Silver mine in Aspen, 1898. Credit: Library of Congress

Aspen and the Silver Mining Boom

Originally named Ute City, Aspen was built as a mining town in the mid-1800s and was renamed in 1880 after the abundance of aspen trees in the area. The first inhabitants of Aspen were a group of headstrong miners who, in 1879, ignored the pleas of Governor Frederick Pitkin to return across the Continental Divide due to an uprising of the Ute Indians.

Silver was discovered soon after Aspen was founded, and by 1891 it was considered the largest silver mining district in the United States. What was once a small mountain town of 300 residents had exploded into a busy populous of 12,000 people, six newspapers, two theaters, an opera house, and a small brothel district.

Between 1891 and 1893, Aspen reached its peak both in terms of riches and people, but the good times weren’t meant to last. In 1893 the Sherman Silver Act was repealed which demonetized silver, with significant repercussions for the town’s economy.

Three skiers looking at a trail at Snowmass Mountain, Aspen, Colorado, in the 1960s
An early skiing scene at Snowmass. ©Aspen Historical Society/Lindner Collection

Aspen Rebounds as a Ski Town

Aspen almost became a ghost town as most of the mines closed, thus putting thousands of people out of work. A few remained open, but wages were cut, and by 1930 only 705 people chose to stay. Ironically, one year after the Sherman Act was repealed, one of the largest nuggets of silver ever mined was pulled from the Smuggler mine, weighing in at 2,350 pounds!

Following World War II, Aspen was revitalized when the visionary Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke arrived. In 1946, Paepcke and Friedl Pfeifer, a member of the 10th Mountain Division, started the Aspen Sking Co, thus transforming the town into what would become an international resort destination. In 1950, Paepcke also started the Aspen Institute, driven by his desire to have a “utopian community for the mind and body.

Today, Aspen offers three additional ski areas, Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands, and Snowmass, and has become a year-round destination for recreation, arts, and businesses alike.

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