Vagneur: Aspen still fighting the same battles |

Vagneur: Aspen still fighting the same battles

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” or to reasonably quote the French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Or, another way to put it, history has a way of repeating itself.

A quick read of old newspaper clippings reveals much of the above to be true. If not exactly true, at least close enough to make one wonder. In a recent article in The Aspen Times, it was noted that worker housing is very tight, and at this point, one would be lucky to find winter accommodations anywhere near Aspen.

In a July 23, 1888, issue of the same paper, it was editorialized that five stagecoaches loaded with passengers were arriving in town daily, and where to put them? Four- to seven-room houses were in great demand, and it was theorized that “in the next 60 days,” the town would be overrun with people looking for a place to live.

Ring that same thought forward 126 years and read Mick Ireland’s last column in the other paper (“Heart of Aspen squeezed by big development,” Aspen Daily News, Dec.8) about employee housing and development incentives. The Aspen Times, in its 1888 editorial, shouted out a plea that $100,000 should immediately be pledged by the people of Aspen to construct another hotel to take care of the influx of people coming to the burgeoning village.

The town could have put up a helluva hotel for that sum, considering the Clarendon Hotel cost around $25,000 in 1881, and the Hotel Jerome cost about $150,000 in 1889.

We’re still short on employee housing, and sure, I realize there was a long stretch between the silver boom and today’s frenetic tourist scene, but I’m certain we didn’t need much housing built during the Golden Years. Oops, I mean “Quiet Years.”

The important lesson, however, is that back then, development did pay its own way, in spite of the Times’ plea, and the mine owners and other businessmen had to make sure their employees lived in close proximity to their work. There was no downvalley bus service or Highway 82. The free market dictated that there were no “giveaways” or incentives from the fledgling Aspen government to encourage development. If it couldn’t pay its own way, it didn’t get developed, drilled or extracted — a lesson we should keep in mind today.

On April 12, 1889, a cable tramway from Aspen to Tourtelotte Park was finally completed and was at last up and running. It was powered by gravity with the weight of the loaded ore buckets headed for Aspen providing the impetus. Ninety-seven years later, in November 1986, the Silver Queen Gondola on Aspen Mountain, powered by electricity, began its first year of operation, providing a great view of Tourtelotte Park and Bonnie’s Restaurant to the west. On any given winter day, there are more people on Aspen Mountain than there ever were living and working in Tourtelotte Park.

Today, we’re still arguing over the benefits and detriments of hydroelectric power for the city of Aspen. Many people say there isn’t enough water in our mountain streams to feed a hydro plant. On February 28, 1891, The Aspen Times noted that after a lapse of several weeks, the town’s electrical lights were finally back on, illuminating the city. The obvious cause of the trouble was a shortage of water in Hunter Creek, then the source of the city’s hydro power. The “old” Aspen Art Museum was located in the abandoned Hunter Creek powerhouse.

Drive up Castle Creek or through Meadowood and take a gander at what the Aspen Valley Hospital addition and renovation looks like. You might think you’re back in the big city. We’re getting the first two of four hospital expansion phases for about $88.7 million, with costs for phases three and four not yet released, although the hospital CEO recently told The Aspen Times he “hopes” phase three won’t cost more than $42 million. It wasn’t the most popular of recent ventures, but it squeaked by the City Council for approval. The money is coming from Aspen’s tax base, private contributions and the hospital’s own reserves.

On September 12, 1891, the Citizen’s Hospital of Aspen held a Grand Charity Ball to celebrate its formal opening to the public. This hospital, the pride of the town, the very first hospital, had earned its money the hard way — from resident contributions. Total cost: around $20,000, when all was said and done.

There are more examples to be found, and some folks might say electricity is more efficient and reliable than gravity or that government owes it to the people to subsidize development, but any way you look at it, and in many respects, the ol’ town is still fighting the same battles that began 135 years ago.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at


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