Jerome Wheeler's wheelin' and dealin' ended with crash of 1892

Jerome B. Wheeler played an important part in developing Aspen. President of Macy & Co. in New York, he visited Aspen in 1883 and fell in love with the town and its nearby mountains.

By By: Ruth Miller
Posted 8/28/02

Jerome B. Wheeler played an important part in developing Aspen. President of Macy & Co. in New York, he visited Aspen in 1883 and fell in love …

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Jerome Wheeler's wheelin' and dealin' ended with crash of 1892

Jerome B. Wheeler played an important part in developing Aspen. President of Macy & Co. in New York, he visited Aspen in 1883 and fell in love with the town and its nearby mountains.

Posted

Jerome B. Wheeler played an important part in developing Aspen. President of Macy & Co. in New York, he visited Aspen in 1883 and fell in love with the town and its nearby mountains.

He returned to Colorado, bringing a fortune with him and adding more money as necessary to buy producing mines. He was generous with his money and was filled with ideas of how to improve Aspen.

One of the first things he did was build a smelter at the foot of the mountains and an electric tramway to transfer ore from the mines to his smelter. (Aspen had electricity; it was the first city in Colorado to have electric lights.)

He pleased the populace by building the Wheeler Opera House and the Jerome Hotel, both of which became favorites with Aspen's elite. Dressed in the latest fashions, the wealthy society members could dine at the hotel's restaurant on the finest cuisine, seafood sent from both coasts being its specialty.

Wheeler invested a great amount of money in James Hagerman's Colorado Midland Railroad. In late 1887, people of Aspen and surrounding areas had a time of great excitement. The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad was racing to bring its narrow gauge line up the Roaring Fork from Glenwood Springs to Aspen, a distance of 42 miles.

At the same time, the Colorado Midland was trying to overcome the mountains and storms to open the Hagerman Tunnel and bring its standard gauge rails in from Leadville to Aspen. The Hagerman Tunnel was 2,164 feet long; the digging had to take place at 11,528, the highest altitude of any standard gauge railroad in the United States. The tunnel was straight, but its approaches had curves, delicate trestles and steep grades that required three or four engines to pull the train.

It was almost a foregone conclusion that the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad would win the race against the Colorado Midland. All of Aspen greeted president David Moffat of the Denver & Rio Grande, who was accompanied on the train by Gov. Alva Adams, Sen. Henry Teller and other notables.

Rockets and Roman candles lighted the sky, and Chinese lanterns lined the streets as the train pulled in. Nearby dairy cows, within hearing distance of the station, were so frightened by all the noise that they stopped giving milk, leaving Aspen residents in short supply for a few days.

The Colorado Midland completed its part of the race two months later, becoming the first standard gauge railroad to cross the Continental Divide.

Jerome Wheeler, who had taken Aspen to his heart, lost everything in 1892, when financial disaster spread across the country. In 1901, he declared bankruptcy, listing half a million dollars in assets and a million and a half in debts. The loss of the Wheeler Opera House, his favorite possession, gave him the most sorrow and regret.

Membership in the Parker Area Historical Society is open to all who have an interest in the history of the area. Be sure to see the society's exhibits at the Parker Library. For further information, call (303) 841-6530.

Ruth Miller is an avid historian and Parker area resident.

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