Then and now: Those who remember Steamboat Resort’s creation reflect on its changes
Jay Fetcher remembers when Steamboat Resort was called Storm Mountain Ski Area, when it had only one chairlift and no gondola.
“I remember when there were no lines at all up there,” Fetcher said, pointing towards the Thunderhead Lift and other parts of Steamboat Resort visible from the balcony of his home.
Fetcher’s father, John Fetcher, moved the Fetcher family from Pennsylvania to Routt County in the 1960s. The family opened a ranch in Clark, and when he wasn’t working on the ranch, John was chasing his second-greatest passion and the reason he wanted to be in Colorado: skiing.
“Howelsen Hill was the only place to ski at the time,” Jay said.
The early years
While the ski area opened in 1963, John purchased the area’s first gondola from Switzerland in 1970. It had four towers and almost never had a line. At the time, the area was owned by Ling-Temco-Vought, a Dallas-based conglomerate involved in aerospace and electronics.
The base area included a modest chairlift and small gondola, but no gear rental shops, flashy restaurants or souvenirs.
“If you weren’t a rancher or a coal miner there was nothing here for you,” said Pete Wither, a real estate agent with Colorado Group Realty who moved to Steamboat in 1943 when he was 3 years old.
Wither and Fetcher both recall similar lifestyles in Steamboat at the time: the city had only one stop light, located in front of Lyon’s Corner Drug & Soda Fountain; tourists only came to town in the summer; residents bought groceries on the Front Range and most people living in town either worked on a ranch or in a coal mine.
Putting Steamboat on the map
Jim “Moose” Barrows points to 1970 as the year skiing in Steamboat became a popular destination and the city began to slowly transition from a small ranch town to Ski Town, USA.
Each business in town contributed funds to help install chairs on chairlifts, and community members rallied to install the resort’s first gondola, he recalled.
Barrows said, until 1970, if residents wanted to ski they did so off the top of Emerald Mountain, before the chairlift at Howelsen Hill Ski Area was installed. If skiers wanted to use what is now Steamboat Resort, they drove trucks to the top of Christie Peak and skied down.
“It was all a community effort,” Barrows said. “Everyone was involved.”
Barrows was hired by Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. in 1970 as a professional ski racer, after graduating from the University of Colorado Boulder. He first worked installing the Thunderhead and Four Points lifts, then worked with Frontier Airlines to film commercials for “Ski the Rockies” advertisements. They were used to promote skiing in 29 ski areas across Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico.
“In those early days, it was a big deal because it gave all the people that lived here an opportunity to have a job skiing,” Barrows said. “That was the time everything started to change in the ski industry.”
Northwest Colorado Ski Corp., spearheaded by Martin Hart, purchased Steamboat’s ski area in 1979. Under his direction, Steamboat expanded its terrain and brought new amenities that some longtime locals said contributed to Steamboat earning its spot as a respectable resort.
“For a long time, we weren’t perceived as one of the big guys like Aspen or Vail,” said Rod Hanna, who was hired as Ski Corp.’s director of communications in 1975. “Martin (Hart) was critical in the development of Steamboat becoming much more of a world-class resort.”
Throughout his 25 years spent marketing Steamboat, Hanna said he and his team focused on fixing the perception of Steamboat being a small, remote resort too far away from the Front Range. Instead, they put it in the big leagues.
In an effort to help Steamboat find its own identity, Hanna remembers running promotional ads with the tagline “More mountain than Aspen. More powder than Vail. And more bars than Utah.”
“That was kind of the kicker to put a bit of humor to it and also make us unique,” Hanna said.
As the city and ski area continued to grow, Hanna said they also tried to ensure Steamboat maintained its identity as a Western town, which they felt set the city apart from other ski areas.
“This was a cattle town long before it was a ski town,” Hanna said.
From 1970 to the early 2000s, Barrows, Hanna and Fetcher remember a steady progression of growth. More airlines flew into the area, more restaurants opened around town and more visitors became lifelong locals.
“We welcomed what was happening in Steamboat with the growth and new restaurants and different people from different backgrounds than just a small ranching community,” Fetcher said. “We liked what the resort was bringing back then.”
More, faster growth
Fetcher said his father, who died in 2009, began to express concern about what he saw as rapid growth and visitation towards the end of his life.
“When Steamboat was first drawing new people here, I felt like they wanted to give to the community, and they wanted to contribute and appreciate things,” Fetcher said. “I feel like a lot of the people now want to just take.”
Throughout the past 5 to 10 years, Fetcher said he has seen a trend in Steamboat: more cars on the road, less of a community feel and more short-term rentals popping up.
“I’m concerned about where the schoolteachers are going to live and where the firefighters are going to live,” Fetcher said. “I’m a little bit uncomfortable with what’s going on right now in Steamboat, especially with the amount of money that’s coming in.”
Gael Fetcher, Jay’s wife who has been in town since 1971, worries that Steamboat, once considered a more modest resort town, is headed in the direction of Aspen and Vail that have become more expensive.
“So many people are coming here to get away from a community somewhere else rather than to be a part of one here,” she said. “We don’t want to be like Aspen where you have to bus everyone in to come and work.”
Still, Gael said, she appreciates that more people in town has helped create a more diverse environment. It’s helped her meet others who share common interests.
Wither said while he recognizes an influx of visitors and increases in housing have created problems, he believes Steamboat’s growth has overall been more of an asset than a drawback.
“I say if it hadn’t changed, I wouldn’t be here and most people wouldn’t be here either,” Wither said. “It’s made my life a lot better.”
To reach Alison Berg, call 970-871-4229 or email aberg@SteamboatPilot.com.
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