Breckenridge would become a world-renowned ski resort by the turn of the 21st century, but it was a long road to fame. The early years were full of obstacles, false starts, and growing pains. Transitioning from mining town to ski town was fraught with new challenges around identity, infrastructure and economic viability. In the first decade, all of these trials would surface.
Breckenridge was teetering on the brink of becoming a ghost town when new visionaries came to the area and began buying property to create the new resort community. While Breckenridge may have been resurrected in 1960 from near demise, the first decade as a ski town was far from a success.
“It took about 3 or 4 years before you saw any difference,” commented Trygve Berge, co-director of the first Ski School and resident since 1960. One of the first challenges was identity. Even the original name caused confusion: Peak 8 Ski Area. No one knew where or what Peak 8 was.
The second season, 1962-63, the name was changed to reflect the town where the ski area was located. But even then, few people in Colorado had heard of Breckenridge; it had fallen so far off the radar over the decades with the decline of the mining industry. Early resident Jim Nicholls had to copy a Department of Transportation sign and surreptitiously post it with other highway signs at the turn to Winter Park to point the way to Breckenridge.
In the summer of 1960, there was a rush of construction to build the basic resort amenities needed to attract visitors. These included the Breckenridge Inn, a bowling alley, post office, movie theater, and lumber yard. Most new buildings were constructed in the Bavarian style of the Alps, an architectural language admired by the troops of the 10th Mountain Division who started many ski areas in Colorado after the end of World War II. Men like Berge, who immigrated from Norway, preferred this style because the simple, shallow roof lines were ideal for heavy snow loads.
But Breckenridge was a historic Victorian-era Colorado mining town with charming and beautiful old buildings. Varied roof pitches and dormer windows harbored ice dams which caused leaks. There was tension between the old and the new, with many residents bemoaning a lack of respect for the significance of the town’s historical look and feel.
Bill Stark, one of the founders of modern Breckenridge, later admitted: “I also got caught up in what I think now as the ‘yodely-crap attitude’ that blossomed early both in Vail and in Breckenridge and in other ski areas as well. Apparently we didn’t have enough self-confidence in our own taste to not imitate the European touristy stuff.” It would take another two decades before Breckenridge was recognized as a National Historic District.
The Town also lacked basic infrastructure, such as waste water treatment, functioning water lines, snowplowing, planning, police or fire departments. Neither did the Town own any land, so it was entirely dependent on outsiders to determine the trajectory of the growing community. Development was willy-nilly without a plan. Then there were the ugly, huge piles of river cobble surrounding the town, remnants of the dredge boat mining era. No one wanted to touch them.
Fires marred the early years of the decade. Many of Breckenridge’s significant historic buildings were lost to fire. The Briar Rose Restaurant, a favorite of the new ski crowd, burned to the ground in 1964. That was the winter it was so cold all the water lines in town froze up. Many residents relied on a water truck to fill their bathtubs for the week’s water supply. The Briar Rose was having its water lines thawed by a dicey electrical charge system, when the old wood in the rafters caught fire. The fire department lines were frozen too. When the volunteer fire department finally showed up to put it out, ice cubes came out the end of the fire hose, according to Maureen Nicholls who shared her observations for the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance oral history program.
In 1966, an explosion at the ski area caused the death of one man, injured many others, and got Breckenridge a mention on the national nightly news. It was not the kind of publicity the new ski town was looking for. A propane leak was the cause of the explosion at the Ullr Holm building at the base of the ski area, where the lift ticket offices, rental shop, and lunch room were located. “The explosion blew Paul Duke and his secretary Rosemary Ahern out into the parking lot,” according to an unpublished memoir by Barney Brewer, shared by Kate Brewer. Rosemary’s daughter Kathy Ahern Neel remembered: “When the Ullr building blew up, everyone ran up there to help. People came to our house to feed us, took care of us. That’s the kind of place it was, and I think it still pretty much is.”
Breckenridge needed to overcome the bad publicity of fires, ugly rock piles and frozen water lines. A new group of investors came to town in the mid-60s and bought up hundreds of acres for their new condominium development. The Breckenridge Company they called themselves.
“To really get the word out, they needed a high-profile person from the ski world. They decided to hire Jean Claude Killy. Lots of photos. Big posters. You’d see them in airports all over the country,” according to Win Lockwood. Killy was the world’s most famous skier at the time, a triple Olympic champion. Lockwood was on the ski school demo team and was chosen to ski with Killy when he was around. Killy drew attention to Breckenridge, but he spent only as much time in town as his contract required.
The news that really boosted attention for Breckenridge was the purchase by Aspen Ski Corporation. But even that wasn’t a smooth transaction. A group of Chicago investors were on their way to Breckenridge to seal the deal. D.R.C. Brown of Aspen Ski Corporation got wind of the potential sale and hastened to Breckenridge in his private plane. That was when there was an airstrip where Airport Road is today. According to Lockwood, “Somehow Jim [Nicholls] got the airstrip plowed, DRC lands, leaves the plane on the runway. No one picked him up, so he hiked in his cowboy boots to Highway 9, thumbed a ride to the base of Peak 8. He arrived with a $100K cashier’s check, and signed the purchase contract. An hour later, the black limousine arrives from the Denver airport with the Chicago guys. They weren’t happy.”
While the trials of growing a resort community continued throughout the first decade (and beyond), Breckenridge did put itself on the map with dining destinations. Long-time locals still reminisce about two popular and distinctly different dining experiences: The Ore Bucket and El Perdido.
Guenther Hofeditz – a Nazi-escapee, military specialist, and former roadie for the Stan Kenton Jazz Orchestra – settled in Breckenridge and quickly established the Ore Bucket as the best restaurant in town, known for his steaks and chops. But Guenther had a temper and little patience for complaining guests. Many locals shared tales of Guenther chasing obnoxious diners out of the restaurant brandishing a cleaver. He was also famous for hosting Tannenbaum parties at Christmas, where guests would light candles on an actual tree. Never did the building burn down. It is the Brown Hotel today.
El Perdido Mexican Restaurant, founded by the Romero family, introduced many Coloradoans to good Mexican cuisine. According to Lockwood, “The lines at El Perdido in the middle of winter, ten below zero or colder, would be 25 yards long outside. You’d order a pitcher of margaritas, pass the money up the line, sometimes you’d get your change. Back would come the margaritas, most were still in the pitcher by the time it got to you.” Liquor laws were laxer then.
With the purchase by Aspen in 1970 and the subsequent expansion onto Peak 9, Breckenridge was gaining momentum. Investors pumped money into development. Families arrived to make a new home in the growing resort community. Slowly the rock piles began to disappear. Breckenridge was on its way to becoming one of the most popular ski destinations in North America.
written by: Leigh Girvin