Guest Post: Pearl Harbor powerfully shifted Colorado’s trajectory. How will COVID-19 change our course now?

We will survive this pandemic, but there will be changes.

In this COVID-19 pandemic, the first case in Colorado was a visitor to Summit County who had recently been in Italy. (Dillon Reservoir in Summit County, Colorado)
In this COVID-19 pandemic, the first case in Colorado was a visitor to Summit County who had recently been in Italy. (Dillon Reservoir in Summit County, Colorado. Photo Credit: Lars Gesing)

This pandemic has started feeling like something more than an extended snow day or having the mumps when you’re a child. Perhaps it’s now more like 1941, after Pearl Harbor.

The potential for a pandemic has been amply reported over the years. People in the early 1940s knew we would inevitably go to war. When abstraction became reality on that December day, so much changed in the context of Colorado.

In the late 1930s, ski areas were about to blossom. The Union Pacific’s Averell Harriman in 1936 opened Sun Valley in Idaho, and resorts were taking off in New England. Colorado had a few smaller ski areas, including Berthoud and Winter Park, plus town ski areas at Steamboat Springs and Gunnison.

Others were thinking bigger. In Aspen, a boat-tow had been installed, primitive but effective in transporting people uphill. One of them was Elizabeth Paepcke, the wife of a wealthy Chicago industrialist. She wanted her husband to see Aspen, to see the potential she saw. Others saw a different resort, one on Mount Hayden, in the Castle Creek Valley southwest of Aspen. Colorado legislators gave the venture $650,000, which was backed by a federal fund.

Closer to Denver, tunnel crews had begun boring an exploratory tunnel under Loveland Pass, with the idea of creating a highway under the Continental Divide. To the west, the state government had used federal New Deal funding to upgrade the horse trail across the Gore Range to a two-lane gravel road. They called it Vail, to honor Charlie Vail, then the boss of the Colorado Highway Department.

In Washington, D.C., President Franklin Roosevelt had had engineers develop plans for a national system of highways with separated lanes.

In Colorado, work had begun on Green Mountain Reservoir. The intent was to provide a service to the Western Slope as a result of the giant transmountain diversion planned at Grand Lake to benefit farmers in northeastern Colorado.

And in northeastern Colorado, my father was working on a dryland farm near Fort Morgan and lopping off the tops of sugar beets in that quiet before the distant clouds of war arrived.

Pearl Harbor changed everything.

The war brought the 10th Mountain Division to Colorado, to a high valley along the Continental Divide between Leadville and Red Cliff called Eagle Park. The Army named it Camp Hale, and at the height of the training it was among the largest cities in Colorado, with 14,000 people, mostly men.

After the war, in 1946, Elizabeth Paepcke’s husband, Walter, finally visited Aspen and saw what had so impressed her. But he put a new touch on it, the idea of invigorating the body and challenging the mind, a DNA that lingers to this day. 10th Mountain Division veterans returned in droves to Colorado to convert Aspen from a derelict mining town into an international resort. A resident, for a time, was Pete Seibert, who had grown up in New England dreaming of creating a ski resort. But he wanted his own resort. That dream in 1962 became Vail.

In time, my father was inducted into the Army, leaving behind the dryland farm where he was reared and its house, which had neither indoor plumbing nor electricity, and took the train to California for basic training, then a posting at the Presidio, near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Eventually he was shipped to India at the foot of the Himalaya Mountains.

The bore under Loveland Pass was completed in 1943, but it revealed too much difficult geology for a highway tunnel. Later, a different alignment was chosen, and that tunneling work resulted in the first of two tunnels in 1973.

The idea of superhighways that many people want to attribute with singularity to Dwight Eisenhower finally was given a federal sponsorship in 1956. Among the Senate sponsors was Albert Gore, father of the future vice president. But if not for the war, it might have happened sooner.

As for that big New Deal-era water project, the Colorado-Big Thompson, it was finally completed in 1957.

And my father returned to northeastern Colorado, married the girl he had met at a gathering of young Baptists in the 1930s and took up work as a carpenter. He never flew again, never traveled abroad, but he did have a taste for curry that was never satisfied. He died before the spread of Indian restaurants in Colorado.

Vail probably would have happened eventually. The mountain itself and the proximity to Denver made it a natural. But World War II put Pete Seibert into Colorado. Aspen would have flourished, but perhaps in a different way. As for Mount Hayden, it came to nothing, in its own way perhaps a casualty of World War II.

This pandemic is different than World War II, and we have to go back further to see precedent. In 1918, Gunnison quarantined itself and survived with little loss of life, while Silverton, as remote a town as there may be in Colorado, isolated in the icy fastness of the San Juan Mountains, lost 10% of its population.

In this COVID-19 pandemic, the first case in Colorado was a visitor to Summit County who had recently been in Italy, then Australian visitors to Aspen-Snowmass. But then Eagle County flared, and as of early this week had 22 cases from the Vail area compared to 24 in Denver County, which has a population about 12 times as large. County officials on Thursday said they suspected hundreds, if not thousands, had contracted COVID-19.

A century ago the influenza spread globally, but by rail instead of by air. The world has shrunk, with consequences both good and bad.

We will survive this pandemic, but there will be changes. I sincerely doubt we’ll see the significant expansion at DIA that had been announced just a few months ago. That may actually be good.

Can other good also result? Many of us hope that it will result in greater acceptance of facts, more acceptance of science. Ideology played a powerful role in the sluggish, or worse, acceptance of the virus by powerful people, most notably the president. That same ideology, the same denial, has shrugged off or rejected the power of accumulating greenhouse gases to produce costly changes in our climate.

I hope we develop a greater sense of a global community. It could easily take us the other way, one exemplified by the run on guns and ammunition. What we see early on, the sniping between President Trump and his counterparts in China, is not encouraging.


The Colorado Independent occasionally runs guest posts from government officials, local experts and concerned citizens on a variety of topics. These posts are meant to provide diverse perspectives and do not represent the views of The Independent. To pitch a guest post, please contact or visit our submission page.

Read more Allen Best in Mountain Town News. 


  1. re: “We will survive this pandemic, but there will be changes. I sincerely doubt we’ll see the significant expansion at DIA that had been announced just a few months ago. ”

    I thought I was being pessimistic in expecting extreme problems from coronavirus/COVID-19. I can certainly understand the idea of air traffic drastically slowing down. I can see how the economic follow-ons create a turmoil which undercut the rationale for expansion for awhile.

    But even the extreme predictions of deaths from large-scale infection, continued virulence, an overwhelmed health care system, and the lack of a vaccine for an extended period result in less than 5 million Americans dying in before herd immunity results in coronavirus being a slightly more dangerous influenza infection. Economic predictions are all over the place, but I haven’t seen even pessimistic forecasts of losses greater than 505. Effects would be some portion of a combination of the 1918-19 influenza epidemic (650,000 deaths from a 100 million population) and the 1929 Great Depression (25% unemployment, Dow Jones average loss of 89.19%).

    Even 5 million deaths would be only a bit beyond the annual population growth in the United States. While an economic depression could make infrastructure projects more difficult, but the need for economic stimulus and the less-expensive construction costs could also result in a expansion of the airport expansion plans. While airline traffic may not recover immediately, the overall expansion of US domestic air travel has been remarkable (in millions of air passenger miles): 1930-85 ; 1940-1052; 1950-8007; 1960-30,567; 1970-104,156; 1980-200,829; 1990-340,231; 2000-515,598; 2010-564,695; (most recent) 2017-693,818.

    Denver and the area served by DIA will need expanded facilities.

  2. need an edit function …
    5 million Americans dying in before…. should be … 5 million Americans dying before
    even pessimistic forecasts of losses greater than 505 .. should be …. even pessimistic forecasts of losses greater than 50%

  3. Wonderful to have ace Colorado journalist Allen Best’s historical perspective for putting this world-changing pandemic in the context of its effect on the state’s future. John in Denver’s nit-picking quibbles aside, this is an historic event that’s going to shape behaviors for a generation to come — particularly the social distancing.
    In a way, I like the pandemic’s comparison to the Great Depression as much as WWII — although both have relevance. A post-WW2 baby myself, I grew up with a generation that lived with scarcity as ever a fear in their minds, as sudden plague will drive the thinking of Gen Z … Kudos to the Sun for bringing an informed state opinion to its op-ed section.
    If you’re interested in Ski Resort Colorado, I highly recommend Best’s Mountain Town News.

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