The first Europeans to settle in the Upper Blue River were gold miners in the summer of 1859. Mountain Utes used the area from pre-history for summer hunting grounds, but they left no records. A diary entry from Thomas Farnham mentioned crossing through the area in 1839. Mr. Farnham gave no name to the 11,481 foot saddle between Bald and Red Mountains, southeast of today’s Breckenridge. With the discovery of gold in the Upper Blue River Basin in 1859 miners and merchants swarmed into the area.
The quickest way into Breckenridge at the time was to hike or ski northwest up Tarryall Creek from the Como stop on the Union Pacific Railroad in South Park and then over what the miners knew at the time as Ute Pass. For a brief time in the early 1860’s the pass was known as either Tarryall or Hamilton Pass after two small communities on the Como side of the Continental Divide. Later, as the mining town of Breckenridge grew in size and gold production it acquired the name Breckenridge Pass. It wasn’t until after the winter of the big snow of 1898-99 that it was blessed with its current moniker, Boreas Pass. For 79 days, stretching from February 5 1898 to April 24 of 1899, the pass, and thus the train and lifeline for Breckenridge, was blockaded by snow. Only a few hardy skiers made the trip between Breckenridge and Como. Some traveled for necessity, some for adventure, and some for love, but not all survived the journey. The story of Loren Waldo is a good illustration of the challenges faced by those who dared attempt the trip. Tiny Breckenridge was snowbound and isolated from the rest of the world for over two months. In Greek mythology, Boreas was the purple winged god of the north wind and winter. The winter of the big snow was not soon forgotten by the local residents. The name Boreas Pass, conjured up by local miners and snow shovelers, stuck.
The metamorphosis from rugged foot path to the country’s highest rail line was quite rapid, especially given the engineering technology of the day. The original rugged dirt and rock path quickly grew to accommodate horses and then horse drawn wagons and stage coaches, sometimes up to six a day. With the stage coaches came buildings. One of the oldest manmade structures in the Breckenridge area was built in the 1860’s at the summit of the pass to serve weary travelers in and out of the mountains. Forest Service historians knew it only as the Wagon Cabin. By 1881 the narrow gauge Denver, South Park, and Pacific Railroad (DSP&P) was open for business, spurring off the main Union Pacific line at a round house in Como and slowly chugging over the pass to Breckenridge. Four years later in 1884 the DSP&P arrived in Leadville. In 22 short years the Tarryall and Blue River drainages went from raw wilderness to rail service.
The Section House on Boreas Pass was built in 1882 to house rail workers and stranded travelers. At one time there was a small town on the pass, including the country’s highest post office. Archeologists were able to find the remains of several wooden building foundations. In 1937 the DSP&P rail line was abandoned and converted to a dirt road now open only from Memorial Day to November 1st. All that survives of that small town are the Wagon Cabin and Section House. By the early 1990’s, after weathering 100 years of brutally harsh weather conditions, the historic buildings were near total collapse. The roofs were mostly caved in, the walls were starting to fall and they were becoming an attractive nuisance.
Boreas Pass was once again a remote outpost, but fortunately the US Forest Service’s (USFS) Park County Ranger District knew that something had to happen fast to save the beautiful old structures. Somehow the USFS was able to wrangle together stake holders and enough cash to pursue restoration of the historic site. Tony Harris, a Breckenridge contractor with experience working on historic structures, was hired for the job of restoring the Wagon Cabin and Section House. The project ran summers from 1992 to 1997. By the summer of 1998 with a new lease on life, the two structures were unknowingly headed for another purpose.
The USFS at the time had a policy of “use it or lose it.” That meant a new public use for the government owned structures had to be found or the hard work of so many people could potentially be lost. In the summer of 1998 the Park County Ranger District approached Summit Huts Association, a non-profit based in Breckenridge, to see if there was any interest in using the Wagon Cabin and Section House for winter skiers. Summit Huts jumped at the chance and the Section House was outfitted and furnished for winter overnight users by fall of 1998. The Wagon Cabin, a few steps south of the Section House, was initially used as firewood storage for the Section House guests. Protective walls were built around the interior to prevent any damage to the old log structure. A reservation, human power, and the ability to withstand winter weather, were the only three requirements necessary to make the roughly 6.5 mile trek up to Boreas Pass and spend a night at the Section House.
In 1995 a young emergency room doctor, Ken Graff, from Denver was killed in an avalanche in the Crystal Creek drainage a couple miles south of Breckenridge. Ken’s widow, their family, and friends raised money to convert the old Wagon Cabin for overnight use. A small kitchen, wood burning stove, and comfy pillow top mattress were installed and “Ken’s Cabin” was open to the public in the winter of 1999-2000.
Two new permanent structures were added in the summer of 1999. A vault toilet and a wood storage shed. Today hundreds of hardy skiers travel the 6.5 miles to Boreas Pass to spend a night or more in the comfy confines of the old Section House complex. It is an experience few will ever forget.
written by Scott Toepfer