This posh resort town was shaped by skiing soldiers post World War II

ASPEN - Aspen is often thought of as Colorado's posh, ritzy Rocky Mountain town frequented by movie stars and billionaires — and it is.

But it's also home to one of the state's most popular film festivals, the 38th annual Aspen Film Festival.

The Film Festival runs from Oct. 3 to 8, and is one of many activities in the town that lives for winter, but lives up to its name and reputation even in the fall. 

A fall drive in to Aspen over Independence Pass, about 150 miles west of Denver, is a picturesque way to spend a weekend, and the city itself offers plenty to do both indoors and outside, no matter the season.

The city is a favorite vacation destination, but is home to just about 7,000 year-round residents.

Join us on 9NEWS Instagram for a photo tour of Aspen Friday afternoon! 

Aspen's History: Silver, snow, and mountain soldiers

The Silver Boom

Aspen’s fortunes grew in the late 1800s as silver prospectors arrived and discovered an abundance of the mineral. 

Prospectors braved stark winters and difficult mountain passes to mine the valuable ore, and for 14 years, the Aspen area produced 1/16th of the world’s silver.

Much of the cash into the city in its early days came from Jerome B. Wheeler, the then half-owner of Macy’s Department Stores. He invested in the city after a visit. 

In 1880, co-partners of David Hyman arrived in the area known then as Ute City.

B. Clark Wheeler and Charles A. Hallam surveyed the town site and renamed it Aspen.

By the next year, Pitkin County was established and the Aspen Times newspaper began printing.

This was also the year Independence Pass was completed, although the highway would later take more than 10 years to build, from 1911 to 1924.

After the arrival of Hyman’s associates, the remaining Ute Indians (except for Southern Utes), were moved out of Colorado to Utah.

By the end of the 1880s, Aspen was becoming a modern-day city. City water, electricity and other infrastructure was established, along with a Denver & Rio Grande railroad route into town. 

During this time, two iconic buildings in today’s Aspen were constructed: The Hotel Jerome in 1889, and the Aspen Opera House in 1888.

By 1890, with silver mining booming, Aspen was home to 8,000 people.

Three years later, the town would begin a long, downward turn after the Silver Panic of 1893, despite being at its peak population of around 16,000 people. 

The town would remain sleepy, and nearly ghostly, until a second valuable material was realized in the 1930s: snow (Although briefly in 1917, potatoes became the valley’s cash crop).

The 10th Mountain Division

Skiing created a second wind for the town that had become relatively sleepy post-mining silver rush.

The Aspen Valley Ski Club was established  in 1937, with a six-person ‘boat tow’ powered by an old mine hoist and a truck engine. The first downhill and slalom national competitions were held in the city in 1941.

Then came World War II. 

While it put recreational skiing on hold, the mountains between Leadville and Aspen provided valuable training grounds for soldiers known as the 10th Mountain Division.

The U.S. Army realized they would need troops prepared to fight a war in the mountains in the winter to defeat the enemy.

The team was stationed at Camp Hale near Leadville, and would routinely trek with 50-60 pound rucksacks from Leadville to Aspen in the snow, on skis. 

Camp Hale taught soldiers to survive at high altitudes in sub-zero weather. The men of the 10th Mountain Division would go on to become one of the most decorated divisions in the War.

These men pioneered winter warfare techniques and were eventually sent in to capture a line of ridges in the Italian Alps from German control.

Many of these veterans would return to the valley after the war to help develop skiing in Aspen, becoming one of the biggest influences in skiing in Colorado (and across the country) after the war. 

Skiing Arrives

After the war, in 1946, Aspen Skiing Corporation formed and Lift-1, the world’s longest chairlift at the time, unofficially opened in December.

That same year, Wheeler Opera House was partially restored after a devastating fire decades prior. The Opera House wouldn’t fully reopen until 1984. Hotel Jerome got a facelift as well.

During this growth period for Aspen, Chicagoans Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke infused money and resources, as well as a vision, into the community. 

In 1950, with the FIS World Alpine Championships, Aspen becomes recognized by world-class skiers for its potential. 

As the ski mountain grew, the downtown modernized. In the early 60s, downtown Aspen streets were paved and the Forest Service approved Snowmass-at-Aspen Ski Area. It would open in 1967 with lift tickets costing just $6.50.

In 2011, during expansion work for the Siegler Reservoir in neighboring Snowmass Village, crews discovered mammoth, mastodon, and giant sloth fossils!

Modern-Day Aspen: Posh and picture perfect 

Maroon Bells

Besides its reputation as a world-class skiing destination, one of Aspen's biggest claims to fame is its proximity to the Maroon Bells, two 14ers that tower above Maroon Lake about 12 miles southwest of the town.

The Bells have been called the "most beautiful place in Colorado" and are also among the most photographed.

Main Street

The mountain town has a much-frequented Main Street with all the expected boutiques, cafes and dining spots, but some of its best dining can be found scattered on the side streets nearby.

Element 47 (675 E. Durant Ave), for example, serves "refined American fare with Colorado flair" in The Little Nell hotel, which U.S. News & World Report ranked the No. 39 best hotel in the country in its 2017 listings.

The Hotel Jerome (330 E. Main St.) is another one-of-a-kind place to visit, consistently ranked among Travel + Leisure's World's Best Awards.

Beer and wine lovers can find a home at HOPS Culture (414 E. Hyman Ave.), a gastropub that serves craft beer, wine and elevated comfort food. Aspen Brewing Co. (304 Hopkins Ave B) is another great place to visit for beer.

Elsewhere in Aspen, Jimmy's (205 S. Mill St.); Piñons (105 S. Mill St.) and La Crêperie du Village (400 E Hopkins Ave.) receive top critic marks and reviews online.

And for visitors looking to stick around Main Street, not to worry.

Options include Matsuhisa, Mi Chola, Asie, Pyramid Bistro and many, many more.

Besides dining, Main Street has several posh options for shopping, including EVOO Marketplace, J R Austin Belt & Buckle and Stitch Works.

Lamb & Lion Bookstore is one of the few bookstores in existence (it also sells Christian-themed goods).

High-end Real Estate

Aspen real estate is a testament to the city's high-class feel: Last December, a 2,948-square-foot condo situated on top of the Dancing Bear Aspen development in the city's downtown area brought in a record $16 million.

Then, in February, an estate at 455 Sunnyside Lane in the McLain Flats neighborhood raked in a cool $24.4 million.

And in March, the 85-acre Highland Ranch, home to the historic Highland Bavarian Lodge, went on the market for $25 million.

The median home price for all-size properties in Aspen stands at more than $689,000, according to real estate website Trulia.com. The median rent is staggering — $25,000 per month.

The Aspen-Snowmass Base Village ski area is also undergoing redevelopment. More than 13 years after getting the project approved, East West Partners, Aspen Skiing Co. and KSL Capital Partners are adding a new hotel, a public events plaza, a small condo building, an outdoor public facility and a medical clinic.

Aspen also has its own airport, the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport (0233 Airport Rd.) which has been dubbed one of the "10 Most Challenging Airports in the U.S." due to the fact that pilots flying there require special training to navigate the airport's steep approach path.

United flies there from DIA up to nine times a day to the airport in the winter.

© 2017 KUSA-TV


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