Vail at 60: The road to Vail’s Opening Day in 1962
The journey to opening up North America's newest ski area in 1962 was not a straight line, but Pete Seibert and Earl Eaton had one clear vision
The Vail Daily’s Tricia Swenson compiled the following information on the events leading up to Vail’s opening six decades ago from talks with longtime locals and from books, “Vail: Triumph of a Dream” by Pete Seibert, “Vail: Story of a Colorado Mountain Valley” by June Simonton and “The Inventors of Vail” by Dick Hauserman.
- The primary inhabitants of the valley where Vail now sits were the Utes, a Native American tribe who called this area the Shining Mountains. Archaeologists have found arrowheads showing hunting activity and deer and elk were plentiful. The Utes moved with the seasons and dwelled in this area during the summers.
- The Gore Range and Gore Creek got their name from Sir St. George Gore, otherwise known as Lord Gore. Although not from royalty, Gore was a wealthy baronet from Ireland who came to America for a three-year hunting outing. He lived an extravagant lifestyle and his camp supplies included a silk tent with carpet, a bathtub, and a fur-lined toilet seat.
- John Wesley Powell, Ferdinand V. Hayden, William Henry Jackson and Thomas Moran, all associated with the Great Surveys of the American West, passed through the Gore Creek Valley between 1868 and 1879. The highest peak in the Gore Range is named for Powell.
- Although the nearby community of Leadville was known for mining, homesteaders came to the Gore Creek Valley to farm and ranch. Many had been miners and they were looking for fresh air and to work on the land.
- Lettuce was a popular item that grew well at 7,000 feet above sea level. Lettuce was the king crop for several years during the 1920s, but deer often ate the lettuce in the fields and the farmers didn’t know enough about soil treatment and rotating crops.
- Cattle and sheep ranches filled the Gore Creek Valley. The Kellog, Katsos, Kiahtipeses and the Hass families were just a few that lived along Gore Creek and Red Sandstone Creek. Frank and Marge Hass would welcome soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, the Army winter warfare unit that would train at Camp Hale, to their home for a warm meal cooked by Marge. Margie’s Haas is the name of the restaurant at The Hythe Vail that pays homage to this early pioneer.
- The soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division are credited with shaping the outdoor industry, especially the ski industry, upon their return from the battles of World War II. Over 60 ski areas like Vail, Aspen and Arapahoe Basin were founded, managed or employed 10th Mountain Division soldiers.
- Pete Seibert was a member of the famed ski troopers of the 10th Mountain division. Earl Eaton was not in the 10th Mountain Division, but he was in the Army and served in World War II. The two are credited with starting Vail Mountain.
- Earl Eaton grew up outside of Edwards and his family grew lettuce on 160 homesteaded acres. Eaton joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, an organization created by President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, to give people some work during the Depression. In the early 1940s, Eaton helped with the construction of Camp Hale.
- Seibert was known as the “founder” and Eaton was known as the “finder.” The two met while working in Aspen and at Loveland. Eaton grew up in the Eagle River Valley and knew the area well. He was a uranium prospector in the summer and had vast knowledge of isolated Colorado terrain. He took Seibert up what is now Vail Mountain on March 19, 1957.
- Pete Seibert grew up in New England and had always envisioned creating a ski resort. He was seriously injured in a battle in the Appenine Mountains in northern Italy during the war. He was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star but doctors said he might never walk again, and skiing was out of the question. He spent 17 months in Army hospitals after he was injured. In 1946, he went to Aspen and by 1947 he was not only walking, he was skiing and ski racing. Seibert made the U.S. Alpine Ski Team in 1950.
- Seibert attended a French-language hotel school in Switzerland to learn about European hospitality and service. He also worked on the ski patrol in Aspen and managed Loveland Ski Area to prepare himself for building a ski area of his own one day.
- Vail was named after Vail Pass, which was named after Charles Vail, the chief engineer of the Colorado Department of Transportation who paved numerous roads throughout the state. Some suggested it be called by the Ute name for the area, the Shining Mountains, but Seibert said the word shining reminded him of icy slopes and he didn’t want that associated with Vail. Seibert also wanted a short, one-word name like Aspen and Alta.
- On May 11, 1959, Pete Seibert and Earl Eaton applied for a permit from the U.S. Forest Service for year-round recreation development in Vail. The U.S. forest service replied and denied it for the following reasons:
- There is no real public need for the development at this time.
- We have an obligation to existing area permittees, especially at Aspen, who are entitled to complete their development and be allowed to ‘get in the black’ before new areas are permitted on this forest.
- Attorneys for Vail appealed immediately and after several months Vail was granted the permit on Sept. 9, 1959.
- Seibert and Eaton created the fictional organization called the Transmontane Rod and Gun Club because, in an era where so many others were trying to find the next spot to build a ski area, they didn’t want their plans to be known, which may have led to a spike in land prices. The name was eventually changed to Vail Associates, Ltd.
- In 1960, other than land, the sole assets of Vail Associates consisted of a jeep, a tin-roofed hut and an outhouse on the mountain and a little red over-the-snow vehicle called the Kristi Kat.
- The Kristi Kat is credited with wowing prospective investors after Pete Seibert or Earl Eaton would take them up the mountain and show them their plans for Vail.
- The first board of directors meeting was held on Jan. 9, 1960. Board members were Fritz Benedict, Dick Hauserman, Jack Tweedy, George Caulkins, Fitzhugh Scott, Pete Seibert, Harley Higbie, Bob Fowler and Gerry Hart.
- To raise money to develop Vail Mountain, Pete Seibert and George Caulkins, an early investor and partner in Vail, packed their bags and a movie projector and got into Caulkins’ Porsche and went across the country to solicit funds. For $10,000 each investor would get four lifetime season passes and they sweetened the offer by adding a plot of land to the deal.
- Snow was scarce that first season, but by Christmas, a storm had rolled in and provided more snow. When early snowfall was scarce at the start of the second season, the Southern Utes were brought in to do a snow dance on Dec. 9, 1963. That season it snowed abundantly a few days after the tribe left and the area had good snow through April.
- The Lodge at Vail and the Vail Village Inn were the first hotels built in Vail.
- Pete Seibert called upon his former coworkers in Aspen to come to help him with Vail’s Ski School. Morrie Shepard and Rod Slifer took the job with Shepard becoming the director of Vail Ski School and Slifer becoming the assistant ski school director as well as a real estate agent in the growing town. A one-day class lesson cost $6.50.
- Vail Mountain opened on Dec. 15, 1962. The first day, the lifts spun for free, but lift tickets were $5 that season. The ski area had three lifts operating on that day: the four-person gondola from the base, a lift that went from Mid-Vail to the top of the mountain, and one lift in the Back Bowls.