Once celebrated in 1906 Aspen as the transition from horse and buggy to metropolitan, the circumnavigation of the first car through town brought looky-loos into the streets. Who then would have imagined that 116 years later Main Street would be gridlocked with “tin Lizzies.” This is part one of a two-part series. Read part two here.

In 1886 Karl Friedrich Benz and Gottlieb Daimler filed their patents in Germany on the same day for the first cars. Benz’s three-wheeled vehicle, called a “Motorwagen,” combined a one-cylinder internal combustion engine with an integrated chassis. Daimler mounted a similar engine on a sporty, normally-horse-drawn Phaeton carriage, calling it a “Motor Carriage.”

The Aspen Tribune reported on Dec. 4, 1898, that the new phenomena plagued the citizenry of Paris, who complained that the “motor carriage fad was ten times worse than the bicycling fever ever dared to be,” and that “the sights, sounds and smells resulting from the carriages propelled by petroleum are driving people from the boulevards.”

Eight years later an innocent Aspen welcomed the first automobile to town, launching decades of automobile simpatico based upon the economics of road building, designed to bring commerce to a self-sufficient small town then containing its own businesses, services, tradesmen and labor force. Little did they know that down the road the first auto would prove to be a Trojan horse full of consequences. 

Some serious-looking Aspen gentlemen with Ted Cooper driving in his 1906 Buick touring car, along what may be McLain Flats (the original wagon route into Aspen), which wound up the Slaughter House Hill, and south down today’s Cemetery Lane and into Aspen. Credit: Aspen Historical Society, Cooper Collection

‘Red Devil’ 

On Aug. 4, 1906, Aspen’s “popular young townsmen” Ted Cooper and his friend Tom Flynn triumphantly drove the first automobile, a 22-horsepower, five-passenger Buick Touring Car, into Aspen and “up Main Street at a comfortable rate,” the Aspen Democrat reported. The new machine was “taking like hotcakes … evident from its popularity last evening,” the Aug. 5 Democrat read. 

Characterizing the challenging three-day motoring adventure from Denver as “a great climb,” the two endured rain and mud to arrive “well browned.” During a lap about town, which included a sizable crowd of the curious and barking dogs, Cooper showed mastery of the machine, “demonstrating all the ‘ins-and-outs’ of the chauffeur.”  

A dapper Ted Cooper in 1904 at age 20, two years before he drove the first auto into Aspen with his friend Tom Flynn on Aug. 4, 1906. Credit: Aspen Historical Society, Cooper Collection

Both dapper first-generation gents of the era, as Aspen emerged from the stalled silver mining boom of the 1880s and 1890s into the reality of small-town enterprises and ranching, the two had taken the “Grande” train to Denver four days earlier to pick up Cooper’s new auto. 

Cooper anticipated opening the first garage and dealership, the Aspen Auto Company, downtown on East Hopkins. The Democrat called the venture “clean-cut enterprise and business foresight.” Earlier the paper opined on Feb. 28, while Ted Cooper awaited delivery of his “red devil,” as the new machines were called: “There is a good field right here for a few first-class machines. Bring them along and show us what they can do in the mountains.”

The Democrat also warned “Aspen will now have an auto through the streets. … Our horses are not used to the honk-honk and the whir of an auto car. There will be all kinds of runaways until the horses get used to the ‘red devils.’” Named after the red-bearded Belgian motor sport competitor Camille Jenatzy, aka the Red Devil, who broke the 100 kph (62mph) speed barrier in 1899, the nickname also characterized the disruption amongst horse-propelled transportation.  

Citizens of Aspen closely followed the details in daily newspaper accounts and telegrams those first three days in August of Cooper’s and Flynn’s near 350-mile return journey over dirt wagon roads, “without once testing the engine or straining a bolt.” They negotiated the original 1870s wagon route from Denver through South Park, stopping in Bailey, then along the “rainbow route” through Buena Vista up to Leadville. The next day they struggled over Tennessee Pass and down through the “Grand Canyon” into Glenwood Springs.

At the Hot Springs Spa in Glenwood Springs they encountered the known-to-be-rotund Colonel Smith, manager of the Hotel Jerome, and took him for an auto ride. The Democrat snarked, “this guarantees the car will carry weight as well as make speed and climb hills.” Colonel Smith would soon be one of Cooper’s first customers to buy a new auto from his dealership.

The toughest part of the entire trip, according to Cooper, was going up the rocky Slaughter House Hill wagon road by Red Butte. That same August, along with a road crew, Cooper and his father Fred S. Cooper, both fervent “automobilists,” worked to improve the earliest auto access to town. They rebuilt the curvy 18-degree road that passed Joe Hunn’s slaughterhouse business on the north side of the Roaring Fork, which serviced Aspen’s early needs and caused complaints about odor in the West End, into the straight shot that today climbs from Stein Park up to Cemetery Lane.

From there the old road crossed the Castle Creek bridge, built in 1891 of steel piers on concrete with two layers of three-inch planking on the deck, by King Iron Bridge Manufacturing of Cleveland for $17,300, The Aspen Daily Chronicle of May 22, 1891, reported. Rather than the trail below past the power plant, the new bridge offered a straight shot down Hallam Street, then a boulevard into town. Because the short-lived Holden Lixiviation ore plant and its railroad spur were being constructed just south of the crossing, a bridge across to Main Street was not an option—thus, a short-sighted decision made during an economic boom paved the way for the “S-curves” traffic overload today.

The new bridge became popular amongst rowdy horsemen and faster buggies who liked to race across the smooth bridge, said the May 27, 1893 Aspen Times. To enforce the “walk” speed limit, “2X8” Victorian speed bumps in the form of planks were nailed crosswise every ten feet. In 1916, the April 6 Democrat-Times (The Aspen Democrat became Aspen Democrat-Times in 1909) reported a major upgrade of Oregon fir planks to the surface, “for autos, buggies, and to stroll across,” along with stricter speed enforcements. 

In 1912, Ted Cooper and a crew rebuilt a muddy, rutted Main Street to better accommodate auto traffic, the May 14, Democrat-Times reported.  The newspaper headlined Cooper’s business ads, “Aspen Auto Up to Snuff” and “Aspen Auto is in the Lead,” rhapsodizing that “Aspen is assuming cosmopolitan airs” … while becoming “the auto center of the Western Slope.” 

Cooper pushed for improved access over Independence Pass in the early 1920s, enlisting Aspen’s silver-mining superstar D.R.C. Brown Sr., an enthusiastic automobilist as well, who’d already built much of Aspen’s water and electricity infrastructure.

Ted Cooper and his copilot Tom Flynn — who would later promote Mount Hayden as Aspen’s first ski area with a potential tram in the mid -1930s (see “Big mountain ski dream,” aspenjournalism.org) — take a loop through town on Aug. 4, 1906 in Aspen’s first car, a Buick touring car. Note the Wheeler Opera House in the background, the many Aspenites who may have never seen a car before, two boys with a donkey cart, and a woman observing from a window on the right. Credit: Aspen Historical Society

Awful gassy

Between 1906 and 1915, Cooper partnered at Aspen Auto with Albert DeMarias, whose prominent family ran an undertaking parlor and furniture store in town. The two entrepreneurs grew their Aspen Auto Company into the Western Slope dealership for the Buick Overland 75, a 35-horsepower touring car with seating for five, featuring an “electric starter and electric lights” — as advertised in the Democrat-Times — “delivered to your door for $825 and guaranteed not to buck, balk or shy.”    

The company boasted a wash-rack, mechanic’s pit, tires and parts, thrice-filtered gasoline from a 200-gallon buried tank, and even in-town auto storage over the winter months.

In 1915 gas cost $.15 per gallon, which is equivalent to $4.18 today. This infers that auto-fad ownership in early Aspen was for the more well-off business men and ranchers who might like to accessorize their mode of travel, while hay remained the most affordable fuel for others. 

An ad for the 1915 Buick Overland 75, 35-horsepower touring car with seating for five, featuring an “electric starter and electric lights” — as advertised in the Democrat-Times and sold by Ted Cooper’s Aspen Auto Company — “delivered to your door for $825 and guaranteed not to buck, balk or shy.”

But one summer evening in August of 1915, Cooper and DeMarias suffered a tragic accident of judgment during an auto excursion with two lady friends to explore the Hope Mine up Castle Creek. The Hope was a town cooperative mining venture to discover a lost vein below the Little Annie mine, hoping to reignite a new silver boom. (See “Unbridled optimism meets mining realities,” aspenjournalism.org.)

On Aug. 18, the Democrat-Times reported that the four young adventurers, though warned by the caretaker of the Hope boarding house that the tunnel was “awful gassy,” ventured in with candles. Deep within they encountered toxic gas fumes that extinguished their candles. Discovered unconscious the next morning by the miners there, Cooper and the two women barely survived, while DeMarias died. Cooper went on to run the auto company into the 1920s.

The Coopers were a prominent Aspen family of four generations, with scions living elsewhere today. A Methodist temperance man, Ted’s father Fred came from White Rock, Kan., to start a franchised Keeley Institute in 1893, where the Isis Theatre is today, according to his grandson Stirling “Buzz” Cooper, in a 2021 Aspen Times interview. 

The faith-based Keeley cure for alcohol and opium addiction included injections called “Double Chloride of Gold,” a secret tonic said to contain gold. But in a saloon town full of hard-drinking miners that business flopped, and the family started the Cooper Book and Stationery Company around 1900, specializing in dime novels. The family operated that into the 1940s, before running their Aspen Park Cabins near today’s Difficult Campground into the early 1950s. 

Along with a motley crew of Aspen contemporaries, dedicated “automobilist” Ted Cooper, on the right, leads his road crew as they rebuild the Slaughter Hill Road from a treacherous, curvy wagon road into a more friendly auto route into town. After declaring Slaughter House Hill the “worst part of his drive from Denver to Aspen,” in the first car to come to Aspen, he upgraded the wagon road into town that same August of 1906. His plan was to open Aspen Auto Company that same year. Credit: Aspen Historical Society, Cooper Collection

Blueberry pie race

By 1916, Aspen had enough motor cars to stage a unique auto race out at the fairgrounds around the half-mile horse racing track on the open flats near today’s Aspen Meadows. The Aspen Fourth of July committee welcomed all autos in the county and visiting “autoists” to an “auto refreshment race,” read the June 30, 1916, Democrat-Times, headlining “Auto Drivers Must Eat Pie.” 

Heats of four cars each lined up abreast at the grandstand on the starting line. “At the crack of a pistol shot” the racers with a passenger aboard called the “mechanician” drove to the first quarter-mile post, where they had to stop exactly on the line and wait for the mechanician to down a lemonade, before proceeding around to the line in front of the stands. There the mechanician had to eat a piece of blueberry pie without a handkerchief; then round the track once more in the same manner with a blueberry finish to complete the race.

Quartettes of autos followed likewise. The best time of 4:36 went to driver Miss Marion Brunton and her pie eater for a $10 prize. Second for $5 went to her father J.D. Brunton, whose pie eater Billy Tagert (of the now-privatized Tagert Lake just south of Indy Pass gate) threw up his pie at the finish, the newspaper reported. The same day at the fairgrounds, the community watched a 17-15 baseball loss against Carbondale, followed by a “horseback potato race” and a “shirt-pulling” contest.

Meanwhile, bad motoring habits around town had to be addressed. Incidents such as two cars roaring by a horseback rider on either side, resulting in the rider being bucked off and hospitalized, were reported. With mayhem in the streets, the Aug. 13, 1915, Democrat-Times reported new city ordinances: a speed limit of 10 mph in town; no two cars traveling abreast; drive on the right side of the road and pass on the left; two cars approaching opposite stay on their right side; no bicyclists or pedestrians hanging onto cars; and headlights and taillights required at night. Fines started at $5.

By 1921, there were 112,364 autos registered in Denver, filling the coffers with $780,000 ($11 million today) in licensing fees, the Democrat-Times noted on July 19, 1921. With the auto fad rolling, Colorado’s old wagon roads had to be improved for eager autoists and the search for a trans-Continental Divide route became a statewide debate, with Independence Pass in the running.

D.R.C. Brown Sr. with his chauffeur Charlie Olson are chugging up the unimproved wagon road of lower Independence Pass in this photo dated 1910. Through auto traffic on a widened dirt road all the way over the pass to Twin Lakes wasn’t completed until 1924. Lake County on the other side had to complete its sections as well. Aspen “autoists” drove up to the Grottos and to the road-building camps as an adventure, before completion. Credit: Aspen Historical Society, Quiet Years Collection

Rough roads

The many pieces of State Highway 82 as an auto route came together starting with a coalition of settlements between Aspen and Glenwood that formed the “Good Roads League of the Roaring Fork Valley,” the Sept. 12, 1911 Democrat-Times reported. At the time, the state highway association was considering routes over either Independence Pass (today’s State Highway 82) or Tennessee Pass (now U.S. Highway 24) for the first trans-Continental Divide auto route through Colorado. 

This pitted Pitkin and Garfield counties against Eagle County. In an era of unbridled enthusiasm for a highway bringing people and development to both routes, the GRLRFV pulled out the stops. Ted Cooper and his father, along with D.R.C. Brown and several carloads of Aspen grandees, including state senator Warren Twinning, met at the Carbondale Hotel with other valley dignitaries to lobby for the Highway 82 route. 

Austin Gavin testified he’d taken the “auto route over Tennessee Pass five times and that a block and tackle were needed in several places because of the steep grade, and that “a man must be always there with horses harnessed waiting for the ‘honk-honk’ of distress,” adding that the Tennessee Pass route “looks to an autoist like a skull and cross-bones.” On top of that, data showed that there were 1,000 cars in the Cañon City, many eager to come to the Western Slope, whichever the route.

Senator Twinning took the message back to Denver, where the highway commission decided that November that the new State Highway 82 over the Independence Pass route would get the nod, based upon the business potential in the Roaring Fork Valley. Though approved in 1911 in concept, it would take until 1924 to transform the Indy Pass wagon road into an auto road, due to funding glitches and World War I.

From the west, the old wagon/auto road mostly followed the Colorado Midland Railway tracks to Basalt up from Glenwood, before crossing the river at Wingo Junction (east of today’s Holland Hills) to the Woody Creek Road and on into Aspen via Slaughterhouse Hill. In 1887, the CMR came over Hagerman Pass from Denver, Leadville, with an Aspen spur (Aspen Short Line) up from Basalt. The downvalley Midland line later shared tracks with the Denver and Rio Grande to go to Grand Junction, once the D&RG switched to the same wider gauge.

Before Highway 82 through Aspen to Independence Pass could be completed, the Colorado Midland Railway right-of-way had to be secured; that didn’t happen until after the railroad shut down in 1918 following bankruptcy, because the line couldn’t carry the overload of business through the Rockies given to them by the U.S. government, as the U.S. entered WWI in 1917. 

Dated 1900 (though the photo could have been taken later) is a section of the old road not yet designated as Highway 82, as it crossed Maroon Creek, looking toward Aspen from downvalley. To the right but not visible is the Maroon Creek trestle bridge, which would be adapted in 1930 for auto traffic. Highway 82 followed the old Midland rail route beginning in 1924 after the Snowmass Canyon section was completed. Credit: Aspen Historical Society

By 1924, Aspen boosters and the state highway commission focused on rerouting the road from Basalt to Aspen along the old Midland route instead of Woody Creek, planning to connect with the ongoing highway improvements over Independence Pass. 

The May 9, 1924, Aspen Times reported that W. W. Williams and crew were finishing the new highway from Snow Mass (today’s Old Snowmass) to Gerbazdale (today’s Aspen Village area) through Snow Mass canyon along the Midland right-of-way, “a straight shoot [sic] between the two points and the automobilist’s delight.” This connected with the Midland roadway from Basalt to Snow Mass. “Aspen is set to be hooked up with the outside world east and west with boulevards,” the paper wrote.

But the last snafu to completion lay between Gerbazdale and Aspen along the Midland right-of-way, when property owners along the Woody Creek route, including ranchers Sullivan Vagneur and Marx Kardie of  “McLean Flats,” (original spelling of today’s McLain Flats) filed an injunction against the county commissioners and the state of Colorado to stop the Midland route. The district court in Glenwood threw out the injunction based upon insufficient grounds, the May 24, 1924, Aspen Times (successor of Aspen Democrat-Times) reported. Though their motive remained unclear, perhaps they preferred the road access nearby. “Now let’s build the road!” the paper declared. 

“McSkimming and Folsom blacksmithing on Independence Highway,” 1923, as captioned by the historical society. These gentlemen were part of the final push to get the state-backed dirt Highway 82 — the first trans-divide highway, from Twin Lakes to Aspen — completed in 1924. Note the boxes labeled Picric Acid, an ingredient for the many explosives needed to widen the narrows and bust through the cliffs to the summit. Credit: Aspen Historical Society

Indy Pass

Meanwhile, automobilizing the pioneer wagon trail over Independence Pass had been in process since 1915. Multiple road crews and contracts worked on sections on both sides of the pass from work camps, and deadlines for completion came and went. In 1924, Lake County brought in 50 convicts to put the finishing touches on the road from above Twin Lakes to the summit.

Though not clear in many newspaper updates who actually drove the first auto over the pass as the work intensified through 1924, the July 17 Times reported that D.R.C. Brown, his wife and four children, driven by chauffeur Charles Olsen, made the crossing from the Aspen post office to the Twin Lakes Hotel in 2.5 hours. “Any car can make the trip by careful driving,” the paper concluded.

The Aug. 12 Times reported that Brown next hosted Highway Commissioner William Weiser and his family for an auto trip up the pass, “making the summit in 55 minutes flat” from Aspen. That successful summit meeting between big wheels led to state funding for Highway 82. Weiser said it would be the best highway — though still dirt — in the state when finished.

This 1931 shot shows the improved dirt auto road over the top of Independence Pass. What may be a 1930 Chevrolet is parked opposite the Lost Man cabin, where people are living and/or visiting. Note a table of food and smoke coming from the chimney. Credit: Aspen Historical Society

The Aug. 23, 1924, Times characterized the linkup to the 12,095-foot summit and Lackawanna Gulch on the other side of the pass as, “a trip through paradise … . For those who can see the beauty of a passing cloud … this route offers a tonic equal with drinking the waters of eternal youth.”

On Aug. 31, 1924, all car owners from Glenwood to Aspen and Leadville were invited to drive to the top of the Pass for speeches and a “big basket picnic at the Top of the World” to celebrate the highway opening, the Aspen Times reported. The budding car culture then created the first Indy Pass traffic jam. 

Chalking up another record, Brown, accompanied by a mining engineer and a prominent stockman and chauffeured by Olsen, set a record 7.5-hour drive from Denver to Aspen over “Independence Highway”in Brown’s Cadillac, the Sept. 25, 1924, Times reported.  

To get the pass open after the big snow winter of 1925, Aspen’s then depth of community was never more apparent when the Times called for a “GOOD ROADS DAY” on June 16. Volunteers met at the Hotel Jerome at 7:30 a.m. with their own shovels and lunch, while some 35 distinguished Aspen auto owners — including Gerbaz, Willoughby, Moore, Koch Lumber, Shaw, Elisha, and Lamb’s Drug — volunteered to shuttle shovelers to “the big snow bank on the grade to the summit of Uncle Sam’s Independence Pass over the top of the world — free coffee and cream and sugar provided.”

The pass was paved in 1967. Today that back door into Aspen is often bumper to bumper in summer, with a new stoplight in the narrows, while four-lane Highway 82 on the other side from downvalley flows into two-lane Aspen through a crimped funnel. 

The second part to this story will looks at Aspen’s friendly auto era from the 1930s through the 1980s — when cars in town were fun and Aspen hosted downtown car races, stock cars and demo derbies at the Woody Creek race track — before auto saturation plugged up town in the 2000s. Read it here.

This story ran in the Aspen Daily News on May 14.

MOre from aspen journalism’s history desk

Tim Cooney is an Aspen freelance writer and former ski patroller. Among others, the Aspen Daily News, The Aspen Times, The Avalanche Review, Aspen Sojourner, Ski and Powder Magazine have published his...