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Willoughby: The quest for photographic memories of Aspen’s past

Writing columns is only half of what appears in the paper; I also have to track down photos. As you can imagine, the older the date the harder it is to find suitable photographs. Readers often ask me if I have, or have seen, a photo of something specific, usually one of their ancestors. The following are some sources I have used with some stories about finding and using them.

Many of the photos I have used are ones my family saved. My mother was gifted a camera in high school and took pictures, mostly of friends and events, for many years. My uncle, Frank Willoughby, had a great eye and an excellent camera and his preference was to take slides. Most of his were landscape photos. Another uncle, John Herron, used to own the Aspen Block that housed mine offices and he saved many photos, mostly from the turn of the century. Some of our family photos were copied when the Aspen Historical Society was formed.

Family photos can show history like this photo taken by writer Tim Willoughby’s mother in the 1920s showing the Castle Creek bridge before the highway was paved. (Willoughby Collection)

The Aspen Historical Society has thousands of photos from all periods. You can access their archives online, and search by names and topics. Anna Scott presides over the collection and spends hours researching the content ascribing names of who is in a photo and when it may have been taken.



It wasn’t always like that. For many years, those tasks were done by volunteers, and fortunately many of them were longtime Aspen locals who had contributed to the collection and/or could identify the buildings and people. Long ago when I was on the board, I discovered that glass negatives had been saved from Dorothy Shaw’s collection. She was a scrounger and before the Aspen Historical Society formed had her own attempt at a museum between the Crystal Palace and the Wheeler.

Since they were negatives no one had taken the time to look through them. Since I had my own darkroom, I decided I would make prints of anything that looked worthwhile. Instead of doing a direct print, I photographed them and turned them from negative to positive and into slides. There was little information about any of them, and most were formal portraits. There were some great photos that, when the Aspen Historical Society could make a good print, became accessible to those who could use them.




I discovered that the famous western photographer William Henry Jackson had photographed Aspen. He was the first to photograph Maroon Bells. I discovered that the State Historical Society was the primary depository of his work. I headed to Denver to see what I could find. At that time it was located in a historic building, not the modern one of today. Their collection was large, but at that time not well organized or accessible. When I asked, I was led not to file folders of photos, but to his glass-plate negatives.

Jackson used a bellows camera with 20-by-20-inch glass-plate negatives. Imagine hauling those around. That is one reason why many of his photos were taken when he was given his own train car and engine to go to sites. It was a shock when I was led to the dark and very dusty basement and shown the negatives were leaning up against the wall, all covered with a layer of dust, and some already broken. I was left to look through them, but decided I did not want to take the chance of breaking one.

The Denver Public Library has an excellent photo collection too. Before the Aspen Historical Society formed some old-time Aspen families donated their photos to either the State Historical Society or the Denver Public Library. Often, those writing me for help have traced their elders’ history and it was common for them to have lived in more than just Aspen, with Leadville the second most common. One advantage of the two collections in Denver is it increased the likelihood you could find a photo, since they have photos from most towns.

My other discovery was one of the most fruitful. The United States Geology Survey has a photo collection. Years ago it was located in Denver, but it moved and is accessible online. They have some of William Henry Jackson’s photos of Aspen, but they also have photos that were taken for geologist Josiah Spurr‘s 1898 report/atlas on Aspen.

Finally, the visual record of the past depends on people scouring their family photo albums. No matter what town your fore bearers hail from, what to you might be unidentified boring pieces of paper might be someone else’s treasure.

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 redmtn2@comcast.net.