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History of Aspen, Colorado

The City of Aspen is the Home Rule Municipality that is the county seat and the most populous municipality of Pitkin County, Colorado. The city population was 6,658 at the 2010 United States Census. Aspen is situated in a remote area of the Rocky Mountains’ Sawatch Range and Elk Mountains, along the Roaring Fork River at an elevation just below 8,000 feet {2,400 m) above sea level on the Western Slope, 11 miles (18 km) west of the Continental Divide. 

Founded as a mining camp during the Colorado Silver Boom and later named “Aspen” because of the abundance of aspen trees in the area, the city boomed during the 1880s, its first decade of existence. That early era ended when the Panic of 1893 led to a collapse in the silver market, and the city began a half-century known as “the quiet years” during which its population steadily declined, reaching a nadir of less than a thousand by 1930. Aspen’s fortunes reversed in the mid-20th century when neighboring Aspen Mountain was developed into a ski resort, and industrialist Walter Paepcke bought many properties in the city and redeveloped them. Today it is home to three renowned institutions, that have international importance: the Aspen Music Festival and School, the Aspen Institute, and the Aspen Center for Physics.

In the late 1870s, prospectors from Leadville began heading west, over the Continental Divide at Independence Pass into Ute country, in search of gold and silver deposits in the upper Roaring Fork Valley. At Independence, just below the pass, a small settlement grew around the gold mines. tt was soon displaced in importance by the settlement established further down the Roaring Fork, at its confluence with Castle Creek. Originally called Ute City, it was soon renamed Aspen after the trees on the flood plain and surrounding mountain slopes, which turned a brilliant yellow in the autumn. 

The city’s roots are traced to the winter of 1879, when a group of miners ignored pleas by Frederick Pitkin, governor of Colorado, to return across the Continental Divide due to an uprising of the Ute Indians. Originally named Ute City, the small community was renamed Aspen in 1880. and, in its peak production years of 1891 and 1892, surpassed Leadville as the United States’ most productive silver-mining district. Production expanded due to the passage of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, which doubled the government’s purchase of silver. By 1893, Aspen had banks, a hospital, a police department, two theaters, an opera house and electric lights. Economic collapse occurred when Congress repealed the act.

Eventually, after wage cuts, mining revived somewhat, but production declined and by the 1930 census only 706 residents remained. Remaining, however, were fine stocks of old commercial buildings and residences, along with excellent snow. Aspen’s development as a ski resort first flickered in the 1930s when investors conceived of a ski area, but the project was interrupted by Wor1d War II. Friedl Pfeifer, a member of the 10th Mountain Division who had trained in the area, returned to the area and linked up with industrialist Walter Paepcke and his wife Elizabeth. The Aspen

Skiing Corporation was founded in 1946 and the city quickly became a well -known resort, hosting the FIS

World Championships in 1950. Aspen was now on the path to becoming an internationally known ski resort and cultural center, home of the Aspen Music Festival and School. The area would continue to grow with the development of three additional ski areas. Buttermilk (1958), Aspen Highlands (1958), and Snowmass (1967).

In 1936, skiing came to Aspen. Bobsledder Billy Fiske and Ted Ryan. an heir of Thomas Fortune Ryan, had been looking for somewhere in America where a ski resort similar to those in Europe could be established. That summer, an Aspen man trying to sell some mining claims to Ryan showed him pictures of the area. Ryan saw good ski terrain in the photos and went to the remote mountain town with Fiske.

Frank and Fred Willoughby. sons of another Aspen miner, took the two up the mountain. Before leaving. Fiske bought an option on some property in the area. He and Ryan later had blueprints drawn up for a ski lodge, the Highland Bavarian. and by the end of the year it was under construction. Over the winter it offered guided mountain ski tours.

One of the first two guides hired was Swiss skiing champion Andre Roch, then studying at Reed College in Oregon. He became close friends with the Willoughbys while living at the Hotel Jerome he and fellow guide Gunther Langes waited for the lodge to be completed. By that time Aspen’s population had dwindled into the hundreds. Many of its remaining buildings had fallen into disrepair and been boarded up. Roch noted that they could be purchased for as little as $30 ($500 in contemporary dollars.) Roch helped start the Roaring Fork Winter Sports Club.

The city became a popular retreat for celebrities and today the musicians and movie stars have been joined by corporate executives. As a result of this influx of wealth, Aspen boasts the most expensive real estate prices in the United States and many middle-class residents can no longer afford to live here.

Next time you’re walking around Aspen, CO, take a tour with the Historic Walking Tour app!