Willoughby: You are not a destination resort if visitors cannot get there

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
For a ski trip during the 1930s, snow cut off Independence Pass road.

People like to think Aspen achieved fame during recent history. Yet from its earliest days the town offered sightseers a unique experience. Nevertheless, visitors needed an easy way to reach the town, isolated in the middle of the Rockies. As soon as the railroad arrived, tourists thronged the destination resort.

Summer tourism via rail boosted Aspen’s economy. By the time trains reached Aspen in 1887, their tracks had already crisscrossed much of the country. Americans enjoyed a visit to anywhere a train could take them. The Rockies attracted many tourists, and they favored Aspen’s scenic mountains, prodigious fishing and commodious hotels. Although other towns competed for tourist dollars, Aspen claimed the prime location — at the end of the line.

Automobiles began to change American’s travel patterns. After the Ford Model T came out, families of modest means could afford a road trip. At first, Aspen attracted few auto tourists because the roads to get there remained in poor condition. When the road to Estes Park was completed in 1904, that area of Colorado — a short drive from Denver — gained popularity. When Congress created Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915, Aspen and Western Slope communities got the message: If you want tourists, you have to improve your roads.

Two rail lines competed for passengers to Aspen, so train traffic outnumbered auto trips for a while. Travel by automobile gradually grew in popularity. To ensure their share of visitors, Aspen’s residents pushed to upgrade Independence Pass from a stagecoach road to one that would accommodate autos. After that improved road opened in 1924, Aspen’s isolation diminished. The road cut eight hours off the trip from Denver.

When Aspen built its ski business in the 1930s, it relied on trains to bring in tourists. Independence was never going to work as a winter road. And the alternate road to Aspen, before the construction of Vail Pass, extracted long, unpleasant hours. The Aspen Ski Club talked the Denver and Rio Grand Railroad into initiating ski trains. These direct rides from Denver worked well for Aspen’s two major sources of skiers: ski clubs in Denver and clubs plus individual skiers from Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin. Ski clubs did not focus entirely on skiing; they provided social opportunities. Skiers relished the train ride as much as a ride down Aspen Mountain on skis.

Skiers still arrived by train back when my grandfather served as Aspen’s mayor, around 1940. A bus provided transportation from Denver to Glenwood, but not from Glenwood to Aspen. The bus company applied to the Public Utilities Commission to open up their service to Aspen. It would seem like progress to provide more choices for travel to the end of the line, but with buses running on weekends, the railroad announced it would cease Saturday and Sunday passenger service.

Grandfather and the City Council took action. As they saw it, loss of the weekend ski train would eliminate most skiers. Imagine a similar scene today: What if airlines threatened to cut out Saturday flights if Uber offered competitive rates from DIA to Aspen? Uber customers might save money. But the number of cars and hours of traffic required to move the usual number of people to Aspen would deter many who prefer to fly.

You are not a destination resort if your visitors cannot get there.

Aspen’s leadership prevailed: The Public Utilities Commission denied the application for weekend bus service. And ski trains continued to deliver skiers to the site of the fledgling ski industry, just in time.

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