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Willoughby: Contrast and copper wires

May 16, 2023

News News | Jul 9, 2023

Sometimes, it is contrast that accentuates our observations. After looking at this photo, instead of thinking about a picnic in the park, you are reminded of a powder day last winter. Looking at all the power lines and telephone poles; you may be thinking, “What a blight on downtown.”

Mining Era Aspen, when that photo was taken, was proud of those copper lines. They represented progress in the modern era of electricity and telephones. The snow would have set their muscles aching from exercise in a snowstorm, but what they would really recall were the calamitous events where snowstorms and copper wires clashed.

Aspen was one of the early cities to have electricity. The Roaring Fork Electric Light and Power Company harvested hydroelectric power and sent it to the mines to operate water pumps and other vital equipment. They simultaneously wired downtown Aspen businesses and, after stringing wire around town, connected homes to the grid.

With power poles and electricity, Aspen tapped a technology advance and wired a fire alarm system with fire boxes distributed around town and connected them to the volunteer fire departments. A limited phone system connected many homes with local businesses.

In 1908, someone was moving a house down a street, and it tangled with the overhead wires, pulling down some lines and poles and knocking out the whole system. The Aspen Democrat warned, “In case of fire, do not depend on the fire alarm boxes, but get word to the chief direct.”

The next year, Aspen forged an agreement with Colorado Telephone Company to connect all of Aspen and to connect it to Leadville. To get that company to take on the infrastructure project, the City Council enacted an ordinance to allow them to “string wires and poles along streets and alleys, except where it would interfere with a gas lamp, electric light, or water hydrant.” The poles had to be at the outer edge of sidewalks and, in alleys, had to be close to property lines, and they couldn’t interfere with vehicles passing through.

As you can see, it did not take long to string countless wires on hundreds of poles. The telephone service was the primary problem. It took many more lines than for the fire alarm system or for electricity.

All went well until April 1919.

What was described as “the most disastrous storm in the history” of Aspen struck. It began “as rain, then sleet, at times the watery flakes were as large as silver dollars.” The sleet turned to ice and began coating the wires. Overnight, the lines with the ice developed a diameter of three inches. The storm continued into the next day, and without warning, the heavy lines pulled the poles, over and the whole system crashed to the ground. Fortunately, no one was hurt, although a power company worker got a shock from a live wire.

206 poles went down. The town was without power. The phone system was dead.

Around two dozen linemen were sent to Aspen right away and work began. Power was given priority, and because there were many more telephone lines, they decided to cut all the phone lines, reset about half of the poles, and put the power lines back up. They prioritized getting power back to the mines, so men could go back to work, getting the fire alarm system working, and getting power back to physicians’ offices.

The phone system took much longer. A toll line reconnected to Leadville, so Aspen wasn’t cut off from the world; but with poles down and wires all cut up, they realized they would need to rebuild the system. As it turned out, Colorado Telephone had already planned to upgrade Aspen’s system with lead-covered cables strung on new poles. One local said, “This should add materially to the general appearance of our streets and give the town a more modern appearance.”

This isn’t the only era of supply-chain problems. Phone companies all across the nation were upgrading their phone systems. Aspen had to wait until fall before the poles and lines arrived and were installed.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at [email protected].

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Tim WilloughbyLegends & LegaciesPhoto by John Bowman around 1910 of a winter storm.