Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part Friday series on the history that can be found along U.S. 24 between Colorado Springs and Vail.
In 1942, as Adolf Hitler’s troops neared supremacy in Europe, the U.S. Army was expanding exponentially. A group of only 200,000 soldiers a few years earlier numbered 8.3 million by 1945.
Among them were members of the 10th Mountain Division, which trained north of Leadville on U.S. 24 at Camp Hale in the Pando Valley. The camp was built in 1942 for $30 million ($500 billion by today’s standards) and was named for 1884 West Point graduate Irving Hale, who grew up in Denver, fought in the Philippines, made brigadier general and founded the precursor to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
The troops called it “Camp Hell.” It housed about 16,000 soldiers and 4,000 mules and donkeys. The 10th Mountain Division trained there through 1944. While most of the buildings are gone, some remnants of the concrete bunkers and rifle ranges remain.
The 10th Mountain Division was sent to northern Italy in 1945. The Allies had failed numerous times to punch through the Gothic line, a heavily fortified Nazi position in the Apennine Mountains. So in February, the 13,000 soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division made a night climb up Riva Ridge, hammers covered in cloth to silence their 2,000-foot ascent up the granite, and went on to capture Mount Belvedere to pierce the Nazi defensive line.
In a few months of combat, the 10th Mountain Division suffered terrible casualties: 1,000 killed, and more than 4,000 wounded. Off U.S. 24, at the pullout to Tennessee Pass and Ski Cooper, sits an enormous stone memorial dedicated to those who served, and died.
Many members of the 10th Mountain Division returned to Colorado after the war, essentially building the state’s outdoor recreation industry, now worth an estimated $62.5 billion. One veteran, Gerry Cunningham, went on to outfit Sir Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Mount Everest. Another, Bill Bowerman of Oregon, earned a Silver Star for rescuing a colonel being held by the Nazis. He later said the “division was successful because they were all outdoorsmen.”
After the war, Bowerman coached track at the University of Oregon, winning four national titles. On the side, he co-founded Nike with friend Phil Knight. He also led the 1968 U.S. Olympic track and field team to 12 gold medals and six world records in Mexico City. He distinguished himself further in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. When Palestinian Black September terrorists went after Israeli athletes, one Israeli escaped to Bowerman’s room. Bowerman calmly called in the U.S. Marines to protect his fellow athlete, as well as other Jewish American athletes, including swimmer Mark Spitz.
Camp Hale has a dark chapter as well. More than 400,000 foreigners and Americans of foreign origin were imprisoned in the U.S. during World War II. They worked and were paid no less than 10 cents a day. Officers were allotted 120 square feet of living space; everyone else received 40 square feet.
The prisoner of war camps had to be at least 170 miles from the ocean, 150 miles from Mexico or Canada, and fewer than 5 miles from any railroad. These requirements made Camp Hale an ideal location, and hundreds of Germans were held there.
A peculiar unit also housed at Camp Hale was the 620th Engineer General Service Company of about 200 disgruntled U.S. troops suspected of disloyalty to the U.S. They were given menial and manual labor.
Holy Cross’s long history
Beyond Camp Hale on U.S. 24 sits Mount of the Holy Cross, a 14,011-foot peak with a face that creates a distinct white cross during spring. It first was reported in an 1869 book, and Civil War veteran and photographer William Henry Jackson took an iconic picture of it in 1873. The photo was shown at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, spurring national curiosity about the peak. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem about it, and the nation’s religious communities embraced it.
It was proclaimed Holy Cross National Monument on May 11, 1929, placed under the Forest Service, and then brought under the National Park Service in 1933. But the Great Depression, limited visits and high cost of staffing led Congress to remove it from the National Park Service in 1950 and return it to Forest Service management.
A bit farther on U.S. 24 is Red Cliff, in a dramatic, deep box canyon. The town, founded in 1879, at one point had a sawmill, five hotels, an opera house and more than 800 residents. About 300 live there year-round now. At Mango’s, the only restaurant, a realistic reproduction of the Red Cliff Bridge hangs behind the bar. The steel arch was built in 1940 by workers hanging over a 200-foot drop even in subzero temperatures. The bridge was updated in 2004 and won a prize in 2005 for the best reconstructed bridge in the nation.