Literally from the ground up
Vail needed a work force, and it was suddenly available. Carpenters, electricians, engineers, cement workers, plumbers and laborers were ready and willing to help. They came from Climax, Gypsum, the Fleming Lumber Company and other industries throughout the valley. Many of them lived in a temporary trailer park on in what would some day be middle of town.The younger brother of Bill Burnett by several years, Pete Burnett was on the Minturn Fire Department before Vail even was a place at all. From Vail’s beginning, he worked for those responsible for the early development, and by time the town was formed in 1966, he’d become a key employee.”The first winter was nothing but hell, with Leonard Ruder and Earl Eaton,” says Pete Burnett. “They used the big dozer to plow the streets. As I said before we had difficulty getting the streets to their proper engineered levels. Some of the manholes were too high. Leonard would shear them off, fill the holes up with bricks and dirt and soon the sewers would plug up. It was a mess. I had a man named Leon Grant working for me, and for several years we had to swab out the sewers.”Building a town from scratch in the mountains took time and patience.The original sewage plant in Vail, for example, also was very inadequate, presenting the town with a number of challenges.”The old sewage plant was located where the library is today. It was a real problem. We always had an excess of sludge and needed some place to put it, because the plant would become overloaded and run into the creek,” says Pete Burnett. “We built some sludge beds outside the sewer plant that were like little gardens. They were framed with 2-by-6 boards and were about 20 feet square. The sludge was pumped into the beds.”One thing you can’t get rid of in a sewer plant are tomato seeds and greenery, like lettuce and stuff. So, when summer came, we had a wonderful garden growing with nothing but tomatoes. They would only get about the size of a golf ball. One of the men I had working for me, Kenneth King, another old timer, would pick them, put them in his lunch box, take them home and fry them.”At that time, there only were a few homes on the lower side of Beaver Dam Road between the road and Gore Creek. The sewer line was up on the road. Lift stations were necessary because of the low terrain, peat moss and beaver dams. There were four homes – the Hankammers,’ Polly Royce’s, the Langmaids’ and the Malenkrodts’ – on the lower side of the road. Isabel Schober lived in the Malenkrodts’ house.”We had to work on those lift stations constantly,” says Pete Burnett. “Every week we were over there, including Saturdays and Sundays. Sometimes even at midnight, it didn’t make any difference. It was so important to pump that sewage up to the main sewer line.”It took several years before a system that worked was installed.Pete Burnett likes to tell about when Austin Offerson owned part of Beaver Creek. A road in Beaver Creek now is named after him. Pete Burnett’s group rented one of Offerson’s trucks so often, Offerson finally told him to keep it.”Every day,” he says, “we would fill the truck with debris from the sewage plant and dump it in a landfill where the Lionshead Parking Structure is today.”Years later, around 1970 when Lionshead was being built, Ruder, the chief bulldozer operator, came stomping into Pete Burnett’s office covered with smelly dirt and madder than hell. He tried to shake it off with his cap, but the fan nearby blew it all over him. He was very upset.A gravel pit was dug sometime before the parking structure was started. As they moved eastward in their digging for gravel they began running into the smelly trash, including some old cars.Again, says Pete Burnett, “that’s why they didn’t dig further east toward where the library is. They didn’t know what trash had been buried there.”Tom Bourke and Sid Blandford started the B&B Excavating company, which grew into one of Colorado’s largest firms today.”They were quite a company,” says Pete Burnett. “We worked with them for numerous years building roads, paving and what have you. That company was part of the backbone of Vail. Without B&B on the spot, it would have been slow going.”Building the original gondola was quite a challenge, too. That’s when Don Ginther, who worked with Bill Burnett at the Gilman Mine, proved himself to be a leader. Harold Bellam was in charge of pouring the cement for the towers that carried the gondola. Ben High from Climax became the chief electrician. Skilled engineers and carpenters made the construction easier.Then there was Ken King, head supervisor on the gondola. Burnett says King was like a cat.”He would climb all the towers to grease the shives for the cable while the gondola was actually running. One night when he was doing his work, he became trapped. No one came to help him. He was concerned. It was about 8 o’clock in the evening,” Pete Burnett says. “In each gondola, in case of evacuation, there is a thin cord that the passengers can drop to the ground for the Ski Patrol, who in turn attach it to a sturdy rope to be pulled up so the passenger can slide down. Ken managed to slide down the little string to safety. How he ever made it I’ll never know.”All the wonderful people who helped build Vail became part of Vail. They were the maintenance workers, the backbone personnel who created the foundation to make Vail a reality. As Vail became an internationally famous ski resort attracting the rich and famous to its beautiful slopes, however, a note of sadness crept into the idyllic fairy tale. There was a changing of the guard, so to speak, and many of the original people on whom so much depended were let go.”Vail brought in a bunch of people who were college graduates, who thought they knew more than these people,” says Pete Burnett, now 74 years old and retired. “They thought they no longer needed the others because they were not that well-educated.”There is no stopping progress. But it can be controlled. If only the ones taking over would be more sensitive in the way they assume power. They seem to be oblivious to the emotional upheaval they cause in families who depended on growing with the developing community.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 second of three articles that came out of a recent chat I had with the Burnett brothers.