The Purple Mountains’ Fading Majesty

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In fact, so far as annual tonnages were concerned, mining was back. It did not seem like the old days, however. The new effort was concentrated, leaving hundreds of once-active claims untouched, their tunnels and cabins slowly collapsing. The serpentine supply trains of livestock, their cavernous barns and profane herders, and the ranchers who once had grown fodder for the animals all vanished. The little railroads disappeared. Automation eased the gruelling labor inside the earth; at a new molybdenum mine, opened in 1967 in Clear Creek Canyon, Colorado, a single worker can tell by a glance at a television screen which ore bin far underground needs filling, an operation he then completes by pushing a button. The 4,000 or more inhabitants that Telluride’s strenuous demands had once drawn to the town had shrunk by 1967 to fewer than 600. Burdened with an outmoded tax structure, the decrepit town faced, as most of the reduced mountain communities did, harrowing problems in maintaining schools, hospitals, sewage disposal plants, and other municipal services. That’s what old-timers meant when they said that mining had not revived, whatever the tonnage figures proclaimed.

The drift of people away from the high country was more than counteracted by the rapid growth of cities near the foothills. Most of the newcomers who settled in these cities responded enthusiastically to the dry climate and the dramatic landscapes. College professors, according to one wry bit of folklore at the University of Colorado, were even expected to receive part of their salaries in sunshine, scenery, and pleasantly informal styles of living. Indigenous folk celebrations —rodeos, Indian dances, Spanish fiestas—caught the fancy of many of the new settlers. In New Mexico the architecture of the Pueblo Indians, as modified by the Spanish-Americans, completely won over the home builders settling around the new atomic plants. And only an hour from every major center—from Great Falls, Montana, to Albuquerque, New Mexico—lay the enthralling playgrounds of the national forests.

The salubrious climate and vigorous sports of the mountains had long been advertised, of course. Biggame hunters were attaching themselves to fur-trade caravans as early as the iSgo’s. In 1873, Denver’s Committee of Asthmatics had printed one hundred case histories in pamphlet form and broadcast the hope of relief to sufferers throughout the nation. During the i86o’s, dwellers in the high basins learned to travel about on long Norwegian skis, balancing themselves with a single pole held slantwise in front of them; a few unconventional souls, banding into outing clubs, even used the devices for sport. Railroads eagerly promoted mineral-water spas where guests at ornate resort hotels amused themselves between sips by taking scenic drives in elegant coaches.

These things were exceptions, however. Until the advent of the automobile, outdoor recreation was limited to a few places and to relatively few people. Then, liberated by the new mobility that developed after World War I, venturesome families began visiting the Rockies in their own cars rather than aboard trains. At first most of the visitors sought out the national parks. Later, in the igso’s, increasing numbers took to bumping over the new fire and supply roads that the Civilian Conservation Corps was building deep into forests, where once only unmapped trails had led.

The surge was not limited to summer campers and autumn deer hunters. Stimulated by the success of the 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, New York, skiers began prowling the Rockies, looking for runs comparable to those in Switzerland. Hoping to fill empty train seats, officials of the Union Pacific hired a Swiss expert to locate a site to meet the demand. The spot finally selected was the old town of Ketchum on the Wood River of southern Idaho, once a lively center for the distribution of mining supplies and for the shipment of sheep to market. Turning up an eastern fork of the Wood River, the promoters built Sun Valley, first of the major Rocky Mountain ski resorts. The Denver & Rio Grande meanwhile promoted more modest sites in Colorado within reach of Denver and Boulder—Winter Park at the western portal of the Moffat Tunnel; the long hills near Hot Sulphur Springs in Middle Park, where William Byers had tried seventy years earlier to develop a summer resort; and Steamboat Springs on the Yampa River, where eventually some of the first American ski-jump records were established. Other weekend enthusiasts drove automobiles to the top of Berthoud Pass on U.S. Highway 40, then skied down swaths cut through the forest for telephone lines, and were picked up at the bottom of the improvised runs by friends who had volunteered to bring down the cars. Lifts? You were lucky, in those years, to find even a rope tow.

World War II slowed the stampede of recreationists. Afterward, the Depression gone, the number swelled even more prodigiously. Between 1946 and 1964, visits to the national forests in Colorado increased from 1,500,000 to 14,567,000 a year; in New Mexico, from 500,000 to 5,769,000; in Montana, from fewer than 1,000,000 to more than 7,000,000. And these enormous figures do not even include visitors to the national parks, monuments, or historic sites. Each fall, more than half a million Nimrods fanned out through the hills and harvested surprising amounts of wild meat —in 1964 an estimated 81,000 deer and 11,000 elk in Colorado alone.