Summit’s Historic Yesterdays: Rope tow to heaven |

Summit’s Historic Yesterdays: Rope tow to heaven

Edna Dercum, Summit County ski legend, taught local kids to ski on unwieldy 7-foot U.S. Army Tenth Mountain Division skis. Later, Edna won her medal as the world's top woman ski racer in her age class. She's shown here at Arapahoe Basin, which her husband, Max, pioneered.
Courtesy Mary Ellen Gilliland |

Editor’s Note: Summit’s Historic Yesterdays by local author Mary Ellen Gilliland is featuring old-time ski stories this winter. Today’s excerpt comes from her historical book, “Breckenridge, 150 Years of Golden History.”

In the Depression-ridden 1930s, young people wanted to have fun, despite economic gloom. The new sport of skiing offered adventure, challenge and camaraderie. Excitement mounted on news that the South Park Lions Club wanted to build a ski run near the Hoosier Pass summit south of Breckenridge in snow-blessed Summit County.

The Club’s sole challenge: Winter access. The 1930s roads — even in Breckenridge — rarely saw a plow. Snow piled up on Hoosier Pass all winter, and blocked the road. In late May and June, crews of townsmen with hand shovels, sometimes aided by a two-horse team and crude plow, sweated under hot sunshine to clear the highway. But in 1937, the Colorado Highway Department constructed a building to house their rotary snowplow (one just like the railroad used but on wheels) and took over maintaining Hoosier Pass road.

Ski enthusiasts rushed to install a Hoosier rope tow in 1937 and saw their reward with a crowd of 500 exultant skiers. Early Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge cars jammed the summit parking and roadway, frustrating highway officials. So the ski course moved to a new site below the Bemrose Mine with room for parking. They used Bemrose mine cabins for skier sleeping quarters. Soon the Hoosier Pass Club opened, offering a bar, complete with juke box, dining and lodging. Breckenridge’s first ski resort, now a full-service facility, awaited international fame.

It came. A globe-trotting ski entourage arrived in January 1938, according to the Jan. 7, Summit County Journal. They came because of sparse snow at the Broadmoor Hotel, their luxurious ski destination. Count Phillipe de Fret of Belgium, Merrell Fanone of New York City, Walter Abel of Baltimore and Nice, France, and eight other 1930s glitterati created headline news when they skied Hoosier Pass. The area’s two north-facing runs, separated by a tree island, provided top-quality snow.


Lesser mortals used the rope tow at the 1939 Blue Valley Ski Course at Breckenridge’s Carter Park. When the U.S. entered World War II, skiing there stopped because no able men were available to run the tow. But after the war in 1948, Breckenridge fire department volunteers brought in a motor and transformed some Montezuma mine-tram equipment to update the tow. They also installed lights for night skiing. In 1948-50 the hill stayed open two nights a week. Many local youngsters learned to ski at Carter Park.

Arapahoe Basin, in its humble 1946-47 beginnings, used both a jeep and a rope tow to haul skiers, according to the author’s conversation with one of the founders, Larry Jump, now deceased. An early storm halted chairlift construction, including digging lift tower holes by hand. So 1,200 skiers climbed to powder paradise via the rope tow that first winter for the price of $1 per day.

Another, smaller local ski area failed to draw the celebrities and VIPs which flocked to the new Arapahoe Basin. Cemetery Ski Hill, located on the site of the old Dillon Cemetery, struggled to attract locals. Its owner, John Bailey, laughed when describing it to this author years before his death. “It was a ridiculous operation.” Located above the original pre-reservoir town of Dillon, the area featured a rope tow and a 150-foot vertical drop. The tow ticket ran skiers $1 each, but few turned out for the bargain, preferring to spend their buck at bigger Arapahoe Basin. “We had six or eight flood lights,” chuckled John Bailey. With them, he asserted, they managed to create “the first night skiing in Colorado.”

“We used the motor from an old Studebaker to run the rope tow,” said Bailey. “We had to burn oil in coffee cans beneath the motor to warm it enough to start. Every third or fourth time, the motor caught fire.” Cemetery Hill lasted only one season, 1949-50.

Of course, skiers also used the Dillon Ski Jump hill and the Breckenridge baseball diamond, where a rope tow hauled young skiers as part of the school’s weekly Tuesday-Thursday afternoon ski lessons.


As a ski instructor, along with John Bailey and Earl Ganong, Edna Dercum worked hard to promote skiing as a school sport in Summit County. Wife of Arapahoe Basin prime mover, Max Dercum, and a later world champion racer herself, Edna took on skirmishes with the school administration to accomplish her goal. “We had a running battle with the principal. He was a basketball coach. Even if a youngster was 5’5”, he had to be on the basketball team.” There were only 35-40 high schoolers, so that all the boys were needed to make the basketball team. And they were not allowed to ski.

Tempers flared over the school’s refusal to support skiing. A teacher and two board members went down the road as victims of the ski versus basketball war in the Summit schools.

“The kids had terrible equipment,” Edna recalled in an interview with the author many years before her death. Unwieldy 7-foot skis, painted white, were surplus from the Tenth Mountain Division U.S. Army skiing soldiers, formerly stationed at Camp Hale. Nevertheless, local skiers like ranch boys George Culbreath, Howard Giberson, Karl Knorr and others from all over the county, distinguished themselves as Colorado skiers, racers and jumpers.

Mary Ellen Gilliland’s “SUMMIT, A Gold Rush History of Summit County, Colorado,” has captured the colorful gold rush. She details the misbehavior of history’s miscreants in her “Rascals, Scoundrels and No Goods” and recounts the story of the region’s first town in “Breckenridge.” Gilliland is also the author of the popular guide, “The Summit Hiker.” All are available from The Next Page Bookstore or online at

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