The History of Skiing in Aspen, Colorado – Part I: The Early Years

Published by at under Local Interest

(This week, we begin a two-part series on the history of skiing in Aspen, Colorado. Part one is below. Part two will be published next week.)

Aspen, Colorado, is pretty much synonymous with the word “skiing.” If you look in the dictionary, it defines “Aspen” as any of a large number of various poplar trees that you would see when visiting here – no coincidence by the way. The locals who live here all year long could  list 1,000 other reasons that this tiny mountain town is spectacular. However – with a slight grin – most local would admit that the skiing does indeed top the list. Locals like to exclaim, “we came for the winters, but we stay for the summers!” … Nevertheless, let’s be honest – it’s all about the skiing. But it didn’t always used to be that way. This week our blog crew takes a closer look at the history of skiing and how Aspen got to where it is today.

The Independence Square hotel was built in 1889, and is one of the oldest buildings in Aspen. Frias Properties offers more than 20 lodging choices in this historic building!

The Independence Square hotel was built in 1889, and is one of the oldest buildings in Aspen. Frias Properties offers more than 20 lodging choices in this historic building!

THE EARLY YEARS

Originally called Ute City, this small mountain town had a population of 300 when it was renamed “Aspen” in 1880. Around this time, the first group of miners were arriving in town after hearing that silver was discovered by the resident Ute Indians. Early pioneers in the 1890s braved desolation, the elements, and Indian attacks all in search of this precious metal. During the “boom” days of the mid-1890s, Aspen had as many as 12,000 residents. But by the “bust” years of the early 1900s, less than 700 remained.

Here are some other early-year moments, mixed with other world events:

  • 1890-1900 – The Wheeler Opera House, the Hotel Jerome and the Independence Square Hotel are built
  • 1911 – Independence Pass highway construction begins
  • 1912 – Two separate fires, 9 days apart, gut the Wheeler Opera House
  • 1914 – World War I  begins in Europe. The U.S. is not involved at this point.
  • 1915 – The Isis Theater opens
  • 1917 – The U.S. officially enters World War I
  • 1917 – Potatoes become the cash crop of the valley, even though some mining continues on a limited basis
  • 1918 – Flu strikes the town and basically shuts everything down
  • 1919 – The signing of the Treaty of Versailles officially ends World War I
  • 1924 – The Independence Pass highway is completed
  • 1926 – The Aspen Smelting Company suspends operations
  • 1929 – Black Tuesday stock market crash begins the Great Depression
  • 1933-1936 – FDRs new deal puts many back to work in response to the Great Depression
  • 1936 – Three investors seek to establish a ski area above Aspen
  • 1942 – The U.S. officially enters World War II a day after the attack on Pearl Harbor
Bronze statues in Gondola Plaza pay tribute to early Aspen skiing pioneers.

Bronze statues in Gondola Plaza pay tribute to early Aspen skiing pioneers.

SKIING BEGINS TO GROW

World War II put everything on hold. After the war, Friedl Pfeifer – a member of the 10th Mountain Division who had trained at Camp Hale near Leadville – returned to Aspen. In 1945, he met Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke and the two began working on the development of the Aspen ski area. The two formed the Aspen Skiing Corporation in 1946.

Two different events helped shape the early years of Aspen skiing.

In the summer of 1946, Paepcke brought more than 2,000 people to Aspen as part of his Goethe Bicentennial Convocation, and event that featured eminent musicians and humanitarians. This event is the genesis for many of the current cultural events that Aspen holds annually. One of the guest speakers at Paepcke’s event in 1946 was Dr. Albert Schweitzer – a theologian, organist, philosopher, physician and medical missionary in Africa, also known for his interpretive life of Jesus. Schweitzer would go on to win the 1952 Nobel Prize for Philosophy.

In 1950, Aspen hosted the FIS World Skiing Championships, a world-renown skiing competition. This really put Aspen on the skiing map and it quickly became known as an international destination.

(Please check back for Part II next week.)

Need help finding a vacation rental or ski lodging for your Aspen vacation? We even have lodge rooms at the Independence Square!

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