Overcoming unique obstacles
“When I started I was working for Vail Associates,” Pete Burnett says. “Pete Seibert came up on the mountain and brought me down to meet an Art Holland, who was in charge of Gas Facilities, Inc., and worked for the Caulkins Oil Company in Denver. I was told I was going to work for the gas company. I said, ‘Hell, I don’t know anything about gas!’ Art said, ‘Well, you are going to learn fast!'”Art and I became acquainted and he said, ‘the first thing we are going to need is a water distribution system.’ So we went up on the mountain to Tank No.1, which was on the hill behind Mill Creek Circle. We were to capture the water from a spring there, put it into a pipeline, which would carry the water to a 90,000-gallon steel water tank.”With Don Ginthers help, we started building the forms for a box that would catch the water. We had two or three other people from Climax to help. However, when we got it all ready to go the whole damn thing blew out and down the hill it went. I went down and met with Art Holland, figuring this was the end of my job. Art said, ‘don’t feel bad. We have had worse problems with our sewage treatment plant down here. Go back up and get that box built!’ The second time it worked, and we were able to get water to the tank.”In 1962, when Vail opened on the 15th of December, I went up the hill to see how much water was in the tank,” Pete Burnett continues. “There was only an alarming 4 feet. I hurried down to get Pete Seibert to tell him we were in trouble. He was in a board meeting in the Hauserman Building. A young lady at the door asked me what I wanted. I said we were out of water. She said, ‘well, I’m sorry, but we are in a board meeting.’ The door flew open and all the board members came running out. There were quite a few – Morrie Shepard, Pete Seibert, Earl Eaton and other people I didn’t know.”So it was almost midnight when we went back up the hill and started stringing fire hoses, which we gathered from every source of water we could find and started pumping water into the tank. We worked all night, and finally filled the tank. About 10 o’clock the next morning, I had a call from the Lodge at Vail. The cook was complaining. He said something was wrong with his potatoes. I went over to see what was wrong. The potatoes looked like they were full of small flies. What happened was it was the residue from some of the beaver ponds from which we were pumping water.”The water supply barely made it through that first year. It was touch-and-go, and it was the only water supply the town had.”Pete Burnett’s boss, Art Holland, finally was able to get the sewage plant in operation by renting a sewage treatment truck from a gentleman from Breckenridge.Meanwhile, the gas lines laid throughout the town of Vail were made of welded steel pipe. There were no service lines from the streets to the houses, however, and Bill Burnett, who had a welding degree, you might say, had the job of welding the service pipes.”People talk about getting down in a hole with a mountain lion,” Bill Burnett says. “Well, getting down in the hole with a gas line, taking the torch and welding tees on the main line was something. One had to be extremely careful that you didn’t blow a hole in the pipe or there would be a gas stream of fire 20 feet high in the air. The sweat runs all over you when you are down in the hole welding those tees on. Being a certified welder didn’t help, because there wasn’t anything one could do but make sure you welded the tee on the pipe.”Pete Burnett loves to tell how Claire Elliott, the first policeman hired by Vail Associates, and quite a character, was the subject of many tales, both serious and humorous.”Claire Elliott got around pretty much with everything that was going on in town,” says Pete Burnett. “He was known to be a ladies man and was fun to be with. One night, Pete Seibert asked me if I had seen Claire. At the time we were unloading a transport transferring propane gas from the truck to the gas line system. Claire was also supposed to be the fire chief. Seibert said, ‘Pete, I can’t find Claire.’ I said, ‘I’ll find him for you.'”From the transport truck we had propane gas flowing into a 13,000-gallon storage tank that was located on the old parking lot near the highway, next to my old shop that Vail Associates used where the present parking structure is today.”With a grin on my face, I cracked open the valve on the tank and it blew a flame up in the air about 400 feet high. That was how we got rid of the remaining fuel in the transporter after the propane tank was full. Seibert, who was standing there, asked, ‘well, what’s that going to do?’ I said, ‘Just wait.'”In five minutes, here comes Claire. He had seen the flame. To this day, I don’t know what Seibert wanted him for, but it was my way of locating Claire Elliott.”We had two of those storage tanks. The other was located where the library is. In 1962 up until 1964, Vail was running on part propane and part natural gas. We would heat the propane with heaters to turn the propane into natural gas. The system was on what they called “demand meter.’ When it met the demand we made gas so that the Caulkins Oil & Gas Company didn’t have to pay a penalty for using too much natural gas.”Pete Burnett loves to tell the story about running the gas service lines from the main line in town to all the houses under construction at the time.”We were at risk many times,” says Pete Burnett. “I didn’t know anything about gas until I met the Caulkins Oil Company. They were wonderful people to work for. Bob Holland was a very knowledgeable person about all that stuff. I don’t know where he got his knowledge. On several occasions we would go to Rifle and other places to buy tanks. Arrangements were then made for the tanker trucks to come here.”I ordered the propane gas,” he continues. The law would not permit the delivery of propane gas unless you could empty the entire truck. As a result, we had to let the tank gas level go down to a point where it could take all the gas from the tanker that was arriving. Many times I would be up all night watching our tank, then call the trucking company to tell them I needed a tank load. This happened often and the trucker could never find a place to stay. So I would have to take him home.”My wife, Ella, said, ‘Why don’t you get a better job? This is not working.'”The stories of Pete and Bill Burnett could fill many books about Vail’s beginning years, as a constant stream of stories still flows from their memories. With so much uncertainty – and no safety precautions – there were many situations in which workers’ lives were in danger with no supervision, leaving them to find out many things for themselves.Through their efforts, though, we are here today, many years later, still digging up bits and pieces about the beginning of this fantastic place.The more information the merrier. It might be interesting reading, but most important, it adds to the documented history of one of the country’s most unusual success stories.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 third of three articles that came out of a recent chat I had with the Burnett brothers.