Willoughby: Relief efforts underpin Aspen’s resilience during The Panic of ’93
Legends & Legacies
The demonetization of silver closed mines and marked the year 1893 in memory for those who lived in Aspen. At the same time, a recession swept the world. Rivaled in the U.S. only by the Great Depression, the downturn brought unemployment to 4 million Americans, a 20% unemployment rate.
Aspenites watched as the calamity began in 1892, with almost daily newspaper reports of the unemployed in Europe. Thousands out of work in Berlin. Thousands in London. The price of silver slid from a high of $27 per ounce, down toward $20, in today’s dollars. Within three weeks, the price dropped another $5, and mines began to close.
At the time, Coloradans numbered around 400,000. By the summer of 1893, an estimated 25,000 of them had no work. Miners and those who worked in mine-related jobs comprised half that total. By mid-summer, 10,000 Denver residents had no jobs. Add another 5,000 unemployed, who lived in surrounding areas.
Denver opened Camp Relief at River Front Park, housed 800 unemployed citizens in tents, and fed 1,000 people daily. The city paid for train tickets for the unemployed to head east. Unemployed men swamped the trains as they left town, and the railroad companies took them on board, whether they had a ticket or not. Chicago lay at the end of the line, a city with its own problems. One advertisement for a typist attracted 800 applicants. Some offered to work for pennies on the dollar.
Compared to major cities, Aspen held a few advantages. Mines that had shut down resumed production at reduced wages. Local competition for jobs had eased when some miners left for Cripple Creek, in the face of the initial closure. The mines there had been expanding the production of gold, a metal not affected by the price drop of other minerals. For those who wanted to try their luck elsewhere, Aspen — like Denver — offered to pay for train tickets to other cities.
Aspen took care of its own through the Chamber of Commerce Relief Fund. The Chamber began to collect and spend the money in 1892. The money poured in from many sources, and City Council members contributed $10 of their monthly salaries. Through an Aspen connection, the Alamosa mill donated 2,000 pounds of flour. S.B. Clark, who owned Aspen’s commission house, donated 1,000 pounds of potatoes.
In addition to handing out food and fuel, The Chamber of Commerce group put men to work in an unusual way. The city agreed to hire workers for projects such as digging a sewer line on Cooper Avenue. After the city paid the workers, they billed the Chamber for the expense.
Two other charities formed, the W.R.C. Relief Fund and the King’s Daughters Relief Fund. Numerous fundraisers punctuated the next couple of years. A lecture charged a quarter for admission, and two local brass bands also charged $0.25 for their concerts. A men’s chorus and 30 other singers performed an extravagant production of a Gaetano Donizette choral piece, with a $0.50 admission. Grand balls attracted donors. The Miners’ Union sponsored one at the Armory Hall, and charged $1 per person. And a baseball game between the Typos and the Clerks, two union groups, raked in much needed money.
As more Aspen workers returned to jobs, the local funds began to send money to more needy places, especially New York and Chicago. Chicago became a major destination for those who searched for work, and it also had a strong union presence.
The unions pushed for both a local and a national solution to the recession. The effort resulted in the Pullman Strike. President Grover Cleveland sent in 12,000 federal troops to break it up.
Silver miners from the Comstock in Nevada and other unemployed people filled San Francisco. A newspaper writer wrote, “the bankers play their golden fiddle while the people in droves idly tramp the land in search of something to do.” Aspen’s leaders argued the solution to the recession would be for the government to get off the gold standard and resume the purchase of silver. Aspen raised money to support the Free Coinage Coxey Reserve Guard, known as Coxey’s Army, men who marched to Washington to demand federal intervention.
Nationally, recovery from the Panic of 1893 proceeded slowly. But by 1896, with a somewhat smaller population than that of 1892, Aspen had recovered.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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