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Aspen History & Heritage

Aspen had truly humble beginnings which were founded by entrepreneurs, athletes, idealists and environmentalists.  The area was originally a summer hunting camp for the Ute Indians, but by 1870 Aspen's first white settlers, who were mostly miners, arrived from nearby Colorado towns in search of silver.  Aspen's mining was a fruitful venture for its early settlers but, did not come without hard work.  Soon, town "boomed" and rapidly became home to over 12,000 miners and their families.  However, just as soon as the wealth was ushered in, the repeal of the Sherman Silver Act of 1893 caused Aspen to "bust," and town then entered what is known as "The Quiet Years."  Ranching kept the Aspen area possible as residents grew crops on McClain Flats and in Woody Creek.  The population dropped drastically to less than 1,000 people, but as they say, "where there's a will, there's a way."  The spirit of Aspen could not be squelched.

By the late 1940s, both skiing and Aspen's modern day founders, Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke arrived to town.  The Paepcke's had a vision for a community that embodied Mind, Body and Spirit, which helped Aspen to begin a civic and cultural renaissance which is still in use and even taught in local classrooms today.  We call it, "The Aspen Idea." 

For a more detailed account and timeline read on...

Aspen's Historical Highlights

Make your Aspen experience unforgettable by discovering the rich and varied history that has shaped the town and its character.  Try this list of places that speak to Aspen's varied past and can give you some insight as to what makes Aspen so ... Aspen!

The Hotel Jerome was built by early Aspen supporter and visionary Jerome B. Wheeler and has been an Aspen landmark and local gathering place since its opening in 1889.  An elegant hotel for most of its existence, the Jerome is also home to a number of restaurants, most notably the "J Bar" where patrons can order the infamous "Aspen Crud", a milkshake infused with numerous liquors that was the preferred (and off-limits) drink of Tenth Mountain Division soldiers training here during WWII.  Call (970) 920-1000 for more information.

Catch a show or just tour the Wheeler Opera House, another one of Jerome Wheeler's legacies.  Also opened in 1889, the Wheeler was originally a part of the "Silver Circuit", a mining era collection of venues that brought internationally renowned performers to the silver and gold mining camps and towns of Colorado's high country.  Destroyed by fire in the early part of the 20th century, the Wheeler underwent one renovation in the late 1940s and a more recent overhaul in the 1980s and today is Aspen's premier performing venue.  Call (970) 920-5770 for program information.

Complete your Jerome Wheeler connection by visiting the mansion he built which is now the flagship facility for the Aspen Historical Society, the Wheeler-Stallard Museum.  Hoping to overcome his wife's aversion to mining camps and towns, Wheeler built this brick Queen Ann style Victorian home in 1888 to entice her to move to Aspen to no avail: his wife never moved here and he never lived in the house.  Today the first floor is furnished and decorated the way it might have been in the late 1800s while the Second Floor Gallery is currently showing "Go West, Young Man! But Park at the Intercept Lot: Aspen's Transportation Dilemmas," an exhibit about the history of transportation into and around Aspen from the Ute Nation to the jet age.  Call the Aspen Historical Society at (970) 925-3721 for hours, directions and more.

The mining barons, investors and entrepreneurs of the late 1800s left us a fabulous Victorian architectural legacy which can be experienced with a West End Walking Tour conducted by the Aspen Historical Society.  The tour shows off a number of these historic homes along with stories of the owners, their Aspen connections and even what might be buried under some of them!  Call the Aspen Historical Society at (970) 925-3721 for more information.

Take a stroll through Aspen's Darkside! Dare to pull back the shiny polished Aspen image and you'll be surprised at what you find. Experience the darker elements of Aspen's tarnished past on an evening stroll with Aspen Walking Tours.

While the barons were living the high life, the majority of Aspen's early population worked in the mines or in businesses that supported mining.  When the silver boom busted in 1893 and many people left in search of better work opportunities, some hardy residents stayed put and ranching became the lifeblood of the area in what has become known as "The Quiet Years".  Experience Aspen's mining and ranching eras at the Holden-Marolt Mining and Ranching Museum, which is housed in an historic barn that was important first to ore processing and later to ranching.  Call the Aspen Historical Society at (970) 925-3721 for more information.

At the dawn of the silver boom in this area in the early 1880s, the town of Ashcroft, located 11 miles south of Aspen on Castle Creek Road, was actually bigger, more populated and produced more silver than Aspen.  Its fortunes fell quickly as the nearby shallow ore deposits ran out just as Aspen's fortunes were rising and by the late 1880s Ashcroft was already in serious decline.  Its last resident died in the late 1930s and by then the town was well on its way to being the ghost town we have today.  Resident "ghosts" are on hand to answer questions and tours of Ashcroft are available in the summer months that are conducted by the Aspen Historical Society.  For more information call (970) 925-3721.

Silver was the metal that ultimately fed Aspen's economic engine but one of the first successful camps in the area became the town of Independence, founded on July 4, 1879 on the discovery of gold.  Resident "ghosts" are on hand to answer questions and self-guided tours are easy with the brochures available at the ghost town entrance.  Independence is located about 16 miles east of Aspen on Highway 82 near Independence Pass.  For more information call the Aspen Historical Society at (970) 925-3721.

Stories of mining come to life with a tour of the Smuggler Mine.  One of the most famous and productive of Aspen's silver mines, the Smuggler produced a world record nugget of nearly pure silver that weighed almost a ton and ultimately had to be broken into three pieces to be hauled out of the mine.  The guided tour takes guests into the mine itself and shows firsthand how difficult the hard rock mining of the late 19th century was.  Call (970) 925-2049 for more.

Take a tour through downtown Aspen on the Aspen Historical Society's HISTORY COACH, an electric vehicle that takes up to five passengers at a time, and learn about historic buildings, Aspen characters through the years and the general history of the town.  This tour also includes visits to the Wheeler-Stallard and Holden-Marolt museums and is the most comprehensive tour about Aspen's history.  Call (970) 925-3721, ext. 104 for more information.

Stop by the hidden sanctuary that is the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and enjoy the peaceful ambiance of Hallam Lake and the wildlife that calls this oasis home.  The environmental movement has a long history in the Aspen area from the time when residents who stayed after the mining bust decried the "death" of the local rivers and streams due to pollution from the mining days to the mid-20th century when locals united to expand the Maroon Bells Wilderness Area.  John Denver may be the most famous environmentalist to have called Aspen home but A.C.E.S. is where the real work of protecting our local resources is headquartered. Call (970) 925-5756 for more information.

Check out this video highlighting Aspen's History...and Aspen's most celebrated winter festival, Wintersköl!

For more information on this year's Wintersköl festivities, click here.


And remember, with your help and support the future of our past is bright!

Content and Images provided by:
Aspen Historical Society

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