into a farce.” Grand Junction was the west slope star in 1900 growing to 3,503, slightly larger than Aspen.

In 1910 Aspen dropped to a population of 1,834 and in 1920 1,265. The 1960 census put Aspen at 1,100, 100 short of 1920 and the County at 2,381, 400 more than 1920. 1930 was Aspen’s lowest at 705, then up to 770 in 1940 and 916 in 1950.

We have come full circle. It took 120 years for Aspen to get back to its 1890 population in 2010 and in this last decade it has grown above its record levels by 800.

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


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