Monarch: a WPA boondoggle that succeeded

Article by Ed Quillen

Local History – January 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

The mythology of the West holds strong to a belief that “rugged individualists” carved out an empire without any help from the government, but that version of history ignores some inconvenient truths. The prospectors expected federal troops to clear away the Indians, the farmers sought federal loans to build irrigation systems, the merchants wanted federal assistance on road construction, the ranchers desired federal subsidies for grazing …

Thus much of the West is the result of federal programs, and that includes the ski industry, or at least the two ski resorts that have survived in Central Colorado. As Steve Voynick explains in more detail on page 25, Ski Cooper began in 1942 as a defense project. Monarch is a result of the oft-maligned Depression-era Works Project Administration.

The WPA was the sort of classic boondoggle make-work project which is now roundly denounced by politicians of all stripes. It existed, first and foremost, to create jobs. But merely putting people to work wasn’t enough for some New Dealers — they wanted to build something the community could use.

The WPA constructed well hereabouts, for much of its work endures. Relax with a round of drinks in the Salida golf course clubhouse — and you’re in a community recreation center built by the WPA. Attend a public meeting in Saguache, and you’re in another WPA project, the community building. Swim at the Salida Hot Springs Pool — another WPA project. Gorge on Mexican food at Cactus Jack’s in Gunnison — that building started on the Western State College campus as a WPA community building.

The same holds true if you ski at Monarch, which began in 1939 as a WPA make-work project to provide winter recreation for Salidans. Monarch, then owned by the city, boasted a 500-foot-long rope tow powered by an old auto engine, and the log WPA-built warming lodge was named “Inn Furno” in honor of Salida’s mayor, J.C. Furno.

It’s a quirk of history that Salidans didn’t have the “Vail” ski area, or at least a Vail Pass, in their back yards.

To go back 60 years, the highway between Gunnison and Salida then crossed Old Monarch Pass, built in 1922. It kept filling with snow, forcing frequent winter detours over Poncha and Cochetopa passes, and locals agitated for a new route, preferably over Marshall Pass, which was 500 feet lower.

But the railroad still used Marshall Pass then, and besides, the chief engineer of the state highway department had found a suitable crossing about a mile south of Old Monarch Pass.

When the new route was opened on Nov. 19, 1939, the summit bore the sign “Vail Pass” — in honor of chief engineer Charles D. Vail, who designed the road. This didn’t sit well with the locals who had wanted Vail to use Marshall Pass. Under cover of darkness, vandals slapped black paint over the Vail signs that they didn’t uproot.

Thus the new crossing became another version of Monarch Pass, leading to some odd nomenclature (Old Monarch Pass and Old Old Monarch Pass). As for Charles Vail, in 1940 he engineered the route between Dillon and Minturn, and his name stuck to that crossing, which in 1962 sprouted the Vail ski area and adjacent village on its western approach.

If the grandparents and great-grandparents of today’s horrible youth had not been sign-smearing vandals, Vail Pass and the Vail Ski Area might be operating between Salida and Gunnison.

But the pass is Monarch and so is the ski-and-snowboard resort. Monarch is the oldest ski resort hereabouts, and it’s a survivor of a long winnowing period. Just as the Rockies are dotted with ghost mining towns, there are also “ghost ski areas,” as well as fantasy ski areas that never really operated at all.

One of those was on Marshall Pass. In 1936, the Union Pacific Railroad was trying to boost winter passenger traffic, and developed a ski resort at Sun Valley, Idaho. It worked so well that by 1937, other Western railroads were looking along their tracks for ski slopes.

Among the lookers was the Denver & Rio Grande Western, which was spending thousands every winter fighting the snows of Marshall Pass. Why not see if people would ski there, and maybe make some money off that white burden?

So on Feb. 13, 1939, special narrow-gauge ski trains departed Salida and Gunnison, bound for the summit of Marshall Pass. Skiers got off there, schussed down to Tank Seven on the west side, and rode their ski lift (a steam-powered narrow-gauge passenger train) back to the top for another run. They weren’t charged a fare, but a dime donation was suggested.

Afterward, the Salida contingent was treated to a swim at the new hot springs pool, which wasn’t officially open yet.

Shortly after I first heard of the Marshall Pass ski train, I ran into the late Wallace Koster, who recalled it, and even found a black-and-white home movie of the excursion (a print of that movie now resides at the Colorado Ski Museum in Vail, and if somebody would put it on VCR tape, I’d buy a copy).

Koster also recalled many unauthorized ski trips on Marshall Pass. “During every storm, they’d run a plow-and-flanger train back and forth over the pass until it quit snowing. So when it snowed, we’d go down to the railroad yards early in the morning, hop a freight to the summit, ski down to Tank Seven, build a fire in the stove in the section house if necessary, and wait for the flanger train to come back up the pass after turning around at Sargents. When it stopped for water, we’d hop it to the summit, and ski down again. It was a great way to spend a day, especially when you were supposed to be in school.”

Despite the pleasure people obviously found in skiing there, the D&RGW never developed Marshall Pass into a Sun Valley. The railroad briefly considered Aspen, but then came World War II and a corporate desire to eliminate, rather than augment, passenger service.

Another ski area that never got going was Quail Mountain, just south of Twin Lakes by Hope Pass. The ski area was part of a major resort complex proposed by Dennis O’Neill, a Leadville engineer, and by 1983, when I wrote an article about it for Empire magazine, Lake County was quite divided over its merits.

Most Twin Lakes residents I talked to were against it, though it was there that I saw Ken Olsen, Sr., a supporter. After I marveled at how Twin Lakes people seemed to be at each other’s throats about Quail Mountain, he gave me a reply that I will never forget: “People don’t move to little mountain towns because they love their fellow man.”

Quail stalled for lack of financing when the county government wanted some fiscal guarantees, but the last time I saw Dennis O’Neill, at a café in Buena Vista about three years ago, he still thought it was a possibility.

Besides those ski areas that never were, there are a bunch that operated, more or less, in and around Central Colorado: Cranor Hill, near Gunnison; Cupola Hill, also near Gunnison, operating in the 1930s; Lake City; Meadow Mountain near Minturn; Pioneer, on Cement Creek north of Gunnison with Colorado’s first chair lift in 1938; Sagebrush Hill near Gunnison; White Pine, a rope tow at that old mining camp sometime in the 1930s.

There are some that ran on a larger scale for years, like Conquistador (a/k/a Mudcliffe) and Geneva Basin (once owned by Roy Romer), and are now being reclaimed, just like old mine sites.

It’s odd. Without much effort, you can find detailed references concerning almost any mining camp, or threat of one, that ever existed in Colorado. Skiing is much more recent, and yet the published record is scant — the best reference is Abbott Fay’s Ski Tracks in the Rockies, and it’s not all that detailed, besides being long out of print.

Which somehow brings us back to Monarch. In 1955, the city sold it to the Berry family, and in the early 1980s, I took a historical approach when I was putting together The Mountain Mail’s Winter Fun section.

I talked to Mrs. Berry (since deceased) to gather some old Monarch lore, and then talked to John Englebrecht, then Monarch’s public-relations director. The ski area had just expanded and wanted names for the new runs. I suggested the Berry family be honored, perhaps with a “Berry Patch” or the like.

“Nah,” John replied. “We’re looking for names like `Nitro’ or `Roadkill,’ stuff that’s exciting. Skiers don’t care about history. They want thrills.”

That response killed my clever plan to generate some work for myself by hustling the ski area into paying me to spend a year writing its history in time for Monarch’s 50th anniversary in 1989. Maybe things have changed, and somebody will manage to do it for the 60th birthday in 1999 — before everybody who remembers the early days has left us (as I wrote this, I learned that Alta Eggleston, who had photos of the ski train, died several years ago).

One who remembers some early days quite well is Jack Watkins, who hired on as director of publicity and marketing in 1963.

Now 68, he recalled his first big marketing effort. He got some brochures printed that fall, and went on the road to Albuquerque, Amarillo, Oklahoma City, and Omaha.

“I’d go to the ski shops to find out about the local ski clubs, then I’d attend their meetings. We’d always hold some kind of contest so I could give away two season passes — a popular one was getting girls to model for a `Miss Ski Outfit’ pageant.”

Watkins stayed on for the big transformation in Monarch after Elmo Bevington bought the ski area in 1967. Elmo once told me he bought the ski area because he already owned the gondola at the summit of Monarch Pass, and when he laid off its employees every fall, he had to pay considerable sums to the state unemployment compensation fund. “If I had jobs for them, they couldn’t collect unemployment,” he said, “and so I bought the ski area so they could work there after the Monarch Tram closed.”

Watkins shook his head at that, and observed that “Elmo can tell you a lot of interesting stories.” But he didn’t elaborate.

At any rate, Bevington expanded the ski area, with double-chair lifts and a bigger lodge and parking area.

He sold out in 1979 to Westlake Mortgage, a company controlled by Gerald Rogers, who soon pretty well doubled Monarch’s lifts, lodge, and skiable terrain.

Watkins parted company with Monarch shortly afterward, landing at the now-defunct Pike’s Peak Ski Area outside Colorado Springs.

How did it get defunct with a growing metropolitan area close by?

“It was very primitive,” Watkins recalls. “The warming lodge was just a cabin. They didn’t even have indoor plumbing, just privies. On that account, the Forest Service limited us to 500 skiers a day.”

And when the owners had some money, “they installed a bigger lift instead of improving the facilities at the base. Little wonder that people skied elsewhere.”

Back at Monarch, Rodgers was in deep legal trouble from some shady dealings on the West Coast. A court found that he had defrauded an obscure religious group, the Seventh Elect Church of Israel, as well as the state of California, and awarded Monarch as compensation. In 1991, Monarch was sold to a Japanese investment group headed by Hideyuki Nakamura, and in the fall of 1996, it changed hands again, to Los Angeles-based investors.

Despite the ownership changes, little has changed physically at Monarch since the expansion 15 years ago.

A major expansion — four new lifts serving 616 acres — was proposed in 1993. It would have allowed Monarch to serve 5,700 skiers a day, up from the current 1,900.

But Monarch eventually withdrew the proposal, citing the cost of the environmental studies required for projects on federal land.

It would have changed Monarch’s influence subtly at first, but over time, substantially. One of the proposed new lifts sat on the Western Slope. Give it a base facility and access from the west side, and Monarch’s orientation would eventually shift to Gunnison, away from Salida.

Why? Gunnison has scheduled air service, primarily for Crested Butte-bound skiers. But a west access to Monarch would be about the same distance from the airport, and air access would liberate Monarch from the constraints of twisting, narrow U.S. 50 between Cañon City and Monarch’s current base.

Salida, whose motels and restaurants now profit from the ski traffic, might have done well to oppose the expansion on that basis, but there was no real opposition to the 1993 expansion proposal — it died for lack of funds to get through the expensive environmental reviews.

Without that Gunnison air service, Monarch’s primary market, outside of its immediate neighboring towns, remains pretty much what Jack Watkins established more than 30 years ago: Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Nebraska, along with day skiers from Colorado Springs and Pueblo.

Culturally, those are all pretty conservative places, and I think that’s had a generally beneficial effect on Salida over the years.

Skiers staying in town are likely to be from a church group in Oklahoma. They can get frisky, but, unlike the visiting skiers you see in wannabe Eurotrash resorts like Breckenridge, they’re not in flagrant search of sex and cocaine. That helps Salida stay something of a normal town, at least for public consumption, and it greatly simplifies things like child-rearing here.

What does the future hold for Monarch?

Like the industry in general, Monarch is looking for women — about 65 percent of skiers now are men. For Monarch, if women skied in equal numbers, that would mean 45,000 more skier-days. So there are special programs and classes designed to lure women to the slopes this season.

There’s a new name, too. It’s now the Monarch Ski and Snowboard Resort. Monarch wants snowboarders, who tend to be younger (and by reputation rowdier) than skiers. The ski industry in general needs some younger patrons, because Baby Boomers like me, once the preferred market, tend to find sports that are easier on the knees as we get older and presumably wiser.

“Monarch has always considered itself a family resort,” explained Chris McGinnis, who was marketing director last fall (before she went to work for The Mountain Mail), “and we plan to continue to market to our traditional clientele.”

But, she added, “no matter how much we’d like them to, things don’t stay the same, and the resort has to respond.”

For instance, people seem a lot more pressed for time these days. Skiing is seldom an impulsive decision any more — in a two-career family with teen-aged children who also hold jobs, a ski trip can require more extensive planning than a general invasion of Europe.

“And when people do arrive at the slopes, using some of their rare free time, they expect everything to be perfect and to run on a tight schedule,” McGinnis said. “And here we are with natural snow, on a road that can be pretty tricky, even closed sometimes by avalanches. Once upon a time, people were willing to figure `Well, those are the breaks,’ but today, they’re a lot more demanding.”

Throw in more competition for the entertainment dollar. Denver has a major-league hockey team now and even some night life in LoDo, and the I-70 resorts have a four-lane highway and immense marketing power. Everywhere, there’s electronic entertainment, from satellite TV to virtual reality. Skiing has to compete with all those attractions for people’s dollars, and perhaps more importantly, their time.

Meanwhile, skier-days at both Cooper (60,000) and Monarch (150,000) have remained relatively stable for the past five winters. The Colorado skiing pie has been growing, but their slices haven’t.

“That’s why I say things can’t stay the same at Monarch,” McGinnis said. “We’ve got to appeal to new people while maintaining our traditional appeal as a family ski area.”

That’s a tough challenge, but one vital to Salida, Poncha Springs, and environs. With 350 employees, Monarch is the county’s largest private employer in the winter, when times would be worse than tough without that payroll. Add to that the rental shops, motels, and restaurants which count on Monarch traffic during the cold season — the average out-of-state skier spends something like $200 a day here.

Nor is Monarch an attraction only to tourists — I know dozens of people who live here because they want to be close to a ski area.

Its influence, both culturally and economically, is immense. Monarch may be a relatively small operation by Interstate-70 world-class resort standards, but it’s a big player in Chaffee County and beyond. That’s not bad, not bad at all, for something that started as a make-work boondoggle WPA project nearly 60 years ago.

Ed Quillen has lived in Colorado for 46 years, but still avoids downhill skiing because the lifts scare him.