Willoughby: “What if” questions increase gratitude for our past reality

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

People like to guess what may have happened if past events, people, or trends had differed from reality. They pose questions such as, “What would have happened if the Mayflower had landed in Florida instead of Plymouth?” Then they invent an imagined set of consequences. The following “What if” scenarios would have changed Aspen.

What if the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, rather than the Colorado Midland, had gone belly up first? Highway 82 was constructed largely along the Midland’s previous route. If the D and R-G had closed, the highway may instead have taken over that right of way, on the opposite side of the Roaring Fork. Such happenstance may have kept the highway to Aspen on the north side of the valley. After crossing the river near town, the road’s passengers would have exited onto Mill Street.

Local advocates of alternative transportation have pondered what would have happened if Aspen’s mining era trolley system had not gone out of business. They wonder what if the tracks had not been removed. If the tracks remained, the answer is simple. Tracks extended above the grade of the streets, and speedy automobiles threatened their longevity as well as their cars. But converting trolley energy sources from horse-drawn to electric motors may have preserved them into the current century, a welcome alternative to noisy cars and buses.

During the Depression and again in the 1950s, planners proposed to dam the Roaring Fork east of town. Imagine the valley filled with a reservoir. Would Aspen’s real estate have boomed, despite buyers who may have feared to live below a major dam? Would wind surfing in Aspen have taken on as much cachet as skiing? The Bureau of Reclamation, in the 1950s, came close to building one, but shifted it to the Frying Pan through the efforts of James Hopkins Smith. He owned land in the Stillwater area and, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, maintained connections with Washington.

Modern Aspen would certainly be diminished had Elizabeth Paepcke not skied there during in the 1930s, and pushed Walter, her husband, to look at the place. Walter had hatched a slightly different plan while he formulated his “Aspen idea.” He wanted to shoehorn business people out of big cities and deliver them to a quiet location. Originally, he had chosen land near Pagosa Springs.

During the Cold War the fear of nuclear weapons kept people awake at night. Denver’s banks and perhaps the Denver Mint considered hauling their records and cash to Aspen if an attack loomed. They intended to use Aspen’s mines for secure storage. Had that arrangement taken place, additional vital infrastructure could have found protection within miles of tunnels and large underground stopes. What if NORAD’s Cheyenne Mountain underground security complex, or something similar, had been built in Aspen? Using resources from the Aspen Center for Physics, what if a linear accelerator had been constructed in the mines? Why dig a new facility when a secondhand tunnel stands ready for new uses?

What if the Aspen Ski Club had not formed? Without the club there may have been no skiing on Aspen Mountain. The Highland Bavarian project might, instead, have moved forward with a village in Ashcroft, with lifts built to the high points near Electric Peak. With that plan implemented, a second ski area might have grown on Aspen Mountain, but much later, maybe around the time Vail appeared.

Whether you’re waiting in traffic or on the lift line, the “What if” game endlessly entertains the mind. But when you project the consequences of such changes into the future, you may feel more grateful for our past reality.

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