Breckenridge and Vail ski resort history interconnected since the early days of the Colorado ski industry
By Bob Berwyn
Breckenridge ski area’s 50th anniversary will be marked by community celebrations and a resort marketing blitz, but skiing has deep roots in the Summit County town that predate the sport’s commercial era by at least 100 years.
The first people to slide about the local mountains on skis weren’t in it for the money. Father John Dyer moved to Breckenridge in 1862, and for Dyer, skiing was essential to his spiritual mission, as he commuted to Alma and Leadville on Norwegian snowshoes spread the word of God.
During that same era, Scandinavian miners held ski jumping competitions and other ski-based diversions around the high country mining camps in the spirit of Idraet, a Norwegian concept of practicing a sport for its physical and spiritual benefits.
But as the gold played out in the late 19th century, Breckenridge started to fade. A couple of small rope tows were built near the town before World War II, but the town’s population continued to shrink, dropping below 400 in the late 1950s.
Breckenridge appeared to be headed for ghost town status until the Kansas-based Rounds and Porter Lumber Company announced its intentions to invest in the emerging ski industry by developing a resort in Breckenridge.
Bill Rounds had connections in the ski industry through his friendship with Aspen Highlands owner Whip Jones. In 1960, Rounds asked the U.S. Forest Service to survey 12,987-foot Peak 8 for its feasibility as a ski area and formed the Summit County Development Corporation to pursue the project.
The early history of the permitting for Breckenridge suggests that the process was just as political back then as it is now.
Paul Hauk, the pioneering ski ranger with the U.S. Forest Service, expressed some misgivings about the terrain due to the exposed, windblown nature of Peak 8, but he gave an early OK to the concept, enabling Rounds to file a formal request for a permit to develop the mountain.
That spurred a letter from Vail’s Pete Seibert, who protested to the Forest Service that Vail should be permitted to open at least a year before any other new area in the region. Hauk and Seibert met in Aspen to discuss those concerns, but the ranger told Vail not to expect much sympathy from the White River National Forest, given the company’s previous statements on competition and antitrust in relation to its own quest for a ski area permit.
The correspondence and discussions among the various ski entities and the Forest Service were recorded by Houk in a ski industry chronology published by the Forest Service, and later recaptured by University of Nevada Las Vegas graduate student Michael Childers in his 2010 masters thesis.
“My personal opinion, as I mentioned to Bill Rounds late in December at Aspen was that the Vail Corporation had no grounds for objecting since Vail is not an operating or existing area and it does not have a final permit in any sense of the word,” Hauk wrote.
A year later, Vail Associates again protested, expressing concerns about Summit County Development Corporation’s plan to develop private real estate adjacent to national forest lands — a model Vail Associates had created just a few years previously, and has since perfected.
These early records suggest that present issues surrounding the connection between ski resort and private-land development began early, as expressed in this 1960 letter from Vail Associates board member John Tweedy to White River Forest Supervisor Henry Tiedemann:
“[t]he installation of this type of equipment on its own land would enable its owners to advertise the winter recreational potential as a stimulant for real estate sales without making the Public Domain for the Forest Service a part of their promotion.”
Once again, the Forest Service rejected the arguments, clearing the way for the development at Breckenridge. And about the same time, Breckenridge Mayor Frank Brown contacted Senators Gordon Allott and John Carroll, as well as Congressman Wayne Aspinall, the powerful chair of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, asking for their help in expediting the Forest Service’s approval of a special use permit for the development of Breckenridge.
Brown said Breckenridge would be a family oriented resort aimed at providing ski opportunities for residents of the Front Range, as opposed to Vail, which was selling itself as more of a destination resort.
Seeing the political writing on the wall, Vail Associates withdrew its protest in May of 1961.
Breckenridge Ski Area opened the following winter with one double chairlift, a T-bar, a base lodge and restaurant, and attracted about 17,000 skiers the first season — less than the ski area sees now on a single busy Saturday.
Check back Wednesday, Nov. 9, for part 2 – “Breckenridge, the boom years.”
Filed under: Breckenridge, Colorado, Summit County Colorado, Summit County news, US Forest Service, White River National Forest Tagged: | Breckenridge ski resort, Breckenridge skiing, Colorado ski history, John Dyer, Pete Seibert, United States Forest Service, Vail Associates, Vail Resorts, White River National Forest