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7 interesting facts you may not have known about Aspen

At one point, it was nearly a ghost town
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Posted at 4:44 PM, Oct 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-07 18:44:31-04

ASPEN, Colo. — During peak seasons, as many as 30,000 people descend upon the Aspen streets lined with two-story historic brick buildings that house high-end designer shops like Valentino, Balenciaga and Dior.

But the chic mountain town has a nearly 150-year roller coaster history of rags to riches.

What’s made Aspen what it is today? Denver7 took a trip to the Aspen Historical Society for a visit with Nina Gabianelli, the vice president of education and programs, to learn about the Roaring Fork Valley’s storied past. Here are 7 interesting facts you may not have known about Aspen.

1. The town was not always called Aspen

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As is the story behind the beginnings of many western towns, Aspen was not newly discovered territory. The Uncompahgre band of the Ute Nation used what is now known as Aspen as their ancestral hunting grounds for generations. They would come up during the summer because of the abundance of water resources, as well as the plant and animal life.

In 1879, silver prospectors entered the area while it was still considered native land and founded Ute City.

Nathan Meeker, the local “Indian agent,” was trying to convert the Uncompahgre to Christianity and force them to abandon their lifestyle to become farmers. In what was known as the “Meeker Massacre” or “Meeker Incident,” a band of Ute people revolted against Meeker, killing him and 10 other men.

The Uncompahgre were forcibly removed from Ute City in 1880, which is what officially made the area available to non-native people.

“It was quickly renamed Aspen — rebranded because of the trees for better marketing possibilities, for finding investors basically,” Gabianelli said.

The remaining Ute people, except for Southern Utes, were forcibly removed in 1881 from Colorado and relocated to the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah as part of the 1880 Ute Removal Act. Approximately 1,465 Ute people were removed from their ancestral lands in what is now considered Colorado.

2. It all started with silver

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In the fall of 1878, the Hayden Geological Survey released reports that indicated promising geological formations for the presence of silver in the Roaring Fork Valley. At the time, the U.S. government had inflated the price of the precious metal and was buying up silver and gold to back the dollar. With that in mind, silver prospectors headed out west to try their hand at making it big with silver mining.

Prospectors first entered the area in 1879. The initial population of Aspen during the winter of 1880 into 1881 was only 35 people. As the town’s infrastructure was being built, they lived in tents.

“Of those 35 people, 13 of them were women — finishing school-educated, fine Victorian women, not the kind you associate usually with wild, wild West,” Gabianelli
said. “We had mothers and wives who had the role in the Victorian culture to maintain the moral fiber of their family, right? So they established a Literary Society, a Glee Club, a Sunday School in tents in that first winter. So we have grown with families, religion, culture, education as part of our community from the beginning.”

By 1883, the population grew to 300, and by the 1890s, Aspen grew to around 12,000-16,000 people, the third-largest city in Colorado behind Leadville and Denver. Some unconfirmed reports suggest the population could have been as many as 20,000 people, but an accurate census didn’t exist at the time.

At peak production, Aspen was churning out 1/6 of the nation’s silver and 1/16 of the world’s. While the national salary average at the time was $1 a day, miners were making $3 to $4.

Thanks to the economic boom, Aspen became known for more than its silver. The town became internationally recognizable for technology advancements in the industrial revolution, like hydroelectricity, even drawing engineers and businessmen from Kyoto, Japan, to Aspen in 1888 to see how the town used and developed the technology to take back with them to Japan.

Aspen was even considered to be better lit than New York City.

“But every boom has a bust. Right?” Gabianelli said.

The U.S. had been purchasing the silver at an inflated price even though it wasn’t backed up by anything. Once the country realized that was no longer working, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed in 1893.

The initial panic from repealing the act resulted in 200 mines shutting down immediately. It didn’t take long for property to become nearly valueless. Railroads in and out of town went bankrupt, and thousands of people left Aspen.

3. Life after silver

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By 1900, the population of Aspen had been cut in half, and by 1930, a census recorded only 700 people, declining to the point of nearly becoming a ghost town.

Even still, Aspen did remain on the map as it had a county seat and continued to maintain a courthouse, school, weekly newspaper and volunteer fire department.

Though the majority of Aspen’s economy had been based around silver, there was also a prominence of ranching that began in the Roaring Fork Valley around the same time as the silver boom in the 1880s. The Homestead Act allowed people to come out West, pick out 160 acres of land and work it for five years before it became theirs for free. A large immigrant population was attracted by the land prospect, traveling from Slovenia, Ireland, Germany and Northern Italy. Ranching in the area remained even after the mass exodus of people.

“They're the families that stay there — the families that we have fifth and sixth generation of here in Aspen today or in the Roaring Fork Valley,” Gabianelli said.

Though Aspen is known for its skiing now, it wasn’t as popular of a sport in America at the time. Europeans and wealthy Americans who had traveled to Europe did recognize the value in the natural landscape. Commercial skiing was finally introduced in 1936, however, the immediate investment was halted by World War II.

4. Training during the war

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By 1942, after Adolf Hitler had invaded Europe, the U.S. military realized there was a need for soldiers trained to navigate the mountains of Europe behind enemy lines, and the 10th Mountain Division was born.

Soldiers required three letters of recommendations to be admitted into the 10th Mountain Division, which was stationed at Camp Hale near Leadville, to train in the harsh alpine conditions.

“Not on horseback, not using tanks, not using trucks, but skiing, using dog sleds. So they learned from the Inuit people how to do that,” Gabianelli said.

Over the course of two years, around 14,000 soldiers trained in the area, with the exercises often bringing the soldiers to the Aspen area. The soldiers had “numerous victories in battle, culminating in their renowned vertical assault against German fortifications in Italy's Northern Apennines during 1945,” according to the Colorado National Guard.

After visiting the area during training, many of the 10th Mountain soldiers, including Friedl Pfeifer — who would later go on to start a ski school — took a vested interest in the area.

5. How skiing took off

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Back in the 1930s, the majority of skiers in the U.S. were typically wealthy people who had traveled to Europe or European immigrants who had come to the U.S. before the sport became more widely popular.

Though the war would ultimately keep skiing in the Aspen area from taking off right away, the Highland Bavarian Lodge on Castle Creek opened in December 1936. They used a boat tow to bring skiers partway up the mountain for 10 cents a ride. They’d have to walk up the rest of the way.

In 1939, Elizabeth Paepcke, a wealthy Chicago woman whose husband owned the Container Corporation of America, traveled to Aspen for the first time to go skiing. She traveled by train to Glenwood Springs, and the owner of the Hotel Jerome picked her up and drove the group back on a two-lane, snow-packed, dirt road at midnight. They stayed the night at the Hotel Jerome — which was once known as the “grandest hotel in the West” — after walking in to find that it was snowing on the third floor. When it was time to hit the slopes, Paepcke and her group got a ride partway up the backside of Aspen Mountain and then hiked another five hours up to the top.

“She wrote that it was as if they were the first people to have ever been there. Not true, but it was as if,” Gabianelli said. “She skis down Aspen Mountain, falls in love with the property.”

Elizabeth Papcke told her husband about the experience, leading to the Paepckes investing in the community. Now, in 1943, an empty lot in downtown Aspen cost only $25, and a Victorian home for about $100 back taxes. Just two years later, Walter Paepcke bought 15 buildings for back taxes, including taking a lease on the Hotel Jerome — the only hotel in Aspen at the time — and refurbishing it back to its former glory.

That same year, Friedl Pfeifer and other 10th Mountain soldiers founded a ski school, and the Aspen Skiing Corporation was founded one year later.

In January 1947, the world’s fastest, longest and highest chairlift at the time — a single chair that took 45 minutes to reach the top in two sections — was dedicated. By that time, multiple competitions had been held, and skiing in Aspen was well on its way to becoming the world-class destination that it is today.

6. Becoming a four-season area and gaining popularity

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Now, Walter Paepcke was not a skier. He saw the value in it, and found the right people to ensure the success of skiing in Aspen.

But he wanted to know what could happen in the summer. What’s now known as the "Aspen Idea," which is likely Greek in origin, was the concept of the importance of mind, body and spirit and how it could flourish in a place like Aspen.

“The philosophy is that I continue to educate my mind, I keep my mind open throughout my lifetime,” Gabianelli said. “You feed your spirit with music and theater, art, film, dance cultural pieces, keep my body physically fit and in good shape by exercising and eating right, so that, when whole, I'm better able to serve. When I'm at my best, I'm better able to help you be at your best. That's the Aspen Idea.”

Paepcke introduced the idea in 1949 in conjunction with the celebration of the 200th birthday of German poet and philosopher Goethe. The Goethe Bicentennial Celebration lasted for three weeks, and thousands of people visited that summer.

That celebration ended up leading to the Aspen Music Festival & School, Aspen Institute, and International Design Conference. Later would come the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, the Aspen Historical Society, a ballet company, an opera company, a theatre company, a contemporary art museum and a film festival. The Aspen Idea led the area to the 12-month economy it enjoys today.

As Aspen gained popularity for a variety of reasons, with it came some famous names who called the area home or were inspired by its beauty.

Hunter S. Thompson escaped to Aspen after gaining entry into the Hells Angels motorcycle gang and then exposing them through his writing from within.

“He basically kind of ran away and came here to the Roaring Fork Valley,” Gabianelli said.

Thompson became very invested in the community. He made a run for sheriff in 1970 with what were then known as some radical ideas that would one day end up coming to fruition, even though he ultimately didn’t win — ideas like not arming Aspen police officers. He ended up living out his days until his death in the Woody Creek area.

Many big names — the Eagles and Jimmy Buffet, for example — called Aspen home for a time, but the mountains inspired John Denver in a way far beyond his music. The iconic “Rocky Mountain High” with its album cover taken in front of the Roaring Fork River, drew many people out to visit, but Denver became part of the fabric of Aspen.

“He was in the community. He wasn't a celebrity living on the outskirts. He was a part of everything here,” Gabianelli said. “He gave his time and his talent, as did many of the musicians that were here of that day."

7. So how did Aspen get so expensive?

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By the 60s, skiing was booming, and the cultural attractions helped Aspen’s population rebound. But with that also came an increase in the “hippie culture,” which caused conflict with the more conservative population.

“Conflict usually ends up in change, and the change was in our societal growth here. We didn't continue to grow, grow, grow, as other communities were doing in the 1970s,” Gabianelli said.

County commissioners decided to limit growth in Aspen by putting in certain building restrictions, like not allowing subdivisions on ranch land or limiting buildings to only two stories. With those limitations came an increase in value. It’s contributed to some of the issues Aspen still deals with today, like not enough housing, affordable housing and transportation.

Even through the recession, property values in Aspen continued to soar with people wanting to buy vacation homes in the area.

“I jokingly say today, we have two kinds of people in Aspen: We have those with three jobs, and we have those with three homes. But neither one is here or successful without the other. The only way it works is because we're both here," Gabianelli said. “We need each other in order to grow and to survive. I get to live 15 minutes from wilderness, right? By having my three jobs. Is it expensive to live here? Absolutely.”

Interested in learning more about the growth of the Roaring Fork Valley? Check out the Aspen Historical Society's "Decade by Decade: Aspen Revealed" exhibit that looks at Aspen from the 1870s through the 1970s. They also offer multiple tours to learn more about the history of the area.