|Aspen wasn't always a quirky town peppered
with posh eateries and hotels, multi-million dollar homes, and fur clad
celebrities on skis. What is now the winter hub for the rich and famous,
and destination for extreme recreation, was once the summer hunting home
of the Ute tribe. Archeologists have even found evidence deep in the dirt
of an Ancient people that wandered about the Roaring Fork Valley some
8,000 years ago. But the only thing the distant people, the Utes, and the
whos who shooting down the slopes have in common is a preference for
By time Colorado achieved statehood in 1876, the rush for gold and silver was in full swing. Mining settlements littered the high country, as prospectors pried their fortunes from the rock with an undying urgency. At the time, Leadville (still the highest town in North America at 10,430 feet above sea level) was the states second largest city next to Denver. The settlement, tucked away on the east side of the Continental Divide, had some of the deepest veins of silver ever found. But it wasn't until 1879, when a few silver seekers surmounted the divide at what is now Independence Pass and ventured into the Utes hunting ground, that a pick struck the mother lode.
The prospectors discovered so many ores in the area that the ground was literally spitting silver. So they quickly set up camp under the name Ute City, which was ironic considering they ultimately pushed the tribe out of the valley. The citys name was later changed to Aspen.
Mining camps popped up everywhere west of the divide and took names like Ashcroft and Independence. But Aspen benefited from more than just mining. Two railroads utilized the town as a hub. Plus, outside investments from the likes of Macys president Jerome Wheeler and lawyer David Hyman helped build a solid industrial infrastructure and urban framework.
By the late 1880s, Aspens population topped 12,000. The town now had an opera house, six newspapers, a red light district, three banks, a host of churches and a hospital. At that point, close to a million dollars worth of silver and one of the biggest nuggets ever (weighing in at 2,200 pounds) had been extracted from the area mines.
Once the Sherman Silver Act was history and silver was demonetized in 1893, the fortune seekers vanished. The area settlements stood empty and dilapidated. Most of them ultimately crumbled and disappeared. The remnants of Independence and Ashcroft are now ghost towns and remain popular tourist stops. Aspen survived, but the population dwindled, bottoming out at around 700 people in the1930s, and consisted mostly of farmers and ranchers. Of course, the locals today would love the population to linger around 1,000.
In 1935, a group of international investors came to the Roaring Fork Valley looking for an ideal location to build a ski area on par with the European resorts. Andre Roch, a renowned Swiss outdoorsman, had the task of creating the ski area. But after constructing a lodge, boat tow, and initial slope, World War II ended any hope of completion.
The 10th Mountain Division, a military ski unit stationed at a camp outside of Leadville entranced by the powder, continued skiing Aspen Mountain. Once the war ended, a few in the division returned to Aspen. The most prominent of these soldiers was an Austrian named Friedl Pfeifer. Pfeifer, who purchased a number of the mining claims and some of the surface rights to the area, partnered with Walter Paepcke, a wealthy industrialist, to transform Aspen from a mining town. Paepcke sought to create the 'Aspen Idea.' He wanted the town to be a cultural Utopia, a place where great thinkers could assemble and share ideas, a place where people could travel to renew the spirit and rejuvenate the mind.
Pfeifer just wanted a ski area and watched with pride as the longest chair lift (Lift-1) in the world, at the time, escorted the first skiers up the slopes for Aspen Mountains official opening in the winter of 1947.
Two years later, Paepcke conceived the Goethe Bicentennial Convocation, where Dr. Albert Schweitzer and other distinguished minds put Aspen on the intellectual map. This event spawned a number of programs in music, theater, art and dance, including the Aspen Music Festival and School. Paepcke also hired Bauhaus architect Herbert Bayer to leave a visual impression on the town. Bayer, along with Fredric Benedict, designed the Aspen Institute and Aspen Meadows Conference Center, which acted as the grounds for Paepckes intellectual powwows. Bayer also restored such existing structures as the Wheeler Opera House.
In 1950, the ski area, still in infancy, hosted a prestigious downhill championship, attracting the best skiers around. This event (the first of its kind in the states) established Aspen as a world-class ski destination. The stage was set for Aspens final conversion from a mining hub to an elite center of art and sport.
In 1958, Pheifer went on to construct slopes at neighboring Buttermilk Mountain, while Whipple Van Ness Jones carved the trials of Aspen Highlands. From this point an avalanche of development spread across the valley as investors sought to make Aspen a year round setting. A golf course popped up and condominiums became the preferred choice of housing.
The Aspen Ski Corporation, which took over management of both Aspen Mountain and Buttermilk, built Snowmass in 1967 to complete the four-mountain resort. Snowmass featured more than 50 miles of trails and a $6.50 lift ticket.
The 1970s and 1980s brought about the quaint pedestrian malls. Posh restaurants, five-star hotels, mansions, and, of course, celebrities followed, solidifying Aspen as an après ski wonderland.
The town John Denver put into song has come along way from its mining heydays (although it is still as rich). The population now hovers around 6,000. Issues of growth have forced locals to take extreme measures to preserve the sanctity of the Victorian small town. Commercialization is rampant and high monthly rents, especially in the downtown vicinity, are more than most peoples annual salary. Condos sprawl along the four mountains and many of the mammoth mansions littering Red Mountain and the upper West End sit empty a good deal of the year. But, unlike many other Colorado resorts, Aspen maintains a small town charm and ambiance. The locals are exceptionally friendly and strive great lengths to take away any preconceived pretensions associated with the town. Sure, the stars go there to ski. Kevin Costner, Jimmy Buffet, Michael Jordan and both of Donald Trumps ex-wives are just a few that frequent the town. But under a mass of stylish skiwear, they look like anyone else, so going on a star search is at best a tasking endeavor.
Aspen Mountain (known as Ajax in local tongue) recently celebrated 50 years, reminding everyone just how far a town will go for the love of a sport. And though all the glitz and glamour, the 'Aspen Idea,' is still at the heart of the town.