Aspen’s first war hero, Peter F. Galligan, remembered each year at Memorial Day
Tucked at the base of Smuggler Mountain in a quiet cemetery filled with aspen trees and forget-me-not flowers lies one of Aspen’s first war heroes.
Cpl. Peter F. Galligan is the first name read aloud every Memorial Day to honor Aspen’s servicemen who were killed in action.
Galligan’s legacy spans nearly 100 years, but when walking through Aspen Grove Cemetery, his headstone does not stand out much on most days. But this weekend his marker is framed by two American flags and a star medallion that signifies his service in the “World War.”
The son of a silver miner, Galligan was the first person from Aspen killed in war, dying Nov. 4, 1918 — just a week before the end of World War I and 13 days before his birthday. He was 24 years old when he was killed in the Argonne Forest northeast of Paris.
“It’s an honor to have him buried here,” said Jim Markalunas, the Aspen Grove Cemetery sexton and longtime Aspen resident who was a Marine in the Korean War. “He is here among a lot of Aspen’s pioneers.”
Complete records of Galligan’s background are hard to come by, but he was one of 269 deaths in the 356th Infantry, according to the book “History of the 89th Division.” Estimates are that a little more than 1,000 Colorado soldiers died in World War I.
Galligan was one of 26,277 American killed in the offensive on the Western Front. In all, 116,516 U.S. soldiers died in the war.
But it wasn’t until nearly three years after his death that Galligan’s remains were returned to the United States. His funeral and procession to the Aspen Grove Cemetery up Independence Pass was a somber day in the town’s history.
All of the businesses were closed Oct. 22, 1921, according to newspaper accounts of the funeral, and nearly everyone came to show their respects.
“As the funeral cortege turned south on Galena Street, the band playing a funeral march, the Stars and Stripes in the lead with its uniformed and armed guard of honor and The Legion boys following in full uniform, the caisson with the casket wrapped in the flag in support of which the dead solider had given up his life, furnished a most impressive sight for the people who lined the sidewalks along the line of march and who stood at respectful attention and hats off as the flag and guard passed by,” the Aspen Democrat-Times reported.
“After the mourners came at least 200 schoolchildren, followed by the city and county officials. Then the Eagles Aerie, St. Barbara society, and Aspen lodge of Elks, each organization having something like 50 members in line.
“After the foot divisions came the citizens in carriages and automobiles the whole making a cortege over a mile in length — all in line to show their respect and pay their last tribute to the dead solder boy riding on the caisson pulled by four big bay horses with mounted riders, and followed by the aged and weeping mother — God bless her.”
His mother, Maggie, lies between her son and her husband at Aspen Grove. Their family plot is at the far east end of the 12-acre cemetery, near the fence and closest to Smuggler Mountain.
Maggie died in 1931 — after burying her husband, Peter J., a miner who died in 1912, and her three sons.
Her middle son, William, died at age 14 in 1904 when he was thrown from a burro, according to cemetery documents, and the first Galligan son, James, died in 1905 at age 17 (unknown how).
By the time Peter went off to the war, Maggie Galligan was alone. And while young Peter died in 1918, it wasn’t until 1921 that Galligan was returned home.
After the war, many servicemen killed initially were buried in France, Belgium and England and slowly returned to the United States.
The Aspen American Legion Post made an effort to get Galligan’s remains returned and renamed their post in his honor.
Once the United States finally got into the Great War, Aspen backed the effort. Joining in an effort to avert a food shortage, gardens were planted across the country. In April 1917, Aspen Mayor Charles Wagner ordered all of the town’s playgrounds be turned into gardens, according to the Colorado state records.
Markalunas, who served in the Korean War and has been taking care of the Aspen Grove Cemetery for more than 30 years, said Galligan is “one of 24 vets at the cemetery, which includes soldiers from the Civil War to Vietnam.”
There are two other World War I vets in the cemetery, including Ellsworth C. Hildred, who died in 1958. Markalunas said he is looking for the third man.
The cemetery fell into disrepair sometime in the 1930s, Markalunas said, and was revived by his wife, Ramona, and two other women in the early 1960s. But in between, nature reclaimed many of the plots.
“We haven’t been able to find his headstone,” Markalunas said last week as he walked the paths that intersect the cemetery and pointed out other veterans on the grounds. “A lot of markers get kicked over by deer or were knocked down by falling trees. I’m looking but we still haven’t found him. We’re trying because we would like to honor that man, as well.”
Since last week, veterans Dick Merritt and Dan Glidden have joined Markalunas (and his daughter) in placing nearly 200 American flags in four upvalley cemeteries to mark the graves of their fellow servicemen and women. The group does it every year.
“The veterans here, we call the Aspen Grove Cemetery ‘Arlington West,’” Merritt said. “We’re burying more and more of our veterans up there.”
Merritt said today’s Memorial Day ceremony again will be at Conner Park near City Hall because the Roaring Fork Veterans Memorial Park remains behind a fence as part of the construction for the new Pitkin County building. There will be a formal rededication of the park on Veterans Day (Nov. 11), Merritt said.
In addition to Galligan, the Memorial Day roll call of the other Aspen-area men killed in action includes: Julio L. Caparrella, Thomas R. McNeil and Joseph W. Mogan in World War II; James Bionaz in Korea; and William K. Sandersen, Danny Gilbert Schwartz and Edward Kettering Marsh in Vietnam.
Later this year, the day before Veterans Park is rededicated, Marines in the area will do their yearly tribute at Aspen Grove and will honor Galligan and the 100-year anniversary of the end of World War I, Markalunas said.
“We’re going to give special recognition to Peter’s marker there this year,” Markalunas said. “He certainly deserves it.”
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