Willoughby: The early saga of the Pitkin County Courthouse | AspenTimes.com
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Willoughby: The early saga of the Pitkin County Courthouse

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Pitkin County Courthouse under construction before roof was added.
Aspen Historical Society photo

When Aspen was founded, there was no Pitkin County. The county was established in 1881 after splitting up Gunnison County. The first commissioners were appointed by the governor but then elected from three precincts on a rotating basis.

The three commissioners were involved in building a courthouse. J.P. Snyder elected in 1885; he represented Ashcroft and was a mine owner there. J.N. Bennett was elected in 1886; he had a mine on Aspen Mountain but then bought and moved to a ranch near Carbondale. Frank Shepard was elected in 1888; he had a varied career but ended up as a partner in an Aspen hardware store, Shepard and Bowles.

In the early years, the county courthouse was a building on the corner of Galena and Hopkins. It then acquired a building on Cooper Avenue, but, before the existing courthouse was finished, it moved again to the Independence Building.



The commissioners felt the county should aspire to having the best courthouse and went on a tour of others in the state. They were berated for doing so on the taxpayer’s dime.

They hired William Quayle, an architect from Denver, to create their dream. The Aspen Times reported after seeing the plans, “the new courthouse will be a model of beauty and architecture and will be the finest building of its kind in the state west of the range.” Quayle had to sue the county to be paid in full.




The location was the most controversial part. The commissioners put out a notice for a location in 1890. Owners of sites were convinced that, like having an anchor store in a modern mall that attracted other stores, having the courthouse on their land would enhance the neighboring land that they also owned, and they could develop those other lots with commercial buildings.

The morning of the day the commissioners were going to decide the site, the brother of the contractor, J.D. Hooper, who was to build the courthouse, delivered documents deeding the full block where it is now to the city, a donation. He began work on the lot that morning.

B. Clark Wheeler — the editor of The Aspen Times, as well as a major land and mine dealer who wielded much influence in Aspen, was in the process of offering land he owned on East Cooper next to the existing courthouse at the time along with a donation of $1,000 — was outraged and protested. Hooper told him ‘to go to hell’ and exclaimed that Wheeler did not run the county.

At the meeting in the afternoon, a promoter offered land in the Hallam Addition, $3,000, and a promise to raise even more money. Wheeler argued that both the Hooper and Hallam sites were too far from the center of town. Hooper pointed out that there was already a sewar on Galena Street, and it would cost the county $5,000 to $8,000 that the county did not have to put in a sewar for either of the other sites. The meeting ended with one commissioner arguing that offering money would look like the commissioners were being bribed. A week later, Hooper, with the commissioners blessing, officially broke ground.

Construction proceeded. The jail the county was using had many flaws, and there were some escapes; so, the commissioners decided to build a new jail in the basement of the courthouse. The rest of the building was completed and moved into before the jai was finished.

The last controversy continued over the overpaying of J. D. Hooper. He had presented his bill for work done in the summer of 1890, for $9,000, but was informed the county had reached its constitutional limit of indebtedness, something initiated by state law. Instead of paying him, they gave him a certificate saying they owned him more.

Many locals did not support the courthouse project because it competed for funding with what they wanted (roads and bridges throughout the county), but all agreed it was a beautiful building.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at 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.

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