If not for striking miners …
Bill Burnett, a former miner, was instrumental in building Vail, literally, from the ground up. He went on to found the Burnett Plumbing & Heating Company, which still thrives today. Now retired and still living in Minturn, he turns 82 years old this month.|Special to the Daily/Dick Hauserman| |Did you know that if workers at nearby mines had not been on strike in the years immediately preceding Vail’s creation, the fledgling ski resort that would become world-famous may never have gotten off the ground?”The Gilman Mind struck in 1955. We went back to work that fall, before winter. Then, when Vail came into existence in 1961 and 1962, Climax went on strike. Gilman was still going, not too strong,” says Bill Burnett, who worked at the Gilman Mine, near Red Cliff, for 15 years. “If Climax hadn’t gone on strike, I don’t think Vail would ever have been built because where else could you get 200 or 300 men overnight? They cut down the trees, they put in the roads, they poured the concrete, they built the houses. They were all seasoned fellows. They knew how to work. That’s how Vail got built.”The older brother of Pete Burnett, Bill Burnett started his own plumbing and heating business after his years at Gilman. He first heard about Vail when, in 1959, Peter Seibert attended a Minturn Town Council meeting and said he, along with others, were going to build a resort nearby. The meeting was held in the old Town Hall, where the Burnetts had gone to school.”It sounded very big to me,” Bill Burnett says now, describing his reaction as Seibert outlined what was going to happen. “Seibert told the council they were going to start a ski resort and they might need some help from the fire department, ambulance services, and any other labor sources that we had in Minturn at that time. It was pretty difficult to comprehend.”After the town plan was completed, the infrastructure engineered and the name “Vail” chosen, construction actually started and Burnett’s skepticism faded.Al Cohen’s Denver-based Cohen Construction Company was the main contractor. He was to make a major impact on Vail. Never having built in the high mountains, it was a learning experience. He housed his supervisory employees in the old Delmain Motel and the general store, located in Avon, which then was nothing but a dot on the road 10 miles to the west.Burnett was doing some plumbing work at Delmain. It is hard to believe now, but the motel was located on the right-hand corner of U.S. Highway 6 as one goes up to Beaver Creek today. Included in the motel was a fast-food restaurant and a general store.Cohen liked Burnett and used his plumbing company on many of the first buildings, including Fitzhugh Scott’s Bridge Chalet, built in 1961. The Burnett Plumbing & Heating Company thrives to this day, with son-in-law Jim Lovato at the helm.Bill Burnett says Vail Associates was the damndest customer he ever had. “They wouldn’t pay us. We were in to them for a lot of money. Frank Doll was the paymaster. He would say to me, ‘here’s the pile of bills, let’s see where yours is.’ That’s what we were dealing with at Vail Associates at that time.”Bill Burnett, the independent heating and plumbing contractor, was essential to Vail’s early development. He loves to tell the story about Dec. 15, 1962, the day the Vail Village Inn was set to open. That was during the strike at Climax, when he and another “big miner” named Don Gerstsner were called upon to repair the Inn’s boiler.”John Huebueger from Houston, who was in charge of building the Inn, did it Texas- style. The boiler was placed in the attic,” Burnett says. “To reach the attic you had to go through a trap door in one of the bathrooms on the third floor.”On that day, a pipe broke and water was dripping through the ceiling. We had to fix it immediately because all the rooms were rented, but they were not supposed to rent this one room until we could go up and fix the pipe. Charley Gersbach, the manager, forgot to tell the clerk at the front desk that we were above the bathroom. The clerk rented the room to a couple of young ladies. When we were about to leave, Don said, ‘Well Bill, it’s fixed, let’s go home.’ He stuck his head down and said, ‘Bill! We can’t go down, there is a lady in the bath tub.’ I said, ‘Don, we have to go down, we can’t stay here.'”I crawled down on the vanity. The lady let out a squeal and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘Well, lady, we were fixing pipes and we have to come down this way.'”She gave us a piece of her mind and then told us to get down and get out. Of course we were embarrassed. I’ve seen naked ladies before, but this was a stranger. She was something to behold.”That same night, Burnett continues, Vail Associates held a big opening dinner at the Lodge (at Vail), “a coat-and-tie affair” of about 60 people, he says. Trouble was, Burnett, Willard Wilson and Don Gerstsner were “up to our knees in sewage” in the in basement two levels below the party.”The sewer plugged up. It was running down across the road into Gore Creek. The people upstairs were oblivious to what we were doing,” Burnett says. “We discovered the problem, a 2-by-12 had stuck in the pipe, causing it to overflow into a sump-like service ditch. It was plumb full of sewage. The sewage overflowed and ran outside, across the road and down into Gore Creek. It was a mess. When we fixed the problem we had to wash the sewage away, wash the road with some borrowed water, but we never did wash it down to the creek.”When asked if he got paid for his work, Burnett says his work at the Lodge was disappointing.”They didn’t want to pay for the pipe repairs. They said the ones who did the work should be responsible,” he says. “At the Lodge, Vail Associates didn’t want to pay either. They said the general contractor, Al Cohen, should pay for it.”One of the original investors in the Vail Corporation was John McAllister, who owned and operated the Fleming Lumber Company, located where the Potato Patch is today. Burnett says he deserves a lot of credit.”If they hadn’t been in existence, you would never have built Vail,” Burnett says. “McAllister furnished many services, manpower and equipment that made the job of clearing the mountain easier. And he was located just across the street.”One of his key men, Leonard Ruder, ran the big Cat that cut all the trails, roads and almost everything on the mountain,” Burnett adds. “If Fleming hadn’t had that Cat, I don’t know where you would have gotten one. Rudder is remembered today with a plaque and ski run on Golden Peak.”Fleming also had a crane-like affair that lifted the cut timber off the mountain where the trails and roads are. McAllister then used the material at the Fleming Lumber Company.”A fair exchange.There were many whose lives changed as they became contributors to Vail’s success. Bill Burnett turns 82 years old this month. He’s retired now, still active, living in the same house in which he was born. But he and the other men from the mines and the lumber company were heroes in their day. They were used to the kind of work that was necessary. If it hadn’t been for them, it is hard to imagine how Vail would have been started.Author’s note: The history of Vail’s beginning and the stories of the many people who made it possible seemed to have caught the interest of not only the early visitors, but a vast majority of the newcomers – in particular the younger, curious residents who never knew how, from just a simple ranch in an almost untouched valley, this fabulous place started. My book, “Inventors of Vail,” told one side of the story. On the other side of the mountain, so to speak, is a dramatic part of Vail’s history never before recorded. It is about the work force that built Vail.Many of the residents who lived in the area before Vail chided me that I didn’t give enough credit to “the troops in the trenches,” the locals Vail relied upon to make it all possible. The infamous Burnett brothers, Bill and Pete, still living in their native Minturn, could bring to light the transition from mining to resorting. Although both are recognized in my book, their contributions before and during the building of Vail are laudable. After the book was released I wanted to know more about their backgrounds and the workers who made the transition possible. Their stories are part of Vail’s history, too. This is the first of three articles that came out of a recent chat I had with the Burnett brothers.
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VAIL — The lift operator in the maze at Vail Village’s Gondola One tilts his head back and hollers: “Masks up please!”