During the silver boom days of the 1890s Aspen’s population grew to 12,000 hearty citizens who braved harsh winters and frequent Indian attacks to remain. After the silver bust in the early 1900s as few as 700 people remained in Aspen during what is known as the “quiet years.” Reborn as a ski town in the 1940s, Aspen was also molded into a cultural center nurtured by Chicago industrialists, Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke. It was their “Aspen idea” of a complete person living in a community that nourishes the mind, body and spirit of its citizens that has remained a core value of the community ever since.
( Note: Photos on this page are courtesy, Aspen Historical Society )
The Aspen area was originally discovered by the Ute Indians and called "Shining Mountains". The first silver miners arrived in the Roaring Fork Valley in the summer of 1879 and by that fall a small group of entrepreneurs and speculators had staked claims and set up camp at the foot of Aspen Mountain. Prospectors settled in Aspen hoping to strike it rich in silver. Before a permanent settlement could be established, news of a nearby Indian uprising prompted Colorado's Governor Frederick Pitkin to urge the settlers to flee back across the Continental Divide for their safety. Most of them did, and only a handful of settlers remained in the Roaring Fork Valley during the winter of 1879. Those that remained attempted to organize the camp and passed a resolution to respect the claims of those who had fled, as well as the claims of those settlers who stayed. This action transformed the small group of settlers into a "sovereign" body in the eyes of the State of Colorado and recognized that the rules of local mining districts under the federal mining law of 1866 was to be followed. The citizens had begun the process of organizing themselves into a political body.
First christened Ute City, the town of 300 residents was renamed to Aspen in 1880. By 1891 Aspen had surpassed Leadville as the nation's largest single silver producing mining district. By 1893, Aspen was a booming silver town with 12,000 people, six newspapers, two railroads, four schools, three banks, electric lights, a modern hospital, two theaters, an opera house, and a very small brothel district. In 1893 however the Sherman Silver Act was repealed which demonetized silver and marked Aspen's decline as a mining town. Ironically, one of the largest nuggets of native silver ever found was mined in 1894 in Aspen from the Smuggler mine, weighing in at 2,350 pounds.
- 1895 - Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph builds a phone line over Independence Pass, connecting Aspen to the outside world for the first time.
- 1901 - Jerome B. Wheeler, who was half owner of Macy's Department Store and built the Wheeler Opera House and the Hotel Jerome, declares bankruptcy.
- 1912 - Two fires, within 9 days, gut the Wheeler Opera House.
- 1913 - Elk, being nearly extinct in the valley due to over hunting, are reintroduced near Smuggler Mt.
- 1915 - The Isis Theater opens.
- 1917 - Mining continues on a limited basis, as the town becomes a supply center for local farmers and ranchers. Potatoes become the cash crop in the valley.
- 1918 - The "Glory Hole" is created when a stope in the Ajax mine collapses. Flu epidemic forces closure of most of the town.
- 1924 - Independence Pass Highway begun in 1911 is officially completed.
- 1926 - The Aspen Smelting Company suspends operations.
Around 1936, another ore was discovered - SNOW! Three investors sought to establish a ski area above Aspen. Unfortunately World War II halted progress on the ski area, but after the war, Friedl Pfeifer, a member of the 10th Mountain Division, who trained at Camp Hale near Leadville, returned to Aspen and began making plans for Aspen's first chair lift. In 1945, Chicago industrialist, Walter Paepcke and his wife Elizabeth came to Aspen and joined forces with Pfeifer in the development of the Aspen ski area. In 1946 the Aspen Skiing Corporation was founded and in 1950 Aspen hosted the FIS World Championships, which confirmed Aspen's status as an international resort. The rest is history!
Goethe Bicentennial Convocation
Walter Paepcke spearheaded the ambitious Goethe Bicentennial Convocation that brought 2,000 people to Aspen in the summer of 1949. Dr. Albert Schweitzer spoke at the event on his only trip to the United States. Eminent musicians and humanitarians convened to celebrate Goethe's great spirit of optimism during the beginning of the Cold War era.
Concerts were held in a light-filled tent designed by architect, Eero Saarinen, which contrasted with the usual stuffiness of concert halls. The Goethe Festival spawned many of Aspen's cultural institutions, such as the Aspen Music Festival and School, the International Design Conference and the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies.