Vagneur: A timeless gift from the annals of Aspen
It came in the mail the other day, an issue of The Aspen Times, and with well-focused rhythm, I took it straight home and laid it out with wide-eyed excitement. As you might expect, there were stories in there about people whose names are very familiar, but it’s not what you think. This was the first issue of The Aspen Times ever printed, Volume 1, No. 1, Saturday, April 23, 1881. Not a copy, nor a picture or any other facsimile, but the full and honest first edition.
Despite years of being maligned by well-intentioned curators and docents, hell-bent on keeping the curious from touching our antiquities, history remains a living, breathing chronicle of where we’ve been and maybe also about where we’re headed. And holding that four-page issue in my hands was almost as though I’d just picked it up as I walked down an Aspen street, headed to my favorite coffee emporium. It brought history to my breast (and mind) in a way that a hundred books and photographs could not.
You might think it coincidental, but judging by the advertisements back then, there seemed to be a plethora of attorneys at law, at least nine of them, closely followed by real estate brokers, against a population of very small size. And, of course, there was a front-page article about Aspen’s wealth. Apparently, some things are steeped in consistency.
In the flowery vernacular of the times, and well before the surrounding mountains were almost totally denuded of their aspens and evergreens, we can feel the cool breeze shimmering through the aspen trees, hear the grandiose chirping of wild birds and relax our thoughts with grazing livestock, even as we read of the first death in Aspen.
Sara James Rilleau, daughter of the well-known William James family that lived in Aspen during the ’50s and ’60s (Spook, Sara and Jemima), sent me a simple message, asking if I’d like to have that rare and priceless first edition of The Aspen Times, as it had been among her mother’s treasured items. Sara’s mother, Julie James, a well-known artist and community leader, was one of the founders of the Aspen Historical Society in 1963, along with some other notable characters such as Joan Lane, Herbert Bayer, Luke Short and Dorothy Koch Shaw.
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The trail of history can sometimes be confusing, as it seems we always have a penchant for taking a straight line to what seems to be the easy solution to complicated stories, conveniently glossing over the sweat and anguish that goes into every account or merely repeating only those stories that tend to bolster our own sense of history.
To that end, may I say that, according to the first edition of The Aspen Times (and later bolstered by other writers), there isn’t much that gets glossed over, except that so early in the game (1881) great things were already being dreamed about for Aspen, its isolation and political unrest receiving only passing reference.
There’s a rather detailed account of how B. Clark Wheeler, a promoter of shady disposition (or, as some have said, strong enthusiasm), pungently upset the original settlers of Aspen (then called Ute City) by going behind their backs to create his Roaring Fork Townsite Co., which renamed the town Aspen in a most unilateral fashion and took over the collective property of the fledgling settlement. This left many of the “old-timers” fuming, and there was serious talk of physically taking out B. Clark as payback for his aggressive style. This was, clearly, the first corporate takeover in the valley, and many established residents left in frustration, slowing Aspen’s early development.
In addition to local politics, there is mention of Czar Nicholas II having two wives and how he got around that with the church, of mine disasters in other states and the capture of outlaws and the lynching of murderers. Reading a published list of area mining-claim names is to sit in on the dreams and hopes of tough, willing-to-gamble prospectors.
Not to pick on B. Clark Wheeler, for in the end he did the town a lot of good, but he got eternal comeuppance when his surveyor for the Aspen townsite, a man apparently in an elliptical hurry, used magnetic north instead of true north to align the streets (an engineering no-no), and forever more the streets of Aspen will be catty-wumpus and off-kilter to proper street layout, the worst kind of conversation starter.
There’s tons more in that paper, and I suspect that you’ll be hearing more about it from time to time. Thank you, Sara James Rilleau, for such a grand gift!
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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