WPA helped to kick-start skiing | AspenTimes.com

WPA helped to kick-start skiing

Willoughby CollectionAspen Mountain in 1938 was a far different place than now. On the left side of this picture, at the top of the street, is the WPA ski jump, with the judges tower visible on the right side of the white swath. In the center is the Roch race trail, and on the far right by the little house is the beginner's area and boat tow.

Neoconservatives who argue against government’s economic solutions insist that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s public works spending did nothing to end the Great Depression. Keynesian economists champion Obama’s proposals to stimulate job growth through government investment in building infrastructure. Aspen is one community that understands the value of the New Deal approach because its success as a ski resort can be traced to Works Projects Administration infrastructure spending.

The Depression hit Colorado before many other states. The drought on the plains extended to Colorado’s eastern counties, marginal agricultural land to begin with. Crop prices fell, including the price of sugar beets, Colorado’s major cash crop. What’s more, depressed prices for precious metals led to industrial collapse in this mineral-producing state.

Aspen had already weathered four bust cycles in four decades; there was no more down left. However, by Colorado’s standards, Aspen had a relatively stable economy. Although silver prices sank to a historic low, a 10-year development project culminated with the Midnight Mine shipping ore. That mine attained a level of profitability that kept many locals employed. Local ranchers who needed cash as agricultural prices fell would work a few months at the Midnight. Itinerant workers could earn a few dollars to finance their journeys to seek long-term employment elsewhere. The Herron Brothers leased the Smuggler and Durant mines, adding to the employment base. Aspen, while not a center of recovery, served as an oasis for survival. Rather than “depression,” hope prevailed, especially because a new industry, skiing, was at hand.

Skiing was the rage of the 1930s, spawning an industry poised for commercial success. In Aspen, the Highland Bavarian Corporation chose Ashcroft as the future site of their European-style resort and actively promoted it on both coasts. They brought influential skiers to their lodge on Castle Creek, from which they toured the surrounding high peaks. The Aspen Ski Club cut Roch Run on Aspen Mountain. Skiers could ride with the Midnight crew to the mine, which was allowed a short climb to the top of Aspen Mountain. They would ski down into town. The club also built a beginner’s area with a short ski tow at the bottom of the mountain.

Aspen was not the only mountain town with dreams of cashing in on the sport. In the ’30s all you needed to become a ski resort was a lodge, a slope of almost any length, and snow. Many towns constructed crude rope tows and tried to lure European ski instructors to teach a nation of beginners. Even Aspen’s neighboring community, Glenwood Springs, built a small operation that vied for customers.

Aspen leaped ahead of its competitors through the efforts of Andre Roch, the Swiss consultant to the Highland Bavarian. During a year in Aspen when he identified potential ski slopes, Roch developed close relationships with locals. At the end of his stay locals asked Roch what they could do to ensure success. Roch explained that since nearly all American skiers would be beginners, most areas would concentrate on that market. For Aspen to distinguish itself outside the state, he advised creating infrastructure to serve racers. Sponsoring major races, Roch believed, would put Aspen on the skiing map.

Competitive skiing in those days was a 4-way event that comprised slalom, cross-country, downhill and jumping. After cutting Roch Run, designed by Roch as a racing trail, all that Aspen needed was a sizable ski jump. The Aspen Ski Club applied for a WPA grant through the city of Aspen. With that funding the club built a 55-meter jump with a judges tower, a warming shed for racers at the top of Roch Run, and a club building at the bottom of the slalom hill. The club, now in possession of the necessary infrastructure, hosted races of increasing importance: a ski clubs race for in-state and out-of-state clubs in 1938, the divisional championship in 1940, and the national championship in 1941.

The WPA grant employed about 20 men for the better part of a winter. There was no bulldozer available that could carve and shape the steep jump slope, so men shoveled it out by hand. In the great scheme of national recovery the Aspen project may seem insignificant, but those were important jobs in a town of limited employment. The infrastructure created by the project, along with similar WPA projects at other burgeoning ski towns, served to kick-start a new industry. For Aspen, it provided the defining first step that led to international recognition.

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