That Long Hill Down Into Camp Hale
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
There are certain stories that stay with you. Maybe it’s the genuineness with which they were told, or the details are so vivid that it paints a picture that lasts. This is such a story, which was told to me years ago by one of Leadville’s grand matriarchs, Edith Seppi, who passed away in September 2017 on her Lake County ranch at the age of 95. Rest-In-Peace Edith, The Cloud City won’t be the same without you!
Edith Seppi moved to Leadville in February 1942 with her parents. Her father was a contractor, hired to build the present-day Sayer & McKee building, which originally served as the Safeway grocery store. Edith was nearly 20 years old, and Leadville was on the verge of another big boom cycle.
The contracts to build Camp Hale had also been awarded, and once that was project was complete, soldiers flooded into Leadville by the thousands.
“Everywhere you looked there was Army,” explained Seppi, during one of the many interviews I had the honor of conducting with Edith over the years. The Leadville community had fully embraced the soldiers, with residents opening up their homes, making them feel part of their families. The city seemed to come alive again, as the leaner years of The Depression began to fade into the background.
Remember this was the 1940s, there was no Interstate-70, no Vail Resorts. In fact, Leadville was the central point of mountain living, and these nearby World War II efforts provided the economic lift necessary to put the wind back into the sails of America’s highest city. The town was bustling and once the local USO (United Service Organizations) was established, Leadville’s social calendar ramped-up to a level that local residents had not seen in some time.
“We had dances at the Sixth Street Gym,” Edith explained, describing the impact that Camp Hale was having on the small mountain community. The bars were packed, the store shelves were stocked, and business was booming. But as the months wore on, and the military efforts for the war increased, it all proved to be too much for Leadville.
“Eventually the city council and mayor decided that they didn’t want the soldiers in town anymore,” explained Edith. “They put Leadville off-limits to the soldiers, and asked the military police to arrest any Army personnel who crossed the line!”
While such a decision is difficult to fathom, even by today’s standards, back then the new decree put a tremendous crimp in the young people’s social lives. And as is the case with most youth, regardless of the generation, they were bound to find a go-around for that! So, with the help of the USO, they came up with a new plan that would now bring the “Leadville girls” out to the Camp Hale Army barracks for the dances.
“From then on, the GI trucks would pick up us Leadville girls at the Sixth Street Gym and bring us down to Camp Hale,” said Edith. Now in the 1940s this 17-mile journey over Tennessee Pass, and down into valley was not on the paved thoroughfare you see today. It was a rough ride, on a rough road in an Army truck, with bench seating along the sides and a canvas roof. But when you’re young, and looking for love in the arms of a soldier on the dance floor, you’ll endure all kinds of conditions to get you there. And so the Leadville girls did, for many months. But one Saturday night, that could have all changed.
“We were headed down to Camp Hale for a dance,” describes Seppi. “And the Army truck was packed with us girls, in our formal dresses and high-heels.” Up until then, the journey had been pretty routine with chatter about the young officers they’d hoped to see and latest dance crazes of the day.
“But then, as we got to that long hill that leads down into Camp Hale,” described Edith in such detail, it was if it had happened yesterday, “we really started to pick up speed.” The Leadville girls began to bump up and down on those hard wooden benches; some of them knocked to the ground during the violent ride that had become anything but routine!
“By the time we hit the bottom of that hill, we had been tossed around like a salad,” Edith exclaimed. As the truck regained control, turning off Highway 24 into Camp Hale, the ladies collected themselves, along with their purses and high-heels as they made the final leg into the “dance hall.”
They were all pretty shook up, wondering what had happened. Later that night, the Leadville girls learned that the Army truck’s brakes had given out on that long hill down into Camp Hale. In fact, had it not been for a skilled Army captain at the wheel, they all might have perished in a fiery, high-speed crash! Can you imagine?!
I think about that story every time I drive that long hill down into Camp Hale. Of course, I also pump my brakes, just in case! And now I’ll add wink and a nod for Edith Seppi, a woman I’m honored to have known.