The Valley of Opportunity: A History of West-Central Colorado
BLM Cultural Resource Series (Colorado: No. 12)
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Chapter XII:

"Things just ain't the same around here no more, all them super highways and tourists and all. Just not the same."

—Old Timer—

World War II ended the Great Depression for west-central Colorado's farmers and businessmen much the same as for regional mining interests. Increased wartime needs of food, transportation, and manpower virtually dried up unemployment in the area. The conflict also led to new Federal activities in the region, specifically Camp Hale and the Tenth Mountain Division. Army presence and the soldiers' experiences in Colorado led to a post-war revival of tourism and to development of a new visitor industry—skiing. National prosperity during the 1950s and 1960s furthered this trend. Two resorts, Aspen and Vail, became world-renown winter sports centers. The post-war era was a period of rapid expansion and development for west-central Colorado's vacation spots. All of the region benefitted from increased tourist traffic. However, other area businesses experienced a continuation of patterns of growth established long before World War II. Grand Junction remained the economic and political center of the Western Slope. Agri-business prospered since 1940, but no startling new developments have occurred to change basic land use patterns.

Farming, since World War II, continued to dominate the economic life of west-central Colorado, especially Mesa County. Irrigation remained crucial to agriculture and was the prevailing method of production by 1960. [1] These lands produced 20 different crops while the adjacent dry land farms raised only wheat. [2] Grand Valley fruit continued to be important in irrigated agriculture.

By 1941, as area farmers increased output for war needs, a new cannery was opened at Palisade. This plant was larger than the older units, but those smaller operations continued. It purchased raw fruit by the ton, rather than by the bushel or pound. [3] By 1945, Mesa County led all Colorado counties in fruit production with nearly $4 million worth of fruit grown that year. [4] By that time, Grand Valley fruit growers had accomplished a long-time ambition; to gain nationwide recognition and marketing for their produce. Since the war, fruit raising and processing has remained a major part of the local economy. [5]

Stock raising has been equally significant to west-central Colorado in the period after 1945. The use of Federal lands for grazing has continued as beneficial to ranchers because range improvements carried out by agencies, particularly the Bureau of Land Management, increased forage production. During the 1920s and 1930s, the numbers of sheep increased and this continued into the 1960s. At that point, some woolgrowers started to decrease their flocks due to predator loss. Some sheepmen attributed this increase to less effective methods of control made necessary by stricter state and local regulations regarding the use of poisons and other devices. [6] No matter what the cause, there was a decline in sheep numbers over the period from 1960 to 1980.

Another factor that has contributed to the decline of west-central Colorado livestock production is the shrinking number of farms and ranches. As urban growth occurs, more and more farm land is taken out of production. Also, as oil shale development appeared imminent, many companies entered the region and bought up farms and ranches in the Grand Valley near Rifle and Grand Valley (Parachute). Most of the land remained in agricultural production but in the future, if oil shale becomes commercially viable, that change of ownership may lead to radical changes in Grand Valley farming. [7] As the Second World War and post-war policies affected regional farming, so, too, has it changed tourism in west-central Colorado.

In 1938, as the clouds of war darkened over Europe, the United States Army began planning for the future. As part of this process, it realized that any conflict in Europe would entail combat in mountainous regions such as Italy and to prepare American troops for that eventuality, it was determined to train soldiers in mountain warfare. The Army started buying or taking over National Forest and/or National Monument land near Pando, Colorado, just west of Tennessee Pass in that year for such an instruction facility. [8] In 1942, after the United States had entered the war, the Army constructed Camp Hale on these lands. Winter of that year saw the first troops in place and undergoing rigorous alpine training in all facets of soldiering, while also learning to ski and survive sub-zero cold. Camp Hale, named after Colorado's General Irving Hale, became the home of the Tenth U.S. Mountain Division. The base remained active from 1942 until 1957, when it was abandoned. Nine years later the Army declared it surplus and the land was turned over to White River National Forest. [9]

Troops at Camp Hale worked hard but, in their free time, they took advantage of the recreational benefits offered them in west-central Colorado. In addition to becoming avid skiers, soldiers also visited Glenwood Springs and spent relaxing hours in the hot baths. They also introduced a new sport to west-central Colorado, "jeeping" or off-road four-wheel driving. In 1943, as part of a campaign to sell war bonds, the Camp Halers offered free jeep rides to anyone who would invest in the war effort. Area residents enjoyed these vehicles and, after the war, bought them surplus just for recreation. At the same time, men who had originally come to Colorado as members of the Tenth Mountain Division, returned after the war as tourists. [10]

The spa at Glenwood Springs attracted the attention of military doctors in 1943, and the United States Navy took over the Colorado Hotel and hot springs pool for therapeutic use. A similar plan was considered, but not acted upon, during World War I. Naval use of the facilities greatly helped the town. The hostelry was renovated and Glenwood Springs became a temporary home for many battle-scarred sailors. Just as with the soldiers at Camp Hale, hundreds of sailors returned to the area as tourists after the war ended. [11]

The final way World War II touched the resort town came late in the conflict, after Nazi troops began surrendering to Allied forces by the thousands. The Glenwood Springs Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp was converted into a prisoner-of-war facility to house them. [12]

The experiences of GIs during World War II in west-central Colorado did more than any promotional campaign by regional boosters could. The soldiers' word-of-mouth advertising about the area's scenic and recreational attractions helped encourage and revitalize tourism after peace was achieved.

Despite short periods of economic adjustment in the late 1940s and 1950s, those years were of general prosperity and affluence for most Americans. This, coupled with a dramatic increase in the number of personal autos in use and the development of super-highways, created cheap mobility. These factors made the region more accessible to visitors. This trend continued into the 1960s and with it came increased numbers of vacationers to all parts of the state. [13]

Because of its accessibility, both by car and rail, the west-central part of Colorado became a paradise for many hoping to return to the "Wild West," to ski or to just enjoy the scenery and other natural bounties of the area. Scenic attractions, such as Glenwood Canyon or Colorado National Monument, lured many vacationers to west-central Colorado. [14] Hunters and fishermen also found much to enjoy in the area. Trout and other fish thrived in streams, while all varieties of game, from elk to rabbits, can be hunted in the mountains. [15] Rockhounds and archaeologists were never without things to do, especially in the Grand Valley, from Glenwood Springs to Grand Junction, described as a geologists' paradise. [16] Furthermore, the spa at Glenwood Springs continued to draw healthseekers from around the nation. [17] To capitalize on this, the owners of the Colorado Hotel completely renovated the structure between 1956 and 1961, spending over $500,000. [18] Yet another stimulus to area tourism was the emphasis placed by various Federal agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, on recreation use of government land.

Government land managers began, in 1948, a serious program to increase public enjoyment and benefit for all Federal lands, no longer limiting use to National Parks and Monuments. From 1948 until 1960, a nationwide visitor increase of 300 percent was experienced by the public domain. [19] Some agencies, like the Bureau of Land Management, that had previously not been involved in tourist use, started taking active parts in providing recreational facilities, such as wilderness areas and campgrounds. This use of public lands helped increase vacationer interest in west-central Colorado and, thereby, helped local businesses, thanks to increased numbers of visitors spending money locally. [20]

Specifically the Forest Service (USFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and National Park Service (NPS) have stimulated tourism in west-central Colorado in various ways. The Forest Service and Colorado's Department of Wildlife (DOW) have undertaken programs to manage and foster hunting. Also, back roads and jeep trails of the region were heavily used due to these agencies. [21] The present JQS Trail, near Rifle, was originally built by BLM for stockmen but is also used by 4-wheelers for recreation. [22] Finally, Colorado National Monument, operated by NPS, continued to attract visitors over the years, partly because of its easy access from major highways through the region.

Transportation, always crucial to west-central Colorado development, played a large part in the socio-economic life of the region since World War II. The post-war era witnessed significant changes in basic transportation patterns. The trend away from use of railroads accelerated in 1945, as more and better highways were built.

Area railroading has changed little since World War II, the major difference being a rapid decrease in passenger service, despite efforts of the Denver and Rio Grande Western to stem the tide during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Also, the Denver and Salt Lake Railway ceased to exist after the war. On June 8, 1947, the Denver and Salt Lake was merged into the Denver and Rio Grande Western. The D&SL's Moffat Tunnel-Dotsero Cutoff route was maintained as the mainline of the D&RGW between Denver and Salt Lake City. [23] This left only one railroad, the D&RGW, serving west-central Colorado by 1950. This coincided with attempts by that company to renovate and upgrade its passenger service.

Rail travel, the most utilized transportation before the war, faced new competition after 1945. The spread of good roads and increased auto ownership, helped tourism but hurt rail passenger business. Starting in 1948, Denver and Rio Grande Western officials began removing branchline passenger service into places such as Aspen. [24] Cutbacks continued until 1971, when only one passenger train served the region.

This train was a remnant of its former self. Known after 1971, as the Rio Grande Zephyr, the train represented what was left of one of America's finest post-war streamliners—the California Zephyr. This conveyance, a joint operation of the Burlington Route (CB&Q), Rio Grande (D&RGW), and the Western Pacific (WP), operated daily service between Chicago, Illinois, and San Francisco, California by way of Denver, Glenwood Springs, Grand Junction, and Salt Lake City. Designed to maximize the scenic wonders along its route, the Zephyr made extensive use of a new design passenger car known as the Vista-Dome. These cars had elevated observation platforms completely encased in glass, as to give riders the best possible view of the country. [25]

The Grand Valley was served by one of the most luxurious trains in the world, the California Zephyr. The Rio Grande Railroad still runs a shortened version called the Rio Grande Zephyr, seen here just west of Glenwood Springs, Colorado in 1980. Photo by F.J. Athearn.

The idea for this car was conceived in Glenwood Canyon. During a test run of new diesel locomotives in that canyon, an employee of the locomotive manufacturer, riding in the cab, felt that all passengers should enjoy the same view he had. To do this, it was necessary to elevate and glass enclose passenger coaches. The concept was well received and during the 1950s, almost every major passenger train in the nation had Vista-Dome cars as standard equipment. A monument to the idea still stands along U.S. Highway 40 in Glenwood Canyon. [26] Despite efforts such as this, rail passenger and freight service declined in west-central Colorado after 1950.

Highway projects such as Interstate 70 helped create this downturn. Shippers found it easier to load goods on a truck at a warehouse or plant and have these items transported directly to the recipient, rather than ship part way by rail, only to have the material unloaded from the train and then hauled by truck. Towns such as Rifle, once a large shipping point for cattle and other goods, no longer served in this capacity because shippers enjoyed the ease of truck. [27] Improved roadways not only made it easier for producers and consumers to handle goods but also made it easier for visitors to reach west-central Colorado. This factor led to tourism being the number one industry of the eastern section of the region by 1970. [28]

Another contributor to the rapid rise of vacation use in the region was the development of a ski industry. The use of skis or "Norwegian Snowshoes" first came to west-central Colorado in 1881, when travellers to and from Aspen found them necessary to get around in winter. At that point, skiing was not for sport but rather a form of transport. [29] Not until 1945 did the recreation value come to be appreciated.

In 1946, Friedl Pfeifer, Walter Paepcke, and Robert Hutchins "rediscovered" Aspen and saw that the town could become a center of winter sports. Pfeifer was an Army skier during the war and knew the area well. The next year, the first ski chair lift was built, and as the sport grew, so did the town's reputation as a resort. By 1960, the area's economic patterns of tourism and a winter playground were well established. [30]

Not all area residents were happy with that turn of events. During the 1960s and 1970s, some complained that Aspen was no longer a town, but rather a commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder. [31] These criticisms aside, there can be no doubt that the success of Aspen as a ski resort and center of "social awareness" saved the town and encouraged growth in the regional economy.

The rip-roaring mining town of Aspen is now a showcase of modernity as reflected in this downtown mall. Photo by F.J. Athearn

But the past is not forgotten in Aspen, where old buildings, are reused to serve modern-day tourists and jet-setters. Photo by F.J. Athearn

Other parts of west-central Colorado soon imitated Aspen and promoted skiing. Vail, a part of west-central Colorado previously unnoticed, suddenly became a household word throughout the United States. The construction of ski slopes, visitor accommodations, and a massive promotional effort, changed Vail into another winter sports center for the nation. Other ski resorts spread throughout west-central Colorado, including Sunlight and Red Mountain near Glenwood Springs, as well as Powderhorn further west on the Grand Mesa. [32] The winter sports boom of recent decades, while helping regional tourist trade, has not been without cost and conflict.

One of the major bones of contention is the conflict between developers and environmentalists. From 1950 until 1970, individuals seeking to protect the region's natural beauty, made their presence increasingly felt. The use of mountains for ski runs, combined with the large incoming volume of auto traffic, led these people to question whether growth at any price was worth it. Out of this spirit, the wilderness movement arose. This was an effort to set aside and protect tracts of land from "destructive" human intrusions, such as roads or motor vehicles. Again, as in the earlier conservation crusade, the Federal government was caught in the middle attempting to satisfy both protectors and developers. [33] This conflict continues and its eventual outcome will have significant impacts on the future of west-central Colorado.

During the 1970s, the area's rise to national prominence continued. Attention was drawn to Rifle in 1971, and again in 1972, not because of oil shale, but rather due to an artist. Christo Javacheff, a New York City sculptor and impressionist, chose Rifle Gap as a site for one of his works. Using nature, Christo decided to stretch a giant orange curtain from one side of the valley to the other. In October 1971, he made a first attempt that failed. Undaunted, Christo returned next October to try again. This time he successfully placed the curtain, however, his creation lasted only 28 hours before winds through the Gap tore it to shreds. [34] Christo's curtain brought fleeting notoriety to west-central Colorado but other individuals brought more attention to the region.

West-central Colorado was fortunate to find another political spokesman after World War II. He was Wayne Aspinall. His career was much like Edward Taylor's; moving to Colorado from the Midwest early in life, serving in local offices, and the state legislature, before entering the House of Representatives in 1949, as the member from Colorado's Fourth District. [35]

Aspinall was interested in conservation and public lands and this concern was reflected in his career. It led him to the Chairmanship of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. From that position he was able to protect his district while promoting his philosophy of developmental multiple use. Aspinall helped push the Alaska and Hawaii Statehood bills through Congress. However, his largest contribution, especially to conservation, was the Colorado River Storage Act, responsible for the creation of a number of new reservoirs along that waterway. Aspinall's other major piece of legislation was the Wilderness Preservation Act. This law provided the basic philosophy of development through multiple use which tempered all his efforts. In 1971 and 1972, he foresaw the energy crisis and began governmental studies on the problem and what America could do to develop its own fuel resources.

In the latter year, Colorado's Representative Districts were redrawn and this, combined with opposition from environmental groups, led to Aspinall's defeat at the polls. While out of public office, he continues in 1980, to be an important force on the Western Slope. His foresight helped the region deal with the problems of the 1970s. [36]

The probable development of regional oil shale resources, planned for many years past, appears to be on the verge of fruition, especially in light of later 1970s energy shortages. Area communities, such as Grand Junction, are bracing for the influx of people that oil shale will bring. This city, the largest between Denver and Salt Lake City in 1970, and still commercial leader of the Western Slope ten years later, is planning a mass transit system. [37] Even with such preparations, much of west-central Colorado still awaits extensive development by man. [38]

Over the past one hundred years of intense Euro-American use, the region experienced many changes. The natural setting helped determine what uses were made of the land. While Euro-Americans worked to alter the environment, through irrigation and other methods, failures like Garmesa Farms or the Havemeyer-Wilcox Canal stand as mute testimony to the powers of nature. The resources provided by the earth led to two distinct patterns of historic development in different sections of west-central Colorado. Indeed the American history of west-central Colorado is the story of man adapting to, and using, his environment to take advantage of the Valley of Opportunity.

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Last Updated: 31-Oct-2008