Vail Pass: How It Got Its Name
A “Sign” of The Times – or – Protesting Passes
By Kathy Bedell, © Leadville Today
Mountain folks can be some of the easiest going people you’ll ever meet – most are real “live and let live” people. But just when you think you’ve got them figured out, they dig their heels in about an issue. Something that on the surface, you wouldn’t think they’d care so much about.
But first, some history. It was the 1930s and the state of Colorado was working diligently on its highway systems, trying to shorten many routes by developing roads that connected Colorado’s rural communities over high-mountain passageways. An arduous task, even by today’s standards which include state-of-the-art construction equipment and blasting technology.
Back then, it was an engineer by the name of Charles D. Vail who headed up the Colorado State Highway Department (CSHD), CDOT’s forerunner. He was the CSHD boss for 14 years, from 1930 – 45. He was well-respected and his enineering feats earned Vail a grand reputation, particularly regarding the re-routing of Old Monarch Pass between Salida and Gunnison. The pass is widely considered one of the most scenic in Colorado, offering a panoramic view of the southern end of the Sawatch Mountain Range from its summit.
When Charles D. Vail and his road crews finished that portion of US Highway 50, the state decided to honor the head of the highway engineering department. But it was a plan officials might have thought out a bit more. You see, while mountain folks CAN be some of the easiest going folks you’ll ever meet, there are certain things that outsiders just shouldn’t mess with, and their history and traditions are two of them. CSHD and Charles D. Vail were about to find that out.
When the highway department – without too much public input – renamed that southern passageway, Vail Pass, it didn’t take long for the natives to “light their torches” and head out in protest. The new name did not sit well with the denizens of this high mountain community. In fact, their attachment to the traditional name was so strong, that local accounts describe tales of the newly created signs being removed from the highway under the cover of darkness; while others were painted over, erasing the honor inscribed for namesake Charles D. Vail.
Fortunately, old newspaper accounts indicate that “Charley” took it all in stride, he understood the sentimental attachment to things, including names and signs. As the protests continued, Vail-the-man eventually demonstrated true leadership and acquiesced, humbling himself to the will of others, to the people and families that had lived there for generations, long before he built that highway. In the end, the state officials followed Charley’s lead, relented to the protests, and restored the name of Monarch to the pass, as it is still known today.
Of course, stories about the “little guy” winning out over the “big guy” are endearing to read, real crowd-pleasers. However, this one goes a bit further because Vail’s decision to “take a hit” for the common good, put into motion a series of events that resulted in an honor for his name that goes far beyond a mountain pass.
You see, the misstep in their attempt to re-name Monarch Pass never deterred the state highway department from their desire to pay tribute to this important man. Therefore a new plan was developed.
It was a plan that was only a mere glimmer in Charles D. Vail’s pipe dream. And it would take some three decades after his death to come to fruition. But when this new mountain route finally pushed through between Dillon and Minturn, it cut down the highway driving distance across the state drastically. Before then, folks had to travel over Fremont Pass to Leadville and then over Tennessee Pass and Battle Mountain to get from Denver to Grand Junction.
Even though this new pass traversing the Gore Range had only been a dream of Charles D. Vail, it was appropriately named after him, becoming a lasting tribute to a man who was instrumental in getting motorists around in a shorter amount of time.
As time went on and the area grew, Vail (the man) got an even bigger tribute, one he probably had not bargained for. In fact, when the town of Vail’s founders were considering names for their new ski resort, many favored Shining Mountain, which was the name the Ute Indians had given the area. Fortunately, one quick-thinking member of the group shared that the name might imply that the slopes were icy. Eventually, the group voted on Vail – it’s short and easy to remember. So they adopted the name of the town, after the name of the pass, named after the highway engineer.
I’m sure a guy like Charles D. Vail took it all in stride. As a hard-working highway construction engineer he was more interested in the gravel than the glory. But after the first tribute attempt took off like a monarch in flight, I’m sure he’d be pleased to know that his name has gone on to represent a pass, an alpine village, and a world-class ski resort.
Now, who could pass that up!?
Colorado Journalist Kathy Bedell owns The Great Pumpkin, a digital media company located in Leadville, Colorado which publishes LeadvilleToday.com and SaguacheToday.com. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.