Two very diverse Colorado ski resorts were born 60 years ago within a year of each other under extremely different circumstances. Now, joined in the same family of ownership, Vail and Breckenridge, CO ski resorts are among the most visited resorts in the nation. Here’s how they began.
Breckenridge’s Dirty Past
Following a prosperous era of mining that began in 1859 in Breckenridge, all gold mining in the US came to a halt when World War II began.
This left the town of Breckenridge a skeleton of its glorious past: rough, muddy roads with potholes that swallowed up tires; wooden sidewalks; and miles of rock spit out by dredge boats that ate their way through town via the Blue River. Dogs slept in the middle of the street and a handful of Main Street businesses struggled to stay alive.
With Breckenridge mining operations closed, the town all but dwindled away. Yet the mountains still beckoned.
Becoming Breckenridge Ski Area
Six decades ago, Norwegian Olympic ski racer, Trygve Berge, and his pal Sigurd Rockne arrived in town. They had been hired by Kansas lumber baron Bill Rounds to build a lumberyard. Rounds heard about the newly created Lake Dillon and speculated that vacation cabins would be in demand.
“We thought Breckenridge was the most desolate place,” Berge said. “There were about 190 people and rock piles everywhere.”
After building the lumberyard at the corner of French and Main Streets, the enterprising trio began another venture one day in September after driving and climbing to the top of Peak 8.
“We mixed whiskey with water from a mountain spring and decided then and there that we’d start a ski area,” Berge said. “The circular-shaped concave terrain that fans out from town was a natural place to start.” Rounds’ company provided financial backing and the Forest Service approved plans within a year.
Breckenridge CO Ski Resorts Inaugural Opening
Peak 8 Ski Area opened on December 16, 1961, exactly one year ahead of Vail. There was one double chairlift and six top-to-bottom runs. Lift tickets cost four bucks, and Berge became ski school director.
Breckenridge Winter Festival
Despite hosting 17,000 skiers that first winter, Berge remembers one week in January when only two skiers showed up. To draw more people, the next season he started Ullr Dag.
It was a winter festival honoring his homeland’s god of winter that continues today as Ullr Fest. Ready to try anything, Berge thrilled spectators by performing somersaults on his 215-centimeter skis in front of the Bergenhof, the first building on Peak 8. Its Norwegian name means “House in the Mountains.”
Many of the runs and lifts on the four mountains that make up Breckenridge are named for the area’s historical characters and places, such as Fort Mary B, Independence Chair, Briar Rose and Gold King.
Breckenridge CO ski resort will be celebrating its 60th anniversary all the 2021-22 season from opening day November 12 until Memorial Day.
Vail: A Perfect Ski Mountain
Meanwhile, in 1954 the Vail Valley was a quiet summer range for sheep. At that time, a local man, Earl Eaton, began taking snow measurements after viewing the vast snow-covered slopes and back bowls from the summit of Vail Mountain.
Eaton contacted his buddy Pete Seibert who served with him in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. (Vail’s Riva Ridge is named after a mountain in Italy on which the division fought. A restaurant at Mid-Vail is called The 10th in honor of the skiing soldiers.)
Seibert, who was managing the Loveland ski area at the time, hiked the terrain with Eaton in 1957 and saw that it would make a perfect ski mountain.
Seibert formed an investment group that began buying land in 1957. By December 1960, the limited partnership was financed and the critical Forest Service permit was issued.
If you were around Denver in 1960, you could have bought a $10,000 investment in Vail Associates. This included an option for a lot in Vail for $250 and four-lifetime passes.
At a time when skiing was beginning to boom, it was a darn good speculation thought John Amato, a Denver attorney and CPA running an investment firm at the time. Amato, a longtime friend of my family, shared what it was like to be involved in the foundation of a “nice little ski area we could go to,” He never imagined that it would snowball into one of the most popular in the world.
“Seibert was a visionary with a unique talent for imagining and designing a ski mountain,” Amato said. “Earl discovered it; Pete created it.”
Building Vail Village
Construction of Vail Village was underway in the spring of 1962. On September 23rd Amato and his partner, Vince Demenico began construction of The Liquor Store and Delicatessen using old brick from a fire-gutted building in Leadville. It was completed within three months and is now the site of The Golden Bear.
“It was a bearcat,” Amato said. “Construction workers living in cars and tents hung out in Minturn [a nearby town] where a macho mixture of hardhats, railroaders and ranch hands resulted in lots of drinking, fights and raising hell.”
Other buildings that went up that first season were The Lodge “because the Forest Service required 50 beds in the valley,” the Rucksack drugstore, a dormitory lodge, the Red Lion Inn and a few private homes.
When Chef Ed Kilby had a grand opening party for the Village Inn on Dec. 22, Amato remembers water seeping through the ceiling onto the buffet table after somebody flushed the toilet above. “It was a riot,” he laughed.
No Snow in Vail
By December 1962, the nation’s first gondola and five lifts were ready for operation. But, there was no snow.
According to Amato, Seibert made a quick trip to Denver to buy dozens of bushel baskets and enlisted the help of everyone he could find to scoop up snow from in the trees and dump it over the bare spots on the runs.
Then, saved by a snowstorm, Vail finally opened for skiing on Dec. 20, 1962, one year and four days after Breckenridge. When Seibert was struggling to raise money to start his ski area, he was “upset as hell about the Breckenridge encroachment,” said Berge.
A Superb Ski Hill
That inaugural season Vail drew 55,000 skiers to its slopes. Most were day skiers willing to make the six-hour round trip drive from Denver over two mountain passes in the pre-tunnel days. A full-day lift cost $5, and there were no discounts.
“The snow came, the jet setters came, they ran a superb ski hill, and the sport exploded,” Amato said. Much of the credit he gives to Bob Parker, a journalist who became the resort’s first marketing and public relations director. “Bob treated the press like VIPs. He made the publicity that made Vail.”
Today both ski resorts are owned by Vail Resorts, which also owns Keystone, Beaver Creek and Crested Butte in Colorado. Furthermore, Vail Resorts owns or operates 32 other resorts throughout the U.S., Canada and Australia.
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Author Bio: Denver native Claudia Carbone is an award-winning journalist, covering skiing and travel for a variety of magazines and websites. Her blog Sleepin Around covers unique places to sleep on vacation. She lived in Breckenridge for 10 years.