Aspen History & Heritage

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Aspen's Humble Beginnings

Originally a summer hunting camp for the Ute Indians, Aspen's first white settlers, mostly miners, arrived by 1870 in search of silver. Mining was a fruitful venture for Aspen's early settlers but, did not come without hard work. Soon, town "boomed" and rapidly became home to ver 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 entered what is known as "The Quiet Years" with the population dropping to less than 1,000.

By the late 1940's, both skiing and aspen's modern day founders, Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke arrived in 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 alive today as "The Aspen Idea."

Aspen's Historical Locations

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!

Hotel Jerome

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.  Tours $15/$12 for seniors and free for children under 12, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1:30pm.

Wheeler Opera House

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.  Free tours, Wednesdays, 1:30pm. Call (970) 920-5770 for program information.


Wheeler-Stallard Museum

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 "Bests, Firsts & Worsts: Aspen in Objects." The new second floor exhibit showcases more than 90 artifacts that tell the story of the Aspen area’s quirky history in superlatives – both good and bad. Pieces like Walter Paepcke’s top hat and Jerome B. Wheeler’s Civil War sword help to tell our story.  Call the Aspen Historical Society at (970) 925-3721 for hours, directions and more. 


Holden-Marolt Mining and Ranching Museum

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 hours, directions and more. 


Ghost Towns - Ashcroft & Independence

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

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.  Click to view a virtual tour of Independence Ghost town. For more information on Ashcroft or Independence Ghost Towns 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 the mine at (970) 925-2049 for 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! 

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.

Tour 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 for more information. 

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