Updated: December 23, 2009 at 12:00 am
Monarch, Winter Park and Wolf Creek ski areas all celebrate 70 years of skiing this winter and they all owe their start, in part, to an unexpected benefactor: government stimulus. It came in the form of the New Deal.
In 1939 — the year all three ski areas were born — the Great Depression had pushed the state’s biggest industries, agriculture and mining, into the dumps. The government was searching for ways to jump-start the anemic economy and give people work. Almost anything was on the table.
And so, when a growing number of ski fanatics suggested that, with a little help, they could turn the new sport into “white gold” that would attract millions in tourist dollars to Colorado, state leaders were eager to help.
Civilian Conservation Corps crews employed by Uncle Sam chopped trees to clear runs and hammered and nailed to build ski lodges. At Winter Park, the city of Denver purchased 100 acres for a “winter sports park” and acquired a permit from the U.S. Forest Service for more than 6,000 more.
In 1936, the governor of Colorado told a gathering of ski aficionados that roads would be built in the mountains and one of Colorado’s congressmen promised to use CCC money to develop ski areas, according to an article in the Rocky Mountain News.
Think of it as the original stimulus plan. Instead of Cash for Clunkers, it was moolah for moguls.
“It was considered to be economic development. They were trying anything they could,” said Duane Vandenbusche, a history professor at Western State College.
Today things are different. Multinational corporations buy and sell resorts for $100 million and the Forest Service, with its lengthy review processes and environmental-impact statements, often acts as a baffle for ski-area development, not a stimulus. But in the 1930s, the ski industry needed a push. Though there was a growing crowd of skiers, most mountain roads were closed all winter. There was snow in the mountains, but no way to get there. Once there, skiers had no way to get to the top of the hill (only Loveland and Pikes Peak had rope tows before 1939) other than to hike, and no place to dry out when their woolen clothing soaked through.
Frank Ashley, a ski pioneer in the state, noted in 1935 that Colorado had the snow and terrain to become “the Switzerland of North America,” but, he noted, “Until more facilities are available, Colorado cannot hope to fully develop skiing.”
Those facilities came to be, in part through the egalitarian ideals of the era and in part through the hard work and passion of skiers who often volunteered their time.
Here are some memories of the era.
Skiing on Monarch Pass started in the early 1930s, when locals from Salida navigated the winding curves of Old Monarch Pass and skied the natural glades near the top.
“We’d put our seven-foot maple skis in the track and hold on for dear life. We didn’t even know what turning was,” Wally Koster, a lifelong resident of Salida, told The Gazette in 1988.
By 1939, enough locals wanted to ski that the town of Salida asked the Works Progress Administration to build a rope tow and shelter house. According to the Salida Daily Mail, the New Deal agency allocated $26,406 for the project. By the end of the year, a 6,000-square-foot log cabin sat at the base of a steep run called Gun Barrel (still in use today), where a rickety rope tow climbed 150 feet up a 30-percent slope.
“Gun Barrel was legendary for how steep it was,” said Vandenbusche. “Few people made it down standing.”
Koster said there were no safety precautions on the rope tow except a sign at the top reading “Let go or else!”
“There were not a lot of turns made in those days. But you always had powder, so the landings were soft,” said Gerald Berry, 77, whose family managed Monarch from 1946 to 1968.
At the time, he said, lift tickets cost a quarter and everything was homemade. His mother made all the snacks for the lodge in her kitchen. He and his brothers groomed the slopes by rolling a cylinder made with three bicycle wheels joined by thin wood slats. (See photos at outthere .freedomblogging.com.)
“There was no ski shop in Salida, so we made our own skis in wood shop,” he said.
In 1957, the family bought the ski area from the city for $100. Then he and his brothers designed and built the first T-bar out of second-hand parts and wood.
The thing that has made the place last, Berry said, is snow and lots of it, about 350â€…inches per year.
“It’s always good skiing,” he said. “And they let us old-timers ski for free!”
Winter Park started as the dream of a kid from Colorado Springs named Graeme McGowan, who taught himself to ski on Pikes Peak in 1921 while attending Cheyenne Mountain High School. He moved to Denver a short time later and spent the next several years searching for the best skiing near the Front Range. He found it when he took a train through the newly completed Moffat Tunnel in 1928. The 6-mile tunnel under the Continental Divide emerged at the present site of Winter Park. At the time it was sheep pastures and old cabins left by the tunnel-construction crews.
McGowan bought a few of the old cabins and turned them into rustic lodging for skiers. There were no chair lifts and no runs, except for a long and winding sheep trail known as Mary Jane. For a decade the little lodge welcomed skiers with a warm fire and rum swizzles, but anyone who wanted to ski downhill first had to trudge uphill.
In 1939, Denver bought 100 acres at the base of what is now Winter Park ski area. The local ski club, started by McGowan, raised money for a J-Bar tow to whisk them uphill, and business owners in Denver kicked in $14,700.
Facilities were rustic. Pat Pfeiffer, a Colorado Springs resident who became an avid skier at Colorado College in the 1940s, took the college ski bus to Winter Park often. There was a Spartan dorm at the base where skiers would stay, she said. “It was supposedly heated by a pot-belly stove, but skiers always said you had to go outside to get warm.”
This tiny resort in the snowiest corner of the state (over 400 inches a year) owes its start to the Colorado Department of Transportation’s decision to keep Wolf Creek Pass plowed all winter. In 1934, the first winter it was open, 21-year-old Charles Elliott and a friend drove up to the top with borrowed skis. Often they had to battle too much snow. Sometimes when they packed a boot trail to the top of a hill, Elliott said, “the snow would be up to our shoulder blades.” (Read more about Elliott’s memories of early skiing at Wolf Creek on today’s front page.)
By 1938 the pass was attracting dozens of carloads of skiers on prime weekends, according to the Alamosa Daily Courier, and the highway department had to widen the road to make parking. In 1938 the CCC built a shelter cabin with a big stone fireplace. The Forest Service would not allow anyone to sell snacks in the lodge, so a man from the San Luis Valley set up a grill outside and passed burgers and soda pop through a window.
Skiers climbed the hill by gripping twisted, icy rope tows that make today’s chair lifts seem luxurious.
“One time my sleeves got twisted in the rope,” said Elliott, “and it tore them clean off.”