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Lost ski resorts of Routt County

Learn about ski resorts of Routt County that once were but are now lost in the snow.
James Garcia

Paying the bill

The construction of a lift up Emerald Mountain in 1947 was a significant expense, and rates were raised for Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club membership accordingly.

An Oct. 23, 1947, article in the Steamboat Pilot laid out the prices.

$5 — Winter Sports Club adult membership, no lifts

$2 — Winter Sports Club children’s membership, no lifts

$2 — Daily lift ticket for Emerald and Howelsen lifts

$2 — Daily lift ticket for just Emerald lift

$1.50 — Daily lift ticket for just Howelsen boat tow

$1 — Daily lift ticket for just rope tow

$1 — Night skiing lift ticket, just rope and boat tows

$15 — Season pass for Emerald and Howelsen lifts

$8 — Season pass for high schoolers

$3 — Season pass for elementary schoolers

Those that could have been

Catamount

Nothing makes long-time locals wince quite like talking about the prospects of a Catamount Ski Area. To be located east of Steamboat Springs and north of Stagecoach, it could have rivaled Steamboat Ski Area and Mount Werner for its variety and quality of terrain, something none of the other near misses or briefly existing areas could claim. It could have also offered true top-to-bottom skiing, something that’s only marginally possible on Mount Werner.

Catamount was first considered for a ski slope in 1973 as a potential spot for Olympic Alpine events for the proposed 1976 Winter Olympics in Denver. Things got more serious in the ensuing two decades, but investors eventually lost patience with the project.

Sand Mountain

Bill Fetcher said a ski resort on Sand Mountain was considered. He said a 1956 logging operation on the North Routt mountain’s slopes, which was meant to just cut out strips of trees, went awry and led to the mountain’s timber being clear cut. Suddenly, a mistake made a ski area look possible, and Gordy Wren proposed ski runs and lift lines on the 10,852-foot peak.

“It would have been a failure,” Fetcher said. “It was 30 miles up narrow Elk River Road and (Colorado Highway 129.) Plus, with that extra 1,000 feet in elevation, the weather can be awful there.”

Meaden Peak Ski Area

The dream of a North Routt ski area didn’t die easily. A proposed ski area in the mid-1970s would have been on the slopes of Meaden Peak, next door to Sand Mountain.

According to a 1973 article in the Steamboat Pilot, the project was headed by the same organization that put in the Steamboat Lake Ski Area, located several miles away. The mountain would have provided 1,980 feet of vertical, and plans included 7,000 acres of ski trails and as many as 11 lifts capable of hauling 3,500 skier per hour.

The project never took root, no doubt thanks to the failure of Steamboat Lake Ski Area.

Fish Creek and Priest Creek ski area

According to Sureva Towler’s “History of Skiing at Steamboat Springs,” proposals were floated at various points to have separate ski areas service terrain that now is on the flanks of the existing Steamboat Ski Area. Expansion of that ski area sank any dreams of alternate access up the side of Mount Werner.

A trip down Emerald’s fast lane

Jim “Moose” Barrows has flown down thousands of ski runs during his 70 years, from the pedestrian trips down an intermediate run to the men’s downhill at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France.

The thrill of a trip down the downhill run opened up by the Emerald Mountain lift still lingers in his voice, however.

Racing was an important part of skiing on Howelsen Hill long before a lift was strung up Emerald Mountain in 1948, but the addition of the lift opened up big new routes, and Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club members built a downhill course off the top that Barrows will never forget.

“It was a real test,” he said. “It was one of the toughest downhills in the United States.”

The run started off to skier’s right and dropped down the top ridge, quickly putting racers at top speed.

“Then you went over two huge bumps, which were an extension from the quarry and dropped straight into the steilhang,” Barrows said.

The steilhang was a narrow shaft that dropped down just beyond the quarry, 150 yards of steep with a sharp turn at the bottom.

“Then we went across a flat meadow and dropped into the corkscrew,” Barrows said. “It was a drainage and had one big huge tree you had to set the course around. We didn’t have any pads back then. It was two big technical turns that were tough. It was darker down there, and when you came out of the trees. you were in an open meadow.

“It was just one long turn to the right, but it was like trying to turn on the outside of a basketball. You could never see it. It was a fall away all the way around.”

That left skiers poised above River Road and dashing toward one last significant drop.

“It was a bling drop. You went around the last steep hill and then had a fairly tough transition into the road,” he said. “They couldn’t set it straight. They had to do it an angle. You had to go across the road and finish across the field on the north side of River Road.”

There was a downhill course when the lift was first finished, but Mrs. Emerson Wiley put an end to that by building a fence that blocked the course.

Gordy Wren, then the ski director for the Winter Sports Club, and Marvin Rice, the tow operator on Emerald, began plotting out and preparing a new course to be ready early in 1953.

It was a thrilling ride, and those who rode it haven’t forgotten.

“It was long with a lot of technical requirements,” Barrows said. “It would still be a major tough downhill by today’s standards.”

— It was a heady and anxious time, February of 1948.

The city of Steamboat Springs was, at that point, a ranching- and mining-focused community with a snow sports habit.

The people who are legends in the region today were living, breathing parts of it then.

Buddy Werner was a skiing schoolboy, fast, but not considered the “most graceful” of his elementary school peers. Carl Howelsen, acknowledged then and now as the father of skiing in the area, was gone, moved back to his native Norway, but Steamboat was still in his heart, and when he wrote a letter back to the residents in his one-time home, it was literally front page news.

More than anything, however, the city was focused on the new ski lift that started at the base of Howelsen Hill and promised to open up the upper slopes of Emerald Mountain. On Feb. 1, 1948, more than 1,000 people gathered at the base of that lift, for a formal dedication ceremony.

Skiing already was engrained in Steamboat’s soul at that point, of course. A rope tow and boat tow were running skiers up Howelsen, and the purchase of a snowcat by several local men promised access to Storm Mountain and “some of the greatest open skiing territory in America.”

Steamboat Ski Area still was 15 years from its first lift. Instead, the city’s hopes were locked up in the big, $100,000 lift project at Emerald Mountain.

There were problems there from the start, and that surely had to weigh on the minds of the gathered masses that day — questions mixing with excitement.

Construction was both slower and more expensive than promised.

The governor was supposed to be on hand for the dedication ceremony, but instead, the state revenue director took his place.

Even when it was operational, the lift wasn’t perfect, fraught with perilous sections that lifted skiers off the ground and left them dangling from the T-bar.

Today, Emerald Mountain is every bit the sporting jewel the city had hoped it could be in February 1948, but the Alpine skiers are largely gone from its upper slopes. Instead, Emerald is a summer treasure, those skiers replaced by runners and mountain bikers, locals walking dogs and tourists riding horses.

The lift at Emerald was to be one of Routt County’s first big winter attractions, a venue that would show the world just how great skiing in Steamboat Springs could be.

Now, 67 years later, Emerald Mountain is Steamboat’s oldest vanished ski area, one of a handful of places where lifts were installed with big dreams, but decades later, are lost to the winter.

False start: Steamboat Lake Ski Area

Steamboat Lake Ski Area was nearly dead before it opened.

At least that’s what Steamboat Springs native and Olympian Jim “Moose” Barrows took away from his trip to the small North Routt ski hill which officially turned on its lifts in January 1973.

“I didn’t think Steamboat Lake ever had a prayer,” he said. “It was too far away, and there was nothing distinguishable about the skiing.”

Still, he gave it a shot, and when the two installed lifts started turning, he was there on opening day to check out the newest in Steamboat-area skiing.

The ski area was located in North Routt County, on the flanks of Lester Mountain near Pearl Lake.

It had a vertical drop of 600 feet, about half again as much as the Howelsen. Conveniently, the exact same lift that served Steamboat Lake Ski Area now hauls at Howelsen.

Managed by Steamboat Olympian Gordy Wren, the hill at Steamboat Lake Ski Area was short, comparable in vertical drop to the Morningside zone at Steamboat Ski Area, but the plans were big, according to historian Sureva Towler, author of “The History of Skiing at Steamboat Springs.”

One lift ran 1,696 feet up to beginner terrain and another went 1,770 feet to expert and intermediate terrain, and together they could deliver nearly 2,000 skiers an hour. Both were diesel powered and represented only the first stage of the plan.

Owners hoped to expand with more lift capability, add four more miles of trails and a tubing hill, build an ice skating rink and lay out an 18-hole golf course around a country club.

The base area was the driving force behind the whole operation as investors hoped to sell real estate suitable to house 12,000 people in eight subdivisions on nearly 7,500 acres.

Just as developers build a golf course to sell the houses around it, the Steamboat Lake Ski Area developers built a ski resort, with plans for a golf course, as a real estate sales driver.

That was the idea, anyway. What they actually had was a short ski hill with a base lodge and sales office built a significant hike from the bottom of the lift.

Barrows recalled the real estate angle of the operation overshadowing everything else on the ski area’s opening day.

“They had a band, but it was not memorable. They were serving hot chocolate, and everything was free, and everyone was taking runs and coming back down and telling them how good it was,” Barrows said. “There were a bunch of sales people who said, ‘You have to come back and buy the land if you’re going to be a part of this great project.’”

The skiing was unremarkable, according to Barrows and Pete Wither, former longtime Steamboat Ski Patrol director.

“Small. Mellow. Remote,” Wither said when asked about the slope. “The skiing was fine, but it was nothing special in my book.”

“If it had gone,” Wither continued, “Hahn’s Peak would be a larger town right now and Clark would probably be a lot different than it is. It was a good idea, a nice place, but pretty remote.”

Could have been: Stagecoach Ski Area

If Steamboat Lake was the one that never could have really been, Stagecoach was the one that got away.

No lost Routt County ski area actually was built with bigger plans than Stagecoach Ski Area.

Located 18 miles southeast of Steamboat Springs, it opened in December 1972 and hauled skiers for two seasons until February 1974. It, too, was a real estate effort built around a ski area, and the best chance for a second significant ski area in Routt County died when the Woodmoor Corporation, developers of the ski area, filed for bankruptcy.

It had three double chair lifts with a vertical drop of about 2,000 feet.

“Steamboat and Aspen and Vail people would laugh at it, but I’m from Vermont where the big ski areas have 2,000 vertical feet,” Olympian and long-time Steamboat Springs local Billy Kidd said. “I knew it was a really good ski area and that it had a lot of potential.”

The reservoir that’s currently at the site came 15 years after the ski area closed, but Kidd can’t help but picture it all together.

“You could have had a ski area with 2,000 vertical feet and had a three-mile lake right at the bottom,” he said. “You would have had a jet airport where you could fly in from any number of cities in America, right into the Steamboat valley. It’s a pretty good combination.”

As with most ski areas that failed to fully materialize, there were bigger ambitions for Stagecoach than what developed.

Towler wrote that the Stagecoach Ski Area plan called for 40 miles of ski trails and more than 20 lifts, all served by five ski villages and 34 subdivisions.

The plans alone caused salivating in Steamboat.

“Everyone was pretty excited,” Wither said. “It was another place to go, and only 20 minutes away. It was a fun place to go.”

The lieutenant governor of Colorado, John Vanderhoof, attended the official opening, helping hype the ski area that was already busy selling itself as a western paradise. The day featured everything from rides in a stagecoach to a flight in a helicopter, and plenty of trips up those lifts.

Advertisements featured long-legged women in cowboy hats, tagged as the “Stagecoach hostesses.”

“Everybody in Steamboat went down for opening day,” Barrows recalled. “It was a pretty big deal.

“Stagecoach was the real deal, and it had good skiing for everybody,” Barrows continued. “They invested in some pretty good lifts and there was good terrain. . . If they could have gotten over the hump and survived, there were a lot of things going for it, but it was a house of cards. If the wind had blown in the right direction the whole time, it could have been alright, but it didn’t.”

Betting big: Emerald Mountain

At least in the sense of planning a big ski area, it all started on that cold February day in 1948 at the base of Emerald Mountain and Howelsen Hill, however.

Bill Fetcher, who’s written extensively on the Emerald lift, said it was initially an effort to compete with bigger Colorado ski areas like Winter Park and Aspen.

It was certainly marketed that way, with promotional material proclaiming it as the “World’s Longest Single-Span Ski Lift,” a distinction made possible by the fact that it took two lifts to get to the top of Aspen’s ski area at that time.

Bonds were issued and quickly purchased to finance the project and work began in the summer of 1947.

Paying the bill

The construction of a lift up Emerald Mountain in 1947 was a significant expense, and rates were raised for Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club membership accordingly.

An Oct. 23, 1947, article in the Steamboat Pilot laid out the prices.

$5 — Winter Sports Club adult membership, no lifts

$2 — Winter Sports Club children’s membership, no lifts

$2 — Daily lift ticket for Emerald and Howelsen lifts

$2 — Daily lift ticket for just Emerald lift

$1.50 — Daily lift ticket for just Howelsen boat tow

$1 — Daily lift ticket for just rope tow

$1 — Night skiing lift ticket, just rope and boat tows

$15 — Season pass for Emerald and Howelsen lifts

$8 — Season pass for high schoolers

$3 — Season pass for elementary schoolers

With plans to be operational by the 1947-48 winter season, it was a rush job from the start. According to a July 24, 1947, article in the Steamboat Pilot, Paul Hunt was selected as the contractor because he had equipment and men already in the area and could quickly hop on the project.

Before the first work began, “hundreds” of tourists were already expected for the approaching winter, and as the lift was being built, a national advertising campaign was launched.

The lift was described as “immense,” as “gigantic” and as “huge.” It would pull 120 skiers an hour to the top of Emerald Mountain, 8,850 feet across 17 towers.

The project combined a T-bar and a chairlift. There was early criticism that the T-bars were being included at all. World famous Olympic skier Dick Durrance, who worked for the lift company, was brought in to answer those critics, assuring the newspaper that a T-bar was appropriate.

The terrain the lift gave access too also was supposed to be a game changer.

“Steamboat Springs is the ideal spot for all sizes and skills of skiers,” a Aug. 14, 1947, Pilot article proclaimed, citing the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. “Most of the big ski resorts devote most of their attention to the experts, while in Steamboat the novice and the intermediate are given equal attention and everyone can enjoy skiing here.”

Within a month there were already delays.

Timber — to be treated to last 50 years — wasn’t where it needed to be when it needed to be there. By November, the towers were being assembled and the tow house built, but the early assessments that the project would be finished well before the snow fell were off base.

Hunt already was working with two crews and brought in a third to speed up construction, but it still wasn’t ready for Christmas, as was hoped, and soon $25,000 more in bonds were sold to finance the project.

The public never tired of the project, however. The new bonds were snapped up and on Jan. 8, 1948, the readers awoke to a bold headline in the Pilot: “Great Ski Area Is Completed.”

Finally, on Feb. 1 with “the famed Steamboat Springs ski band” playing, the lift officially was declared open in a ceremony filled with speeches and plenty of congratulations.

“We need to have no fear for the American way of life or the future of our community when a community goes ahead on projects such as these,” announced William Perkins, state revenue director who filled in for Governor Lee Knous at the opening ceremony. “Steamboat Springs is a great example of what a single community can do by pulling for the benefit of all. Steamboat Spring stands out as one of the foremost towns in American because of its enterprise and its ability to get things done.”

Skiing with ghosts

The skiing was good, according to some who tackled the hill as children.

“There was no grooming at all. It was powdery, and it was pretty darn steep up on top,” Wither said. “Our equipment at the time was what it was. There were no steel edges and it was all pretty basic, so it was tough, on me at least. I was just a small kid.”

The top of the lift fed the steep terrain that mark the upper portion of Emerald Mountain, then fed into more gentle meadows now laced by mountain bike trails.

Those that could have been

Catamount

Nothing makes long-time locals wince quite like talking about the prospects of a Catamount Ski Area. To be located east of Steamboat Springs and north of Stagecoach, it could have rivaled Steamboat Ski Area and Mount Werner for its variety and quality of terrain, something none of the other near misses or briefly existing areas could claim. It could have also offered true top-to-bottom skiing, something that’s only marginally possible on Mount Werner.

Catamount was first considered for a ski slope in 1973 as a potential spot for Olympic Alpine events for the proposed 1976 Winter Olympics in Denver. Things got more serious in the ensuing two decades, but investors eventually lost patience with the project.

Sand Mountain

Bill Fetcher said a ski resort on Sand Mountain was considered. He said a 1956 logging operation on the North Routt mountain’s slopes, which was meant to just cut out strips of trees, went awry and led to the mountain’s timber being clear cut. Suddenly, a mistake made a ski area look possible, and Gordy Wren proposed ski runs and lift lines on the 10,852-foot peak.

“It would have been a failure,” Fetcher said. “It was 30 miles up narrow Elk River Road and (Colorado Highway 129.) Plus, with that extra 1,000 feet in elevation, the weather can be awful there.”

Meaden Peak Ski Area

The dream of a North Routt ski area didn’t die easily. A proposed ski area in the mid-1970s would have been on the slopes of Meaden Peak, next door to Sand Mountain.

According to a 1973 article in the Steamboat Pilot, the project was headed by the same organization that put in the Steamboat Lake Ski Area, located several miles away. The mountain would have provided 1,980 feet of vertical, and plans included 7,000 acres of ski trails and as many as 11 lifts capable of hauling 3,500 skier per hour.

The project never took root, no doubt thanks to the failure of Steamboat Lake Ski Area.


Fish Creek and Priest Creek ski area

According to Sureva Towler’s “History of Skiing at Steamboat Springs,” proposals were floated at various points to have separate ski areas service terrain that now is on the flanks of the existing Steamboat Ski Area. Expansion of that ski area sank any dreams of alternate access up the side of Mount Werner.

Riding up, skiers would let go of the T-bar as they went over the top of Howelsen Hill, then catch another T-bar after skiing down the backside of that point, riding the rest of the way.

Skiers coming down from the top could catch the T-bar again at mid-mountain, making for quick laps, or at least as quick as was possible. Rides could take more than 20 minutes from the base.

It also could be perilous.

“Every once in awhile you would catch a T-bar and the cable would break,” Wither remembered. “Instead of replacing it, they would just reattach the cable, so they would get pretty short. Sometimes, you would catch a short one, and in some places, it would pull you off the ground and you would just be spinning around. We got to be pretty good at putting our ski tips down to get us guided again and pointed back up hill.”

For the sweat that went into the lift, it never really paid off, and by 1954, the lift was shortened to stop at the top of Howelsen Hill.

Fetcher reported that the cable that drove the lift wore prematurely, a flaw in the design, and the Winter Sports Club couldn’t replace it. On top of that, for as revolutionary as the lift seemed in 1948, it was clear by 1954 that it didn’t have the capacity to put enough skiers atop the mountain in a short enough time.

Finally, Fetcher writes the skiing simply wasn’t good enough. The top portion of Emerald Mountain was too steep. The middle part was too flat.

“Merely stringing a lift up a mountain is no guarantee that that mountain will provide good skiing,” he said.

The lower portion of the lift remained in use on Howelsen Hill until it was dismantled and replaced in 1970, but the dream of Steamboat’s first big ski resort — its initial bid to match Aspen and Winter Park — was already long dead.

Some still ski from the top of Emerald Mountain, and it’s getting easier as ski equipment trends continue to emphasize Alpine touring equipment and hiking accessories. Nevertheless, the bright optimism of 1948 has long since melted away, and along with it, Steamboat’s first attempt at a major ski area. ■

A trip down Emerald’s fast lane

Jim “Moose” Barrows has flown down thousands of ski runs during his 70 years, from the pedestrian trips down an intermediate run to the men’s downhill at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France.

The thrill of a trip down the downhill run opened up by the Emerald Mountain lift still lingers in his voice, however.

Racing was an important part of skiing on Howelsen Hill long before a lift was strung up Emerald Mountain in 1948, but the addition of the lift opened up big new routes, and Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club members built a downhill course off the top that Barrows will never forget.

“It was a real test,” he said. “It was one of the toughest downhills in the United States.”

The run started off to skier’s right and dropped down the top ridge, quickly putting racers at top speed.

“Then you went over two huge bumps, which were an extension from the quarry and dropped straight into the steilhang,” Barrows said.

The steilhang was a narrow shaft that dropped down just beyond the quarry, 150 yards of steep with a sharp turn at the bottom.

“Then we went across a flat meadow and dropped into the corkscrew,” Barrows said. “It was a drainage and had one big huge tree you had to set the course around. We didn’t have any pads back then. It was two big technical turns that were tough. It was darker down there, and when you came out of the trees. you were in an open meadow.

“It was just one long turn to the right, but it was like trying to turn on the outside of a basketball. You could never see it. It was a fall away all the way around.”

That left skiers poised above River Road and dashing toward one last significant drop.

“It was a bling drop. You went around the last steep hill and then had a fairly tough transition into the road,” he said. “They couldn’t set it straight. They had to do it an angle. You had to go across the road and finish across the field on the north side of River Road.”

There was a downhill course when the lift was first finished, but Mrs. Emerson Wiley put an end to that by building a fence that blocked the course.

Gordy Wren, then the ski director for the Winter Sports Club, and Marvin Rice, the tow operator on Emerald, began plotting out and preparing a new course to be ready early in 1953.

It was a thrilling ride, and those who rode it haven’t forgotten.

“It was long with a lot of technical requirements,” Barrows said. “It would still be a major tough downhill by today’s standards.”


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