What’s in a name? Charles Vail scrapbooks now cataloged, available to researchers at Denver Public Library | VailDaily.com
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What’s in a name? Charles Vail scrapbooks now cataloged, available to researchers at Denver Public Library

Materials were invaluable to writers of new Vail biography

Vera Vail Winslow’s scrapbooks about her father, Charles Vail, were cataloged by the Denver Public Library in April and are now available to researchers.
John LaConte/Vail Daily

The word “Vail” was spoken throughout Colorado for decades before the chairlifts started running in 1962, and was commonly seen in newspapers for more than 15 years before Vail Pass opened in 1940.

That’s because Charles Davis Vail, the governor-appointed state highway engineer, was “a politically astute bureaucrat and a vibrant personality who carried a vest pocket full of cigars to hand out,” writes “Dr. Colorado” Tom Noel.

Noel published a biography of Charles Davis Vail in 2020, and while the book is already becoming hard to find, Vail’s grandson Charles Daniel Vail still has copies for sale and can be reached at cdvm1@yahoo.com.



Noel wrote the book with the help of Shelby Carr, a genealogical researcher with a graduate degree in history from the University of Colorado. Noel and Carr traced the Vail family line back to 1640, when Thomas Vail sailed to America with his wife, Sarah. The Vails would eventually settle Green Brook, New Jersey, where “no family is more continuously associated with the community than that of the Vails,” according to the Green Brook historical society, which Noel and Carr contacted for their Vail biography.

A selection of the Charles Davis Vail papers which are now on file at the Denver Public Library’s Western History and Genealogy department.
John LaConte/Vail Daily

The publication of the biography has helped the Vail area of Colorado become more familiar with its namesake, says Dr. Rudi Hartmann, a colleague of Noel’s at the University of Colorado Denver.



In a presentation to the Colorado Snowsports Museum in March, Hartmann, who is now retired, said he’s enjoying the fact that locals in recent years have been learning more about Charles Davis Vail.

“He’s not so known here in the village, but he’s getting better known, I think,” Hartmann said.

Charles Vail received much press as the Denver manager of improvements and parks, the governor-appointed state highway engineer, and the president of the Democratic Club of Colorado. Newspaper clippings about Vail are now on file at the Denver Public Library in the Charles Davis Vail papers.
John LaConte/Vail Daily

On CDOT’s desk

In October, as CDOT Transportation Director Shoshana Lew visited EagleVail to help cut the ribbon on a new section of the Eagle Valley Trail along Highway 6, Lew mentioned Charles Vail as the namesake of not just Vail, but EagleVail, as well.

“(The EagleVail section of Highway 6) was completed in 1940, as was the original Vail Pass, named after one of our original engineers, Charles Vail,” Lew said. “We have his biography on our desk at headquarters.”

To create the biography, Noel and Carr relied heavily on the scrapbooks of Charles Vail’s daughter, Vera Vail Winslow, a CU-educated historian.

A biography of Charles Vail, published in 2019, used materials from Vera Vail Winslow’s scrapbooks, which are now available to researchers at the Denver Public Library.
Courtesy image

“Vera’s education paid off for the family as she turned into the family historian,” Noel and Carr wrote. “She assembled two extensive scrapbooks rich in newspaper clippings, letters and other materials. The scrapbooks focus exclusively on the career of her father, Charles Davis Vail, and the many newspaper clippings include negative as well as positive press.”

The scrapbooks were donated to the Western History and Genealogy Department of the Denver Public Library, the place where, as author Jack Roberts once wrote, “All trails in Western History lead.”

In recent weeks, the Vera Vail Winslow scrapbooks have been cataloged by the library and are now available to researchers. Noel helped assemble the collection, which was donated by Vail’s granddaughter Nancy W. Keyes.

“The scrapbooks contain extensive newspaper clippings about (Vail’s) work in Colorado, some photographs and correspondence,” according to the library catalog. “The collection also includes some research materials about Vail’s life and family history (Vail family genealogy) as well as portrait photographs of Charles Vail and some family photographs of his siblings, children, and grandchildren.”

A newspaper article about Charles Davis Vail says the highway engineer smoked an estimated 5,375 cigars per year. The article, seen here in a recent photograph, is part of the Vera Vail Winslow scrapbooks which have been recently made available to researchers at the Denver Public Library.
John LaConte/Vail Daily

‘The more important pass’

One of the scrapbooks begins with a humorous story about Vail, titled “Engineer Vail Cuts His Cigar Smoking Down to 15 a Day,” estimating that Vail smoked an estimated 5,375 cigars per year.

Noel and Carr’s biography contains some astounding tales, as well – of Vail’s run-in with Mexican Revolutionary Pancho Villa; of Vail’s decades long feud with Governor Edwin Johnson and The Denver Post; and of the first Vail Pass in Colorado, Monarch Pass, which “passed the ultimate test,” Noel and Carr write, when a bus full of Western State College football players experienced brake-and-gear failure and was forced to negotiate the pass at speeds in excess of 100 mph.

“The driver negotiated the 4,262 drop only by using the wide, banked curves that engineer Vail had designed,” Noel and Carr write.

Noel and Carr’s biography also contains the interesting story of how Monarch Pass lost its “Vail Pass” moniker, despite the fact that commissioners of 14 southern Colorado counties passed a resolution that Monarch Pass be renamed in honor of Vail.

But, as Hartmann pointed out in his presentation to the Colorado Snowsports Museum in March, “Vail Pass has become the more important pass, compared to Monarch, and maybe one of the best-known, most used passes not only in Colorado, but in the American West.”

Noel and Carr said they could not have written the biography without Vera Vail Winslow’s scrapbooks.

“These materials were invaluable,” the authors wrote.


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