Paul Andersen: Aspen — From Silver Crash to Corona Crash
“The dreaded emergency is now upon us, a situation as deplorable as the imagination has ever conceived. Over 200,000 in Colorado are destitute. … Men grew haggard and women were trying to provide the barest necessities of existence. Was there ever a situation more distressing or a problem more hopeless?”
Coronavirus 2020? No. The Silver Crash of 1893. Both have brought unprecedented shockwaves jolting Aspen with seismic force.
As Aspen’s cultural offerings evaporate under today’s pandemic, historic forces are reshaping the Roaring Fork Valley. Prepare for a glimpse this summer of the Quiet Years.
As the Corona Crash of 2020 redefines Aspen, so did the Silver Crash of 1893, which halted the industrial boom of silver mining 127 years ago.
“The mining force in Aspen dropped from 2,250 to 150,” described historian Malcomb Rohrbough. “The unemployed were on the streets, their families without support.”
The demonetization of silver cut demand for Aspen’s chief product, which shut down mines, mills and supportive infrastructure.
“The once flourishing mining camp of Aspen is now badly prostrated by a crushing blow to its great industry,” reported the Aspen Sun, and also caused a run on the banks. “Almost literally overnight,” Rohrbough wrote, “the nature of the city changed. Miners who had been gainfully employed searched the garbage behind hotels for food scraps to feed their families.”
The Silver Crash took Aspen from the heights of prominence and prosperity into a recession that drove much of its workforce from town. The same is happening today under far different circumstances, but with similar results. The cultural attractions that replaced mining are just as shut down as when the mines closed. Unemployment is widespread.
“Aspen had become a great mining city,” Rohrbough wrote. “Yet its prosperity seemed curiously fragile in the face of forces over which Aspenites — however powerful their local reputations — had little control.”
Many of Aspen’s most prominent historic structures were erected in the several years before the Silver Crash — creating a downtown core that mirrored the wealth being shipped to smelters by two railroads and dozens of mines.
Before the pandemic, Aspen seemed firmly grounded in its cultural institutions, and it is stunning to realize how quickly the pandemic shut it all down. There is a feeling of emptiness at the Aspen Music Tent, Aspen Institute seminar rooms, the Meadows Campus, the Wheeler Opera House, Jazz Aspen venues, the Silver Queen Gondola, restaurants, hotels and more.
Culture is now the currency that silver was during Aspen’s first heyday as shown by City Council last week earmarking $400,000 for recovery grants to arts and cultural organizations.
The town of Basalt will fund more than $50,000 for art, theater and music. A locally generated $6 million economic relief fund is helping local residents with housing, child care assistance, mental health services, aid to underrepresented populations and more.
Bailouts for those hit by the Silver Crash were more modest — 2,000 pounds of flour donated by an Alamosa mill, 1,000 pounds of potatoes given by a Denver company, three carloads of coal from the Midland Railroad.
The Silver Crash had been rising like a storm cloud, but it hit with a brutal immediacy that undermined Aspen’s bedrock foundations, which included the railroads, Aspen’s lifeline to the outside world “beyond the range.”
The Corona Crash could be seen coming, too, but not the sudden gravity of its impacts. Gone this summer are Food & Wine, Aspen Ideas, the Music Festival, Jazz Aspen — all major contributors to what makes Aspen Aspen.
Aspen’s lifeline has always been determined by outside influences. After the Silver Crash, fortunes fluctuated with the price of silver. So it will be with the pandemic’s peaks and valleys, even despite the far greater and more secure wealth of today.
The loss this summer will be more than economic. There will be a dimming of the platonic ideals of the good, the true and the beautiful, those values envisioned at Aspen’s cultural renaissance in 1949 that have set Aspen apart.
Aspen still has its natural landscapes, core community and lofty aspirations. Aspen is staggered, but it will eventually bounce back thanks to a resilient culture, natural beauty, myriad amenities and deep pockets.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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