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History of Aspen

Aspen, Colorado has a rich and interesting history that is centuries old. Before Aspen became a playground for the rich and famous, and the Aspen area became home to the world's most sought-after real estate, the town had humble beginnings based around silver mining, ranching, and training for the 10th Mountain Army Division. 

The Ute Indians were known to be the first inhabitants of Aspen, as they made Aspen's “shining mountains” their home and summer hunting grounds for nearly 800 years, long before the first mining prospectors moved into the Roaring Fork Valley. Prospectors from Leadville, at one point Colorado’s second largest city, and from the town of Gothic, made their way over the Continental Divide and into Aspen in 1879 to mine for silver. At a time when temporary mining camps were established all over Colorado, Aspen set itself apart by quickly became an established, urban community, with the help of two competing railroads, rich silver lodes, and investment from wealthy Victorian era capitalists such as Jerome Wheeler and David Hyman.

In 1891, Aspen’s silver production surpassed that of neighboring Leadville, making Aspen the largest silver producing district in the nation. By 1893, Aspen, Colorado was a thriving town with as many as 16,000 residents, six newspapers, including the Aspen Times, four schools, three banks, a hospital, two theaters, and an opera house. At the height of Aspen’s newfound success, Congress repealed the Sherman Silver Act, which sent Aspen into a slow decline, known by historians as “The Quiet Years.”

For nearly three decades of the “Quiet Years,” Aspen was plagued with bankruptcy, fires, closed down railroads, and the collapse of the stock market, but local farmers and ranchers continued to work the land, and potatoes became the cash crop in the valley. In 1935, when just 700 residents remained in Aspen, the town saw a glimmer of hope when the famous Swiss avalanche expert Andre Roch came to Aspen to scope the area for a new ski resort. Roch and the Aspen Ski Club cut a race course on Aspen Mountain, which was served by a gas-powered “Boat Tow.” Plans for the ski resort were delayed by World War II, but soldiers training at nearby Camp Hale for the army’s 10th Mountain Division, including Austrian Friedl Pfiefer, promised to return to Aspen after the War ended.

Pfeifer hoped to turn Aspen into a ski resort that would rival some of Europe’s finest ski destinations. He later teamed up with Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke and wife Elizabeth, who were interested in Aspen for the potential they saw as a summertime cultural center. Pfeifer's dreams soon became a reality, as Aspen Mountain officially opened in 1947, with Lift 1-A dedicated as the world’s longest ski lift. The Aspen Ski School opened that year as well, with Friedl Pfiefer as the Director. Over the years, Buttermilk (1958), Aspen Highlands (1958), and Snowmass Ski Area (1968) opened, further solidifying Aspen as an international ski destination.

With the Paepcke’s influence, Aspen soon became a haven for cultural opportunities as well—a place where the body, mind, and spirit could flourish. From the 1960’s on, cultural centers like the Aspen Institute, the Aspen Music Festival and School, the Anderson Ranch Arts Center, the Aspen Historical Society, the Aspen Art Museum, and the restored Wheeler Opera House opened, making Aspen a true destination for music, theater, and the arts, beyond the abundance of outdoor activities the area is known for. Combined with breathtaking scenery, an appealing climate with over 300 days of sunshine per year, year-round festivals like Jazz Aspen, and the Aspen Food and Wine Festival, and wonderful recreational opportunities, Aspen has solidified itself as a year-round vacation destination. With world-class skiing, hiking, golf, mountain biking, music, theater, and the arts, it is no wonder why Aspen real estate is some of the most sought after in the world.

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