A 60-year career with Holy Cross Electric
Intro: Ed Grange grew up the second son of Italian immigrants on a ranch outside of Basalt in the 1930s and ’40s. He decided, early on, that he didn’t want to be a farmer. With his parents’ encouragement he became the first in his family to go to college. He spent four years at Western State and went on to graduate school at Colorado State University.
When he was home from college one summer in 1950, he took a job with Holy Cross Electric Association, and that part-time, $1.15-an-hour job grew into a 60-year career.
Gallacher: You grew up on a ranch without electricity and then spent your career at Holy Cross Electric bringing power to rural communities.
Grange: Yes, my parents didn’t get electricity ‘til 1949. Growing up, my mother heated the clothes irons on the stove. She had a washing machine on the front porch, powered by a gasoline engine. In the winter, we had to bring it in the kitchen and run the exhaust pipe outside. The noise filled the house.
I think the advent of electricity had the greatest impact on women. Men were inconvenienced but they had gasoline engines. Electricity brought refrigerators, freezers, washing machines and radios.
Gallacher: You saw a lot of changes in your career. You watched a world-class ski resort spring up out of the ground. Can you talk about the birth of Vail and how Holy Cross Electric got involved?
Grange: Well, to get the complete story, you really have to go back to 1939, when Holy Cross was started. There were two groups of farmers in the Gore Valley in 1939, those that lived in the Wolcott to Minturn area and those that lived up the Colorado River in Burns and State Bridge.
They got together and applied to the Rural Electric Association (REA) in Washington for a loan to build power lines, because they didn’t have electricity. Well, at that same time, farmers from Aspen to Carbondale were trying to do the same thing.
REA said, “Well, neither one of your two groups are big enough to justify giving you a loan to build power lines, so why don’t you get together and maybe with a joint effort, we can give you a loan.” The two groups got together and formed the Holy Cross Electric Cooperative. In the early days, we only went just a little ways up into the Gore Creek Valley because there were only four or five ranches up there.
I remember as a kid there was a gas station where you had to stop to get gas, as you were going over the dirt road to Denver. In September of 1941, electricity came to the rural parts of the Roaring Fork Valley and the upper Eagle River Valley. In 1958, we ran a single-phase line further up the Gore Valley to serve a few Greek sheep ranchers who summered their flocks where Vail is now.
In those days, we were really isolated from the people in the Eagle River Valley. When a rancher in Minturn would call the office in Basalt and say his power was off, George Thurston, who was the manager and the chief lineman, would lock up the office and get in his truck and go to Minturn. You can imagine how long people would be out of power, in those days.
It was shortly after we installed that line in 1958, that we noticed applications were coming in from people in Denver who had recently purchased ranches in the Gore Valley, and they were asking us to transfer the accounts to their name. This went on for a few months, and I started wondering what was going on.
These folks seemed to be pretty influential, and it sounded like they had money. I discovered that all these accounts were being put in the name of the Transmontane Rod and Gun Club. That really got my curiosity going. Why were they buying ranches for a rod and gun club? I made a few calls and was told, “Oh yeah, these are some affluent people who want to come over to hunt and fish on private land.
That didn’t make a lot of sense to me because, back in the late ’50s, people weren’t buying ranches just to have places to hunt. There were places all over the Western Slope to hunt. Well, it turned out that the Transmontane Rod and Gun Club was just a front for what was really the dream of Pete Seibert and Earl Eaton, who had picked the Gore Valley as the place to build a world-class ski resort.
Seibert and Eaton knew that if they said they were planning to build a ski area, land prices would soar. So, over the next few years, they acquired practically all of the land from the bottom of Vail Pass down to where Vail exists now. Some parcels were hard to get because some ranchers didn’t want to sell, but Seibert and Eaton eventually got everything.
At Holy Cross Electric, we didn’t pay too much attention to all this because there wasn’t a lot of activity, early on. But then, we started to see publicity about this new ski area. Nobody had really come to us to ask for electricity. Back then, a lot of ski areas were using diesel power for their lifts. Aspen Highlands ran on diesel for years.
Finally, in April or May of 1962, Pete Seibert came down and met with George and me and said, “You know, I’ve got a real problem because I’m in the middle of construction. We’re clearing runs. We’re getting ready to set towers, and I’ve got the gondola ordered from Switzerland. The gondola is going to be built and shipped in a couple of months. So I thought I had better go to Denver and see about getting some power.” He said he had been over to Denver and talked to Public Service Company.
Seibert said he got a rude awakening when he talked to Public Service. They scoffed at his proposal. They said, “Pete, you are never going to succeed with a ski area over on the Western Slope. It’s too far from Denver. We can’t build you a line to serve that unless you want to put up the money, because we don’t think you’re going to be successful. Skiing’s not that big a deal.”
So Pete tells us, “I don’t have anymore money. I spent most of what I had on the gondola. I know Holy Cross serves those few places there. Could you give me some help?” George and I were a little bit shocked as to what he was proposing. He says, “Could you take it to your board and see if maybe they would be willing to build me a line up there so I could get open? Our targeted opening day is December 15th of ‘62.”
So we called a board meeting. You can imagine the response that we got from seven board members who were all ranchers, scattered from Woody Creek to Grand Valley and places in between. I don’t think skiing was very high on their list of priorities. But they looked at George and said, “You know, since the co-op was started, we’ve pretty much done what you and your people have said that we should be doing. We don’t know anything about skiing, but if you think this is a good deal, let’s go ahead.” I knew that if this project failed George and I would be looking for work.
So in early June, we got started and quickly realized the scope of the project. Power to the ski lifts was only the first part of it, but Pete’s vision was much bigger than that. He says, “We don’t want any overhead power lines. This is going to be kind of an alpine village. You’ve got to put everything underground that serves the lodges and the housing.”
That comment had us scratching our heads. We hadn’t done much underground. In the early days, everything was overhead, pure and simple. We had done one subdivision in Aspen, so we knew a little bit about what to do. So, we hired an engineering firm to lay it all out and got a separate contractor for the overhead to the ski lifts.
Fortunately for us, 1962 was a dry year and not very cold. We were able to run the underground lines for the few buildings that Vail needed that first year and finish the ski lifts. We just barely met the December 15th opening day deadline. There was hardly any snow that year. They only opened a couple of runs, and I think skiing was free. Then a few weeks later, it really did start to snow and things got better. Lift tickets were $5 a day for the rest of the season.
I know they must’ve lost a ton of money that first year. But that was the beginning of Vail, and as I look at it, now that valley is wall-to-wall with big commercial structures, I remember that afternoon when Pete Seibert came into our office and said, “Hey, I need help. I just can’t let this go under. We’ve got to get this thing going.”
I guess I would say that Vail was one of the gambles that paid off. I’m just thankful that it wasn’t a mistake.
Note: When Ed Grange went to work at Holy Cross Electric in 1950, there were seven employees serving 700 customers in the Roaring Fork Valley, Eagle and Gypsum. Today there are 125 employees serving nearly 60,000.
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