Paul Andersen: An Aspen rhapsody from 1881
The changes that swept the Roaring Fork Valley when the industrial age hit Aspen in the 1880s make today’s rate of change seem slow and plodding. In less than a decade — a historic heartbeat — the upper Roaring Fork went from wilderness to mechanized mining.
A rhapsodic editorial published in the Aspen Times on Aug. 20, 1881 ,describes the scene in a burgeoning city where “the rich ores that vein our mountains and fill all our gulches with shafts and tunnels make every hilltop resound with the blows of the pick and blasts of mining and fill this whole region with a hardy and industrious class who shall vex the bowels of the earth for silver.”
View Aspen today from the platform on Smuggler or at the top pitch of Aztec and let your imagination visualize mills belching coal smoke, steam locomotives chugging train cars through a maze of track, horses and mules pulling wagons, carts and stage coaches across the grid of streets.
The backdrop remains basically the same: the confining ridges of mountains, the deep valleys flowing with snowmelt, the blue skies and billowing clouds. Today we view the same rugged mountain landscape that beckoned in 1881. We also witness the resilience of nature to regrow forests that were clear cut to build Aspen, the industrial city of silver.
The social fabric of Aspen’s industrial age was foreign to the tourist age we know today, though the time gap between mining and tourism is relatively brief. The people who lived and worked in Aspen when the description above was written came here for commerce, not culture — for bounty, not beauty. Or did they?
“Beautiful for situation is Aspen,” proclaimed this same glowing editorial. “Nowhere on the broad Pacific Slope is there a site either among the mountains or in all the valleys so lovely and charming as that of Aspen, over the Range.”
Aspen was referred to as “over the Range” because prospectors and town builders had to cross the Continental Divide to get here. “The Range” was a serious obstacle. When this editorial was published, it was still six long years before the Denver Rio Grande & Western Railroad laid tracks into Aspen in 1887, providing the city with an industrial conduit to the world that was far more efficient than slogging over high-mountain passes.
In 1881, the year of its incorporation, Aspen was a boom town. Still, it was recognized for esoteric values other than the material wealth and prosperity of silver mining. Aspen was seen as a place to live a good life amid the esthetics of nature.
“Romantic scenery is so common in Colorado that ordinarily the precipice or canyon attract no attention unless marked by some extraordinary and distinctive peculiarity, but we doubt if any one of the human family, however dull his faculties, however benumbed and weary with travel, or greedy and avaricious for gain, ever entered this lovely valley without feeling his spirits exhilarated by the cheerful and animating prospect and giving voice to the exclamation, ‘how beautiful!’”
Many arrive here for beauty, but their focus can change. Soon they see Aspen with dollar signs in their eyes, their senses dulled and benumbed by greed and gain. They fail to recognize what was seen in 1881 as a city whose equal parts were community and commodity.
“Aspen is not simply a stopping place, a way station where the pilgrim stops for temporary refreshment or repose, where a man camps until he has made his pile and then abandons the scene for fresh fields. But it has all the essential elements of home, a place eminently fit to erect a temple for our household gods — here to worship, here to live and to cherish our friends, and when the inevitable doom approaches, here to die and be buried with those everlasting hills to keep watch and ward over our sepulcher.”
Did the miners and merchants raise their gaze to take in the wonders around them? They did. And so must we today by ensuring the delicate and elusive balance between utility and esthetics, industry and nature, beauty and riches.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.