Breckenridge was a dusty forlorn town by the late 1950s, barely hanging on after the steep decline of the mining industry. The Great Depression weakened Breckenridge and World War II almost finished it off. In those years, the State of Colorado wasn’t doing much better; the economy was based on the struggling industries of mining, ranching and farming.
The Quiet Years dragged on. Sixteen dispiriting years passed between 1942 when the last dredge mining boat shut down and 1958 when Breckenridge was slammed in the Rocky Mountain News as “just a ghost town” by John Leuthold, the former editor of its newspaper.
Yet Mayor Frank Brown remained ever hopeful and upbeat. In response to Editor Leuthold’s comments, Mayor Brown chided: “If that is true, there are a lot of spooks floating around up here…. Every habitable house in town has phantoms haunting it, and there isn’t a day that some apparition or other doesn’t come to town, steering a 1958 model, looking for a place to settle down.”
Contained the in the depression of economic decline were the seeds of resurrection, a blank canvas on which to paint the new Breckenridge. Brown knew change was coming, it always did in Breckenridge.
Indeed, Colorado was on the cusp of a new wave that would transform the state: Tourism. As early as 1946 Colorado began to recognize and develop its potential as a vacation destination. Work commenced on improvements to infrastructure: the highway system, US Forest Service recreation areas, ski area expansions, reservoirs, and perhaps most importantly, Coloradans perception of themselves as hospitality providers.
One of those apparitions steering a 1958 model vehicle observed by Frank Brown was probably Bill Stark. Stark was a man with gold fever and a much larger vision for the area. He started gold prospecting in French Gulch and was astounded at the beauty of the Breckenridge area. “Who owns this land?” he wondered.
Stark was fully aware that a new reservoir, Dillon Reservoir, was planned for Summit County and he anticipated a demand for mountain cabins. He also knew that the tunnel, Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnel, was on the drawing board. Plans to run the nascent interstate system through the mountains were leaning heavily toward the old Highway 6 route with a tunnel under the Continental Divide to avoid the treacherous crossing at Loveland Pass. Stark saw that Summit County would be transformed with these improvements and that Breckenridge was particularly poised to take advantage of the new interest.
But Stark lacked capital. Land was cheap, but he could only acquire so much himself. However, Stark knew people, people with money, land interest, and connections with the US Forest Service. Stark went to Ralph C. Rounds, an associate from Wichita. “I made the presentation to Mr. Rounds for the first 8,000 acres. We had no idea what we were going to do with the land. It simply looked like a good buy and we were speculating.”
Rounds and Porter Lumber Company owned land holdings throughout the West, primarily redwood timber country in California and Oregon. The company included numerous lumber mills and yards, and offered redwood kit homes. Rounds and Porter invested in Breckenridge, and Ralph Rounds headed to town with his sons Bill and Dwight “Doc” to check it out.
The Rounds brothers relished their new role in Breckenridge. Doc was a natural born comedian and his penchant for mischief later got him barred from the popular Ore Bucket Restaurant for destroying the toilets by tossing cherry bombs down the plumbing. Breckenridge was, for him, a place to have fun. Bill was more business minded. Bill had spent time with his step-father-in-law, Whipple Jones, as Whip went through the process of permitting and opening his new ski area, Aspen Highlands. The process began in 1956 and the ski area opened in 1958. Bill learned a lot from Whip and likely saw the potential for Breckenridge to host a ski area as well.
But first, the Rounds family had to acquire and develop the land. Rounds and Porter created a new company, Summit County Development Corporation (SCDC), and sent Claude Martin from Wichita to Breckenridge to oversee subdivision and construction. Theirs was a vertically integrated business model: sell the lots, then sell the kit homes and lumber to build cabins on those lots. In a nod to Mayor Frank Brown’s support, SCDC also constructed a bowling alley, a favorite activity of Frank and his wife Theta.
The ski area idea was quietly in the works as well. The company bought private property adjacent to National Forest lands where the base of Peak 8 is today. In the summer of 1960, the Rounds family assigned Bill Stark to start the permitting process with the US Forest Service.
Also in the summer of 1960, Bill Rounds hired Trygve Berge and Sigurd Rockne to come to Breckenridge to build the lumber yard. Rounds knew the young Norwegian men from Aspen Highlands; they were teaching there in Stein Erickson’s ski school.
Momentum for a ski area in Breckenridge quickly grew. As Trygve Berge tells it:
“About September Bill Rounds came out to check on the [lumber yard] … So I asked what do you think you are going to do in the winter time here? It’s a little cold to build cabins. He said Do you think we can ski here? I said, yah, it’s the right exposure, you have snow on the mountains … We decided to take a trip up the mountains and take a look at it. So … we drove that old Willie’s jeep up to the top of where the Colorado Chair is now, and we parked it there and started hiking up … There was an old mining road and we couldn’t see anything except when we got past timberline then we could see what the mountain looked like. It was all second growth from the mining days. The miners just burned everything, and the trees must have been 10-12 feet tall in those days. That’s a long time ago. We started walking up to the top of Peak 8 … we started back down to where the jeep was. Bill pulled out a bottle of Cutty Sark and we had a toast to the new ski area. And that was the very beginning. That was Sigurd and me and Bill, all three of us there.”
Berge and Rockne may not have known it at the time, but the ski area permit application was well underway by that autumn. Their enthusiasm was the icing on the cake of Bill Rounds’ vision. The ski area opened December 1961.
Bill Rounds wanted Norwegians to teach at his ski area. In addition to offering the ski school to Berge and Rockne, Rounds hired a young Norwegian woman named Bente Godal. Godal had taught Rounds’ children skiing in Aspen and they remained life-long friends. In her recording for the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance's Oral History Project, she wished that Bill received more awareness for his vision and creation of the new Breckenridge. “I hope that one day there’ll be a recognition of what he foresaw.”
Today, the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance offers that recognition for Bill Rounds, one of the founders of modern Breckenridge and a major catalyst for what it would become. For the history of the earliest days of the Breckenridge Ski Area, look out for our next article in Resilient Breckenridge series!
written by: Leigh Girvin