Natural Scenery

A voice from Aspen’s past gives glimpse into fireman’s daily life

Walter W. Cornell, assistant fire chief for Aspen Hose Co. 1, was a popular figure in town whose name frequently made it into the local newspapers in the late 1890s, and over a century later, he is making news again.

A glimpse of the life of W.W. Cornell as he was known, or his nickname, “Corney,” is documented in his 1898 diary that was bought for $1 at a yard sale a few years back by Jake Andersen.

At the time, Andersen was a battalion chief at Roaring Fork Fire District and was drawn to the diary because of its uniqueness, Aspen history and intriguing contents in the front of the book about medical treatments and the strength of belts, which in the late 1800s was apparently important information to know.

It wasn’t until Andersen’s wife flipped through the journal days later that they realized Cornell was an Aspen firefighter, which was an irony they chuckled about.

Andersen notified Aspen Fire officials that he was going to donate the diary to the organization, which has a museum in the fire station highlighting its history since its establishment in 1881.

Denis Murray, a board member for the Aspen Fire Protection District, did some research on Cornell and learned that he was assistant chief.

Serendipitously, Andersen at the around the same time of Murray’s findings through old newspaper articles, became deputy chief of Aspen Fire, the same position held by Cornell.

“It was really strange how it came about, in a lot of ways appropriate and it kind of shows you the circle of this little town in this valley from deputy chief to deputy chief 120 years later,” Murray said. “How cool is that?”

“The whole thing gives me chills,” Andersen added.

Jake Andersen displays a handwritten inscription claiming the diary as belonging to Aspen’s previous deputy fire chief Walter Cornell. Andersen purchased the diary from a garage sale and only later realized he was following in the man’s footsteps as Aspen’s deputy fire chief. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Andersen made the donation of the diary to the fire protection board earlier this year when he presented the organization’s first strategic plan, acknowledging Aspen Fire’s future and its past.

In a handful of Aspen Daily Times articles that Murray found through the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection, Cornell was publicly acknowledged many times for his service as assistant fire chief, as well as a talented landscape artist and oil painter.

One newspaper article chronicles when Cornell was presented with an assistant fire chief badge.

“W.W. Cornell is one of those genial, whole-soul fellows who makes a friend of every acquaintance, and few if any of Aspen’s young men can enumerate more friends than the new assistant chief,” the article reads.

Another newspaper clipping that Cornell had tucked into the front of his diary reads: “W.W. Cornell has added fresh laurels to his reputation as a scenic painter. His last landscape scene oil painting, representing the most picturesque scene, the ‘Conon of the Grand’ at a point about four miles above Glenwood Springs. The picture is about six by five feet in size and in a heavy frame adorns the west wall of The Abbey Saloon. It is a finely executed piece of work and is a faithful copy from nature’s gorgeous scenery.”

Of Cornell’s work on painting the battle flag of the Maid of Ashcroft, another article notes: “It will be a tiger couchant, on a green field painted on a quainter akin and surrounded by the motto of the Tigers: ‘First in war; first in peace, first in the brewery.’”

Daily notes are written in the diary of Walter Cornell including the weather and how he felt that day. In this entry he wrote, “Stayed at the fire station tonight for the chief.”(Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Aspenite with many hats

Cornell’s diary chronicles daily life in Aspen, always starting his entries with what the weather was — Oct. 1, 1898 was the season’s first snow, he recorded.

He regularly attended fire company meetings and conducted many art lessons mostly for women around town either at their homes or in his studio in town.

His main source of income appeared to be as an artist, either selling his work or teaching it, along with being a professional embalmer, according to cash account ledgers in the back of the diary.

He also was a physician, mineralogist, physiologist and a professional nurse.

One 24″ x 32″ framed painting of Col. Bowman sitting on rocks on a mountain ledge. There is a gun at his side and he is holding a knife. On the ground below him lies a hat. In the bottom right corner it is signed “W. W. Cornell, 1893” in red paint. A note on the back says “To Aspen Historical Society: This painting was hanging in Bowman Bldg. when Fritz bought bldg. in 1952.”

“What you can pull out of the journal is real but these other articles really give the backstory,” Murray said. “He was a multi-talented individual in a town full of characters and being a volunteer fireman is just really cool to see.”

Cornell’s daily entries were short, sometimes noting his health, who he visited with, going to plays at the Wheeler Opera House or drinking with friends at the Armory and playing pool at saloons in town.

“Warm. Pleasant. Very dry and dusty,” a Sept. 28, 1898, entry reads. “Forest fires raging close by town. Did some writing at Ramsay’s.”

A July 4, 1898, entry reads: “Big day in Aspen” and Cornell noted that he went out with the firemen to the Armory for a dance.

The next day’s entry reads, “… used up today.”

Cornell’s entries give a sense of time and place and what life was like in Aspen, with many of the same activities of fishing and hunting and general revelry still occurring today.

A July 16, 1898, entry notes that one of his friend’s revolver prematurely misfired and nearly killed both of them.

A newspaper clipping reported that the city jailer “while under the influence of too much bad whisky got into a bad altercation with W.W. Cornell and batted him on the nose.”

Also tucked into Cornell’s diary is a Sept. 21, 1895, newspaper letter penned from a member of the Aspen fire department attempting to clarify their running team practicing to compete for the honors at an upcoming tournament in Canon City.

“Our chief informed them they would be allowed the use of the cart, hose, etc. to assist in their practice here, which practice has continued almost every evening since, and with gratifying results that would warrant a reasonable expectancy of success in the coming tournament,” the letter reads. “That this running team is a selection from or composed of the fire department has never been, nor is, implied; it is simply a representative from Aspen and as such, should receive the support and commendation, not only of our citizens at large, but also of the members of the fire department.”

The letter goes on to say that the “firemen’s ball” at the Armory on Sept. 18, 1895, is a customary dance for the purpose of defraying the expenses of the Aspen Running Team.

Aspen Fire Department’s deputy chief of operations Jake Andersen stands on the supposed unmarked gravesite of Walter Cornell while holding his diary in Red Butte Cemetery in Aspen on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021. Andersen had purchased the diary from a garage sale and his wife discovered that the previous owner, Walter Cornell, was also the deputy fire chief. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Honoring Cornell’s life

Cornell died in July 1902 by suicide at 52 years old. He was interned at Red Butte Cemetery after a Masonite service and a long procession from the fire station with members of the fire companies paying their respects.

Stoney Davis, a former board member of the Aspen Fire Protection District, manages the cemetery and was able to locate Cornell’s unmarked grave through a registry.

The fire department has been able to get some marble donated and plans to make a headstone for Cornell’s grave and place it there next spring.

“I think that’s really a way to close his service to the community,” Murray said. “It’s awesome that here it is (the diary) going into the museum and closing something for a guy that could have just gone in a box and it would have never been anything.”

Andersen noted that suicide is the leading cause of death among firefighters and Cornell’s death brings that epidemic to the forefront for himself and his colleagues.

“It’s cool that we can do something for him,” he said. “There are no words really for any of this, it’s so strange to me and so moving and so powerful.”

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