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Tourism and Environment in the Colorado High Country

William Philpott

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eBook - ePub


Tourism and Environment in the Colorado High Country

William Philpott

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About This Book

Winner of the Western Writers of America 2014 Spur Award for Best Western Nonfiction, Contemporary

Mention the Colorado high country today and vacation imagery springs immediately to mind: mountain scenery, camping, hiking, skiing, and world-renowned resorts like Aspen and Vail. But not so long ago, the high country was isolated and little visited. Vacationland tells the story of the region's dramatic transformation in the decades after World War II, when a loose coalition of tourist boosters fashioned alluring images of nature in the high country and a multitude of local, state, and federal actors built the infrastructure for high-volume tourism: ski mountains, stocked trout streams, motels, resort villages, and highway improvements that culminated in an entirely new corridor through the Rockies, Interstate 70.

Vacationland is more than just the tale of one tourist region. It is a case study of how the consumerism of the postwar years rearranged landscapes and revolutionized American environmental attitudes. Postwar tourists pioneered new ways of relating to nature, forging surprisingly strong personal connections to their landscapes of leisure and in many cases reinventing their lifestyles and identities to make vacationland their permanent home. They sparked not just a population boom in popular tourist destinations like Colorado but also a new kind of environmental politics, as they demanded protection for the aesthetic and recreational qualities of place that promoters had sold them. Those demands energized the American environmental movement-but also gave it blind spots that still plague it today.

Peopled with colorful characters, richly evocative of the Rocky Mountain landscape, Vacationland forces us to consider how profoundly tourism changed Colorado and America and to grapple with both the potential and the problems of our familiar ways of relating to environment, nature, and place.

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Selling the Scene

AFTER MONTHS OF PLANNING AND PREPARATION, THE TENTH MOUNTAIN Division invaded Aspen in early June 1943. The Third Platoon of the Tenth Recon spearheaded the attack. Striking out from Camp Hale, some twenty miles away, the elite unit traversed the steep-sided Williams Range, crested Red Mountain, and descended its southern face to Hunter Creek. Just beyond huddled vulnerable little Aspen, with its few hundred unarmed residents. The troops met no resistance as they forded the creek and advanced on the town. In fact, scores of townspeople turned out to cheer the invaders as they marched down the main street.
The “invasion,” of course, was a training exercise, and the people of Aspen had met and befriended many of these Tenth Mountain men before. When the whole maneuver was over, trainees and townspeople went together for beers at the Hotel Jerome. That evening, after the soldiers had pitched camp, the socializing resumed, beers giving way to stiffer drinks. Hotel owner Laurence Elisha mixed glass after glass of the house specialty—a thick milkshake generously spiked with whiskey, lovingly dubbed the “Aspen crud.”1
For most of the men, memories of the experience probably dissolved quickly into a crud-induced haze. But at least one soldier—Corporal Friedrich “Friedl” Pfeifer—remembered that sunny June day for the rest of his life. Even fifty years later, he vividly recalled how he felt as his platoon marched down Hunter Creek and came upon Aspen. He felt like he had stumbled upon his hometown, the Austrian ski hamlet of St. Anton am Arlberg, re-created in the Colorado Rockies. Here, halfway around the globe, he saw the same alpine meadows, the same hardy little mountain-bound town, the same steep slopes running right down to the streets, that he had known as a child. It was a revelatory moment for Pfeifer, one that “would change my life,” he later said.2 Because it was then that he first dreamt of making Aspen a “skiing community”: an American St. Anton, where locals and visitors alike would take to the slopes, children would grow up on skis, and the sport would shape people's identities and everyday lives. The whole thing seemed almost predestined, as Pfeifer looked upon Aspen that day in June 1943. “It's made for skiing, it's just a creation for skiing,” he later said of Aspen's alpine setting. “God must have created it just for this.”3
Pfeifer's revelatory first sight marked a critical moment in Aspen's history, for it set in motion the town's reinvention as one of the world's leading ski resorts. But it also carried historical importance far beyond this one community. The Austrian's vision of Aspen and its mountain-meadow surroundings presaged the new ways of seeing the Colorado high country that would assume increasing power after World War II. Most earlier comers had thought this mountainous middle section of Colorado was “created” or “made for” mining, ranching, and other forms of production and extraction. But more and more in the prosperous decades after the war, people would look at the high country through different eyes. They would reassess the environment in light of the booming demand for commercial leisure, and they would decide that the region's most valuable resources were no longer its minerals, timber, or grazing range, but its scenery, climate, recreational amenities, and rustic atmosphere. And they would work to recast the high country in the public imagination, drawing new attention to settings that had gone little noticed or little visited, reimagining them as vacationlands naturally suited for play. Aspen would go first. With the arrival of Pfeifer and like-minded thinkers in the 1940s, it would become the first former mining town to undergo a near-complete conversion to a tourist economy, tourist landscape, and tourist-oriented way of life, setting a precedent for other places to follow.
To be sure, not everyone shared in the grand visions of tourist development. There were still plenty of investors, policy makers, boosters, “expert” observers, and ordinary citizens who scoffed at the idea that mere play would ever bring much wealth to the stagnant high country. They felt sure, based on historical precedent, that only mines and ranches could make a thriving countryside, only factories and processing plants could make prosperous towns. Extraction and production had triggered the booms of the past as surely they would in the future—so went that view. But the recreational revisioning of the high country gained undeniable strength over the course of the 1940s and 1950s. Behind it coalesced a loose but growing coalition of boosters, working at the state and local levels to promote high-country tourism. With varying degrees of sophistication, but with a surprising degree of consistency, they advertised the recreational qualities of the high country, constructing for it a highly marketable new image as a land nature-made for leisure.
IF ASPEN'S PACESETTING CONVERSION TO TOURISM BEGAN IN EARNEST with Pfeifer's “invasion” in 1943, it accelerated two years later when Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke brought his own resort-building vision to town. Like the wealthy Denverites who had pushed for scenic drives, ski hills, and mountain parks in the early twentieth century, both Paepcke and Pfeifer combined profit- and pleasure-seeking motives. But unlike those earlier Denver promoters, Pfeifer and Paepcke fixed their tourist visions on a living, functioning community. They envisioned this community as a perfect place for pleasure, though it was not actually “made for” that any more than it was made for mining or ranching. Pfeifer and Paepcke would need to change many things about Aspen and its environs to create the leisure atmosphere they desired. Paepcke in particular would see fit to modify land and buildings; local culture, law, and livelihood; property ownership and even the makeup of the populace—all to turn Aspen into the pleasure resort he envisioned. As Aspen in the 1940s showed, when tourism took root in a place, it had a way of changing almost everything.
As for Friedl Pfeifer, while growing up in the Austrian Tyrol in the 1920s and 1930s, he never guessed he would end up in the American West. But he did, just like so many other people, military and civilian, who either found themselves stationed in the West during World War II or flocked to the region to take wartime jobs. After V-J Day many of these newcomers stayed or returned, drawn by the lifestyle, scenery, or climate—or most often the jobs, as western metropolises like Los Angeles remained flush despite demobilization, and jobs were abundant.4
So Pfeifer was one of many who found his future western home during the war and returned after the peace. His route had been more circuitous than most, though. Born into a St. Anton farm family, he had grown into a champion ski racer, fled Austria after the Anschluss, taught skiing in Australia, and then directed the ski school at Sun Valley, the Union Pacific Railroad's ritzy new resort in Idaho—all this before the United States entered the war, the navy converted Sun Valley into a convalescent center, and Pfeifer volunteered for the army's new Tenth Mountain Division as a “soldier on skis.” That was the decision that brought him to Camp Hale, Colorado, and thence to Aspen. But before he could settle there, he still had to fight with the Tenth in Italy, suffer near-fatal wounds in the battle of Riva Ridge, and recuperate in military hospitals in Florida, California, and Colorado Springs. Only then was he finally able to return to the town that had so bewitched him in 1943. Discharged from the army, he raced back to Aspen and rented a house for himself and his wife and toddler daughter. “I felt,” he marveled years later, “like I had come home.”5
It is safe to say it was not a bustling, Los Angeles–like economy that drew him. Aspen had been built on silver mining, and the silver market had crashed in 1893—which meant the town, when Pfeifer first saw it, was slumbering through its fiftieth consecutive “quiet year,” as locals called them. What excited Pfeifer was not the economic but the physical environment. Mountains for him were objects of reverence; he was taken with the way Aspen nestled, St. Anton–like, amid them, and the steep mountain that rose directly above town seemed to him divinely created for skiing. Actually, it was artificially created too: by the time Pfeifer arrived, the telltale signs of ski development were already visible up on Aspen Mountain, called Ajax by the locals. In 1936 three men—an Olympic bobsledder, an eastern investor, and a mining man who had spent his boyhood in Aspen—had announced plans for a ski resort several miles south of town, and they had brought in Swiss mountaineer André Roch to design the ski runs.6 Roch also mapped out a run on Ajax, which the newly organized town ski club, together with crews from the Works Progress Administration, cleared in summer 1937. Called the Roch Run, it streaked down the steepest part of the mountain and for part of its length zigzagged back and forth in a harrowing “corkscrew.” Soon the ski club added a crude “boat tow” to haul skiers up the mountainside, cut more trails, built a jump, and began hosting races, culminating in the 1941 National Alpine Championships. So when Pfeifer first saw Aspen, it was already on the map for those in the skiing know.7
But it was really just an old mining town with a few ski runs. Pfeifer imagined it becoming something more: what he called a “skiing community,” a town defined by the sport. He imagined teaching locals, especially children, to ski, strengthening them in body, character, and spirit, instilling in them the same reverence for mountains that he felt. He would mentor them into champions whose racing trophies would restore pride to the town. And people from around the world would come to Aspen for its ski school, rescuing the local economy from dependence on a dead old industry. Pfeifer believed all of this really could happen—because it already had in his hometown of St. Anton. There, he had seen how local farmers made money by hiring out their sleighs as taxis, local tailors by sewing and selling ski clothes, local homeowners by renting rooms to tourists, local skiers by teaching the tourists how to ski. He had seen how St. Anton's young skiers (like himself) had brought repute to the town by winning races all over Europe. And he had seen how wealthy visitors from Britain, the Continent, and even America flocked to St. Anton's ski school to learn its renowned “Arlberg” technique (invented by Pfeifer's own mentor, Hannes Schneider). St. Antonites, in short, had revived and reoriented everything about their town to center around skiing—from its economy to its communal identity, from the way its land was used to the way its kids were raised. Pfeifer thought he could help Aspenites do the same.8
Before being shipped off to Italy, Pfeifer and other soldiers of the Tenth Mountain Division befriended a number of people in town, especially Aspen Ski Club members like Hotel Jerome owner Laurence Elisha, shoemaker and ski shop proprietor Mike Magnifico, and Midnight Mine owners Fred and Frank Willoughby. Townspeople and Tenth Mountain men spent winter Saturdays slogging or boat-towing up the mountain together and racing down as fast as they dared; then, as the sun slipped behind the Elk Range, they might crowd into Magnifico's ski shop, where tales of the day's thrills mingled with the rich and oily fragrance of varnished wood, leather, and ski wax. Many evenings ended with cruds at the Jerome. In his friendships with these local ski fanatics, Pfeifer sensed support for his dream of making Aspen a skiing community.9 It is hard to gauge what other Aspenites thought, though. When Pfeifer, at Elisha's urging, went before the city council to outline his ideas, the town clerk made only brief note of his presentation and none at all of how the council reacted. “Mr phiffer spoke on future of aspen skiing and his plans,” she scrawled, not quite sure what to make of the Austrian's last name, much less his grand vision.10
Converting local residents to the idea of a skiing community was one thing. Converting the local landscape was another. When Pfeifer stood atop Aspen Mountain, he wrote years later, “I envisioned the [ski] runs cut naturally with the contours of the mountain, blending with the meadows, gorges, and glades.” So naturally did the terrain seem to lend itself to the sport that Pfeifer invoked Providence to explain it. But people before him had already claimed the terrain for another use: mining. Unseen to Pfeifer, as he admired the mountain's physical contours, were contours of another kind: invisible property lines crisscrossing the slopes, a crazy mosaic of mining claims dating back to 1879. Before leaving for Italy, Pfeifer spent weekends traipsing over the mountain face, sizing up possible locations for runs and lifts.11 But before he could build anything, he would have to negotiate the legal landscape that overlaid the physical one. Everywhere he wanted a trail or tow, he would have to track down the claim holders or their heirs and secure a deed, lease, or easement for that piece of land.
He got help from his ski club friends. The Willoughby brothers offered rights-of-way for tows and trails to pass over their Midnight Mine property, and Magnifico sold Pfeifer some scraps of mountainside he had bought for back taxes.12 Much trickier was getting access to the Smuggler-Durant property, one of Aspen's richest claims back in the 1880s. The route Pfeifer had picked for his main tow ran right over this property, necessitating an easement, purchase, or lease. But owner D. R. C. “Darcy” Brown Jr., whose father had made millions off the Smuggler mine, was skeptical at first that Pfeifer's plans were serious and not just cover for a shady speculative scheme. Only after a year of negotiating, largely involving surrogates because Pfeifer was hospitalized and Brown was stationed in the Pacific, did Brown finally agree in late 1945 to lease his land. Pfeifer secured a third lease, covering the Spar Consolidated claims, soon after, so that by March 1946 he had surface rights for all his planned ski tows and trails.13
Leasing claims was long-standing practice in mining districts like Aspen. It was a new twist, though, for the lessee to be utterly uninterested in mining. Indeed, Pfeifer did not even bother to lease underground mineral rights; his leases applied only to the surface. And remaking the surface for skiing would involve removing evidence of mining—like pits, headframes, ore bins, and waste rock dumps—to make way for lift towers and ski runs. In other words, for the first time in Aspen, someone was using land for purposes that were not just different from but incompatible with mining. Seen in this light, Pfeifer's three leases on Aspen Mountain marked a historic first step toward the overhauling of the local landscape into a landscape of leisure.
The human landscape began to change likewise. Aspen's population swelled immediately after the war, and many of the newcomers looked a lot like Pfeifer: newly discharged Tenth Mountain veterans who gravitated back to Aspen primarily for recreational reasons—primarily, that is, for skiing. Some, like Percy Rideout and Johnny Litchfield, worked for Pfeifer's ski school; others started shops or other businesses; each had his own story. But for all of them, Aspen's allure lay chiefly in skiing. And they, like Pfeifer, began to change the landscape to cater to skiers. Litchfield, for one, bought an old saloon where miners had once gathered, cleaned up its vintage 1892 woodwork (finding, to his delight, colorful inlay designs under the half century of grime), and reopened it as a funky, fashionable new tavern called the Red Onion. Fritz Benedict, newly trained as an architect, paid twelve thousand dollars for six hundred acres of ranchland on Red Mountain, overlooking Aspen on the north, and began surveying streets and lot lines amid the grass, scrub oak, and sage. Red Mountain, Aspen's first luxury-home subdivision, opened to buyers in 1947. Ranchland, like mining land, was giving way to the emerging landscape of leisure.14
Meanwhile, Pfeifer went about creating the infrastructure for his skiing community. He partnered with Mike Magnifico to expand the ski shop to handle many more customers, and he struck an agreement with the Aspen Ski Club to build a new rope tow. Ski club volunteers also spent the summer and fall of 1945 digging out boulders and chopping down aspens and pines on the mountain to make way for more ski trails. The clearances they left on the slopes, visible from anywhere in town, were the clearest signs yet of Aspen's nascent recreational makeover. Pfeifer's ski school opened in December and started slow, but by February 1946 scores of skiers dotted the steep face of Aspen Mountain, skidding and tumbling their way down the runs.15
Neither Pfeifer nor his fellow Tenth Mountain veterans had the means to make wholesale changes in Aspen. But the small shifts they set in motion set the stage for bigger ones to come. The men represented a new kind of local who would soon become much more numerous: the kind whose lifestyle choices—including the choice of where to live—revolved around outdoor leisure. They brought new ways of seeing the land: Pfeifer looking at Aspen Mountain and seeing ski terrain, Benedict casting his eye on the mountain opposite and imagining vacation houses with scenic valley views. And Pfeifer worked especially hard to win others to his way of seeing. Aspen as a skiing community, Aspen as a natural place for skiing—he painted these pictures over and over for local officials, ski club members, and ski journalists. In turn, the ski magazines spread his vision across the nation. “He has visions of lodges and ski huts dotting the Colorado snow basins,” one magazine said of Pfeifer, “so ski trips can be made throughout the entire area.”16 Colorado's high country, remade as a paradise for skiers—images like this one focused armchair skiers' sights on Aspen and the su...

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Citation styles for Vacationland
APA 6 Citation
Philpott, W. (2013). Vacationland ([edition unavailable]). University of Washington Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2013)
Chicago Citation
Philpott, William. (2013) 2013. Vacationland. [Edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press.
Harvard Citation
Philpott, W. (2013) Vacationland. [edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Philpott, William. Vacationland. [edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press, 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.