*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on March 1, 2019. It can also be found online here, an image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.
Editor’s note: This is the last in a three-part series on the history that can be found along U.S. 24 between Colorado Springs and Vail.
On March 19, 1957, after a seven-hour slog to 11,250 feet, Pete Siebert turned to friend Earl Eaton and said: “My God, Earl, we’ve climbed all the way to heaven.”
They were standing above what would become Vail.
Siebert, from Massachusetts, had volunteered for the 10th Mountain Division in 1943 at age 19. He was wounded in the fighting at Riva Ridge, hit by bullets and two mortar shells, one of which blew off his right kneecap.
After surgery and 17 months of recovery, Siebert resumed skiing. He built his own leg brace, taped his leg from ankle to hip and skied well enough to qualify for the 1950 U.S. Alpine Ski team.
His injuries too severe to compete in the next Olympics, Siebert used his GI Bill for college, studying hotel management in Switzerland from 1951 to 1954. Degree in hand, he returned to Colorado, skied and sought his next opportunity.
It came at the top of that mountain. Siebert and Eaton named their fledgling town for Charles Vail, chief engineer of the then-Colorado Department of Highways. Vail had routed U.S. 6 through the Eagle Valley in 1940. Today it’s Interstate 70, and Vail sits at its juncture with U.S. 24.
Siebert and Eaton kept their plans secret, telling people they were piling up property for the “Trans Montane Rod and Gun Club.”
With a small group of partners, Siebert paid $55,000 for the first 520 acres in the valley. But because the federal government essentially owns and leases the mountains, Siebert had to raise another $1.8 million by December 1961 to prove that construction costs would be covered by his ski area. He offered four free lifetime lift tickets to investors of $10,000. With a little extra, he would throw in land for a home — property now worth tens of millions of dollars.
During construction in 1962, a coal-fired train in nearby Minturn sparked a fire that threatened to burn the trees on Vail’s road-facing front slope. The workers building the lifts and gondola were repurposed to put out the fire.
The resort opened on schedule Dec. 15, 1962, with one gondola out of Vail Village and two chairlifts. It was free on opening day, and $5 thereafter.
Snow was so scarce that winter that Siebert hired members of the Ute Nation to do a snow dance. Customers were scarce, too. One January day, Siebert counted 12 paying customers, and his eight ski instructors sat idle. Later, Siebert acknowledged that people “thought we were crazy.”
Fifty years ago, Vail was the kind of place where a relatively obscure congressman from Michigan would bring his family for a ski vacation. The politician was so “impressed with the beauty of the Colorado Rockies” that in 1970, Gerald and Betty Ford borrowed money from their children’s life-insurance policies to buy a modest, three-bedroom condo in Vail for $50,000.
Ford — who became the 38th president after serving as vice president and 13 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives — was known in Vail as simply “Jerry.”
Once, during an eight-minute shutdown of the gondola, Vice President Ford was suspended 100 feet above the mountain, posing a serious national security concern.
As president, Ford was forced by the Secret Service to leave his condo for security reasons, and the Fords had to find another house. He found it in Beaver Creek after losing his re-election bid to Jimmy Carter in 1976.
To longtime locals, he’s the one who brought Vail to international prominence. While in office, Vail became “the Western White House.”
Today, his name is on the town’s main park and outdoor amphitheater, and the local public garden is named for his wife.
No thanks to ’76 Olympics
What would become Colorado’s Olympic-sized fail started like a fairytale.
On May 12, 1970, Denver was awarded the 1976 Winter Olympics. The timing was perfect, as it would be the 100th year of Colorado’s statehood and America’s 200th birthday.
Siebert and other ski area entrepreneurs prodded the bid, but it was vastly oversold and woefully underfunded. State Rep. Dick Lamm, who later became governor, led opposition to hosting the Olympics in Colorado, and voters rejected all funding for it in a state referendum in 1972 — the only time a city has been awarded the Olympic Games and subsequently turned them away.
Siebert had pitched the Denver Organizing Committee on events in Vail, but he realized the resort was too small. So growth was planned for what we now know as Beaver Creek Resort west of Vail.
Beaver Creek was first settled in the 1860s, but focused development didn’t begin until the Denver Olympics bid. Rejection of the Games slowed progress, but the ski area opened in 1980 and has since quadrupled in size.
Every road has stories, and U.S. 24 has more than its share, providing a unique window into Colorado’s modern history. Perhaps more important, it reflects the roadblocks and setbacks for the people who shaped this land. They made this place what it is today.