Willoughby: Memorable Milestone | AspenTimes.com
The Aspen Skiing Co. is celebrating its 75th anniversary, but there’s another accomplishment that few have noticed: Skiing has now outlived mining as a basic industry in Aspen.
I make this observation with a caveat; it depends on what you call the beginnings and endings. Mining began in Aspen in 1879. The end is harder to pin down. Aspen’s silver mines, and most nationally, ceased production between 1950-52, so that would be 71-73 years, but work on one of Aspen’s longest tunnels did not end until 1963, and the 1960s saw dumps for Milled silver. so about 83 years. I leave out the iron mining, which ended even later.
Skiing began with the Aspen Mountain operation of the Aspen Ski Club and the Highland Bavarian Little Annie shop in 1938, 83 years ago. The Aspen Skiing Co. has been in operation for 75 years. Depending on which endings and beginnings you choose, it’s safe to say that skiing has now surpassed mining.
When Aspen Ski Club raised money for its boat tow, the older generation scoffed at the idea. In their view, skiing was a fad that would pass, where surely mining would continue for much longer. They felt secure in this belief because mining in Aspen had started around the time they were born, so it seemed like forever. They had witnessed the ebb and flow of silver prices and had just witnessed a large increase in silver price and silver production.
The early operations of the Aspen Ski Club were more non-profit with many volunteers. With the exception of ski instructor Florian Hämmerle, whom they hired for a ski school, they did not think of skiing as a business that would end their mining operations and focus entirely on them, although they dreamed that it would be a viable business in the future.
The Aspen Skiing Co. was not profitable in its early years. Skiing in the late 1930s gained many customers, but the war slowed expansion. By the 1950s it began to expand again and Aspen, with an already established reputation, seemed like a place where the industry could be profitable. Luckily, like the first prospectors and businessmen who followed the silver rush to Aspen in the 1880s, there were those who thought skiing and Aspen had potential.
Today, jets come from everywhere and commercial connections to many cities make Aspen a popular vacation destination. In the 1930s, Aspen built a ski base with ski clubs that traveled mostly by train. For most clubs, some from other federal states, it was not a weekend trip.
Those who came were dedicated skiers. When the Aspen Skiing Co. started, it wasn’t much different—Aspen was a destination, even Denver was a long drive in those days before the Loveland Tunnel and a four-lane Vail Pass were built. The music festival added another tourist season, but the spring and fall “off-season” was so long that businesses struggled.
There were similarities in mining. Aspen wasn’t immediately the Silver Queen. For several years, Ashcroft had more interest. As with skiing, Aspen was isolated and ore was initially transported across the continental divide by mule trains. It wasn’t until the railroads arrived in 1887 that the town began to prosper and most of the mines were profitable.
Comparing the price of silver to the price of ski tickets suggests which country has had sustained economic growth. Silver prices in today’s dollars ranged from about $25 an ounce at its peak to a depression low of about $4. The high corresponds to silver’s current value of $23. Early day ski ticket prices were about $40 in today’s dollars. This year’s $200 season pass price has steadily increased. There were more silver ounces than skiers, but a single skier’s profit can be higher.
Like skeptics in the 1930s that skiing was a short-term industry, there are those today with similar forecasts. There’s the rapidly aging core of skiers that isn’t being replaced by a younger generation, and the threat of global warming. Skiing has rivaled mining in its longevity in Aspen and is likely to significantly surpass that milestone number.
Tim Willoughby’s family history is similar to Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Today he is a tourist in his hometown and looks at it from a historical perspective. Reach him at [email protected]