Looking back: The history of a ski town
October 14, 2007
Seven men, some of them dreamers, gathered nearly 50 years ago at the base of Storm Mountain. They assembled to have their picture taken on the day Jim Temple broke ground on a new ski area for Steamboat Springs. Two of the men stood on a squat bulldozer. The remaining five stood proudly in front of it.
The day was July 6, 1958 – groundbreaking day, and the seven men were envisioning a great ski area. Others said it was folly.
“Some people said there will never be a ski area there,” Jim Temple recalls. “Some ranchers bet me a case of whiskey I couldn’t do it. One rancher watched me every day through the telescopic sight of his 30-06″ rifle.”
It was Temple, who grew up on a ranch in extreme North Routt County and left home in 1948 to become a ski patrolman and avalanche expert at Sun Valley, Idaho, who was the original pioneer.
John Fetcher, former vice president and chief engineer of the Storm Mountain Ski Corp., said Temple was the visionary who conceived the ski area.
Who would have thought the little ski area that started modestly with a Poma surface lift called Cub Claw would become the modern Steamboat Ski Area?
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The other men who gathered around the bulldozer in 1958 included a Harvard-trained engineer, a collegiate ski star fresh from the Olympics, a town councilman and the Steamboat native who was perhaps the most famous ski racer in America. The seventh was a hard-working fellow from Colorado’s Front Range who just happened to own an idle Army surplus D-7 Caterpillar bulldozer. He would end up being one of the major shareholders in the ski company, if just for a little while.
Together, they were audacious enough to think that with very little money and even less equipment, they could develop a ski area that could rival Sun Valley, Idaho, and Aspen. One that would attract vacationing skiers from all over North America to revel in the deep snow that blanketed Storm Mountain.
The odds were against them, but five decades hence, we know that Temple’s vision was not folly. Intrawest’s March 1, 2007, purchase of the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. for $265 million is ample validation.
The story of how a few men struggled to build Storm Mountain Ski Area is no fairytale. There were hard feelings and long-lasting bitterness that developed along the way. A couple of the men died before Steamboat’s original gondola was built. Jim Temple, the visionary who invested his fortune in the ski area, lost his dream and his investment in an unfriendly business takeover. Willis Nash, the owner of the bulldozer, also lost his equity in the ski area and faded from the picture. Undeniably though, they were the pioneers who created the resort community we know today.
Temple, at age 80, is more concerned with what comes next than he is about reliving the past. Together with his son, Jeff, he is producing a DVD about the beginnings of the ski area.
“I’m concerned with the future. I want (the ski area) to keep going big time. It’s up to the kids now.”
And for now, the ski area is thriving. After a succession of changes in ownership over the intervening five decades, Steamboat can still be depended upon for short lift lines and the driest powder in Colorado, producing a million skier visits year after year.
However, the biggest news surrounding the Steamboat Ski Area in late 2007 is the upwardly spiraling real estate market ringing its base. Today, developers are willing to pay millions more for a small plot of slopeside ground than Temple and his colleagues ever hoped to raise in a stock offering needed to build the ski area.
Scouting the mountain
Interviewed at his rural home in Longmont, with the peaks of the Front Range looming in the August haze to the west, Temple recalled that Sun Valley typically closed in late March. He returned home to the Focus Ranch in April 1955 and over a period of years began organizing scouting trips on Storm Mountain.
Temple led groups of skiers from the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club on an expedition that began on Rabbit Ears Pass. Snowcats provided by Marvin Elkins, Bill Schomers and Lloyd McClelland pulled the skiers as far as they could, then returned to the highway, leaving the skiers to scout routes through the trees down Fish Creek Canyon.
In her indispensable book “The History of Skiing at Steamboat Springs,” author Sureva Towler recounts that members of the party included Orval Bedell, Jon Elliott, Gates and Addison Gooding, Bill Lake, Auburn Luekens, Marvin Crawford, Lloyd and Ty Lockhart, Harry Baum, Chuck Lyon, Vernon Summer, Ed and Loris Werner, Russell Whitmer and Pat and Jack McElroy of Kremmling.
That summer, Temple began working with National Forest personnel in his scouting trips, and forest managers Carl Henderson and Paul Hawk became intrigued. A group of 20 men and women rode horses to the summit of Storm Mountain with the forest representatives.
There was one occasion when Temple, Buddy Werner and Merle Nash and others hiked all the way to Storm Peak with their skis over their shoulders. Temple recalls that the trips began at 4 a.m. to take advantage of the crusted snow surface.
Nash tells of how one trip up to the peak on the spring snow gave Temple an unofficial naming honor.
“We hiked all the way up there with our skis on our shoulders, and once we got to Storm peak, we skied down (to what is now the top of Four Points) and climbed back up a couple more times,” Nash said.
This climb to Storm Peak was to be especially memorable for Jim Temple.
“It was March 30, 1958, the day after my daughter Lisa was born. I had to wait an extra day,” Temple said while smiling at his wife, Audrey.
Temple met Bud and Loris Werner, Jon Elliott (an Olympic ski jumper), forest ranger Carl Henderson and Nash at the bottom of Priest Creek.
In addition to carrying his skis on his shoulder, Temple had his Bolex in his pack, along with a handful of cigars he planned to pass out in honor of his new daughter.
“Nobody smoked, so I wished I’d taken bananas,” Temple said.
Temple was wearing a pair of handmade leather ski boots that Buddy Werner had custom-fitted for him.
“They were Heierling boots that Buddy had measured me for. I think he was repping for Heierling at the time. They were the best ski boots I ever had.”
The spring skiing was pretty special that day.
“It was magical watching Bud and Loris skiing through those trees,” Temple said.
His decision to pack the motion picture camera was rewarded with footage of the Werner brothers jumping off a large rock swooping down the mountain, where no runs had yet been cut. He also caught them in an impromptu snowball fight. He has the footage to this day and plans to include it in his DVD.
Nash recalls that on another trip Temple experienced some difficulty on the way down a slope that would later be named Sunset.
“We got down to the saddle, and we all stood there waiting and waiting for Jim,” Nash said. “We were getting worried about him when he finally appeared.”
It was immediately clear that the veteran ski patroller had endured a tumble. His Bogner ski pants were split from the fly, through the crotch and out the back of his leg.
“We all nearly fell down laughing,” Nash said.
Ever since that day, that spot on the mountain has been known by generations of ski patrollers as “Temple’s Crotch.”
During the summer of 1958, Temple and bulldozer operator Jess Brenton cleared more than four miles of ski runs on the face of the future Cub Claw Poma and Bear Claw chairlift. The runs were in the areas we now know as Headwall and the Christie Face, including the trio of steep runs called See Me, Voo Doo and Vogue. Those original trails will be served by the new Christie Express high-speed chairlift this winter.
From 1958 to 1960, use of the mountain was limited to college ski teams, Winter Sports Club races and Little Toots races. Audrey Temple conceived the Little Toots ski program and launched the competitions with the help of other mothers. Over the winters of 1959 and 1960 Temple sought to raise the necessary $200,000 to build new lifts. He also purchased 827 acres including privately owned ranches from Ernest Arnold and Charlie Craig at the base of the ski area.
The pressure to close the financial deals was mounting. In November 1960, the corporation began selling 100,000 shares of common stock at $2.50 a share and offered $500,000 in bonds offering 8 percent interest. The $750,000 offering raised just $80,000.
But the ski area pioneers pushed on, and in September 1961, they ordered a chairlift that would cost $125,000. It was planned to transport 1,000 skiers an hour.
Storm Mountain opened Dec. 22, 1961, with Cub Claw pulling skiers up the hill and a double chairlift under construction. The inaugural season lasted until the first week in April 1961. The ski area operators didn’t even count their skier visits – the operating profit was less than $300. The modest profit was a direct result of the fact that Temple was the only employee and did not draw a salary. He groomed trails and sold lift tickets. Ralph Selch grilled hamburgers for skiers in the Smith ranch house.
Temple had conducted numerous meetings with a Denver securities broker, Henry Perry, to put together a more ambitious stock offering.
The process was proceeding at a slow pace and rather than wait six months for an “initial public offering to be completed,” Temple signed control of the ski company over to Perry, giving him voting control of his shares. Perry, in turn, promised to raise private capital. Temple was to retain his capital investment in the company and the agreement specified that none of his assets were to be transferred.
The young ski area was in difficult financial straits and borrowed money from the Routt County National Bank to get through to the next ski season.
Company assets were used to secure the loan, which was later foreclosed on. Despite a lawsuit that found in his favor, Temple lost his position in the company, and in 1961 the young ski area moved on without its original visionary.
Storm Mountain was pushing hard to open its new chairlift, and in December 1962 Fetcher made an improbable trip to Long Beach, Calif., to pick up the essential bullwheel for the chairlift.
Fetcher was driving a Ford ranch truck with a bed that was 4 feet high. The bull wheel was 12 feet in diameter. That meant it would be too tall to pass beneath 14-foot highway underpasses if stood on its edge in the little truck like a dinner plate in a dish drainer.
Setting the bull wheel flat on top of the truck’s rails wasn’t an option, either.
“They’ll never let you on the interstate,” one of the men at the manufacturing plant warned Fetcher.
The chief engineer was undeterred.
“We welded a jig in the shop in Long Beach that allowed the bull wheel to sit at an angle in the bed of the truck,” solving both the width and height problems, Fetcher said.
Still, Fetcher recalls how nervous he was changing lanes at 45 miles per hour on L.A. freeways, but he made it home in fewer than 48 hours.
But the challenges for the pioneers weren’t over.
Fetcher was too busy to play Santa Claus on Christmas Eve 1962. Instead, he stayed up all night with Buddy Werner and Merle Nash, struggling to splice the steel cable that would carry the chairs over the wheeled carriages atop the chairlift towers.
The men had to hand-braid a long splice (20 feet) in the steel wires that made up the chairlift cable. That painstaking step was necessary so they could form it into a loop that would ride smoothly over the “sheaves.”
Fetcher recalled that legendary DU ski coach Willy Schaeffler brought his team to Steamboat to see whether they could ride the new chairlift to make training runs.
“John, is it safe?” Schaeffler inquired.
“Willy, jump on,” Fetcher answered.
It wasn’t until a week later that the lift was tested with dead weight and the ski area formally opened on Jan. 12.
“It was 40 degrees below zero. Almost nothing would start, but I got a Jeep started at the ranch. The oil in the gearbox (of the chairlift) was so stiff we had to pile scrap lumber under the gearbox and light a fire under it.”
Opening day was grim.
“We had one customer, and Hank Perry ran into his car in the parking lot,” Fetcher said.
During that truncated ski season, they did 2,500 skier visits and took in $3,500.
The ski area operators knew that in order to become a viable destination ski area, they had to push further up the mountain with new trails.
Somehow Fetcher obtained an SBA loan to build the Thunderhead Chairlift, and the ski area began to take hold, breaking $100,000 in revenue for the first time in the winter of 1966-67.
Serving as president of the company, Fetcher negotiated the sale of the ski area to Dallas, Texas, aerospace company LTV-RDI in 1969, and the modern era of the ski area was ushered in with the construction of the Village Inn Hotel (now the Sheraton Steamboat Resort) and the first six-passenger Stagecoach Gondola, which put Steamboat on the map of great North American ski areas. Fetcher remained in his role as president until 1971.
A succession of ski area owners and presidents followed, each one moving the resort forward. Bolstered by ski resort giant Intrawest’s purchase of the Steamboat Ski Area from American Skiing Co. this year, unprecedented growth and redevelopment is now taking place at the base area.
But the real genesis of the Steamboat Ski Area can be traced to Temple’s vision and an Army surplus bulldozer.
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