Snow is the New Gold
Telluride’s Transition from Mining to Skiing

by Samantha Tisdel Wright

In a small upstairs room at the Telluride-Miners-Hospital-turned-Historical-Museum, Bill Mahoney’s first skis are mounted to the wall, convalescing like stout wooden soldiers beside a window that looks out over the ski area he helped create.

The next room over, a handful of Mahoney’s mineral specimens sparkle inside a glass case. Tidy little cards identify what they are, where he found them – mostly deep within the Idarado Mine.

If you stare at the specimens long enough, they take on a glow – like the mysterious contents of Indiana Jones’ Lost Ark in the bowels of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute – hinting at the hot violent juiciness of their creation, and the thrill of their discovery.

Billy Mahoney loved to mine.

He loved drilling dog holes. He loved sinking shaft. He loved the stopers, the buzzies, the sprags and the stulls, the Montgomery Ward hitches, the pecker poles and the rock bolts and the scaling bars. The trams that crisscrossed the high country like spider webs. The salty, wise old miners like the Blixt Brothers and Whisperin’ Jim.

There was nothing quite like the satisfaction of driving a crosscut 1,800 feet through solid rock and hitting the vein spot on, or the thrill of breaking into a giant crystal-lined vug hole filled with a primordial pool of aquamarine water – like being on another planet.

The incessant forward motion of the jackleg drill matched Mahoney’s own work ethic, his compulsion to push through whatever got in his way, to get things done. A short dynamo of a man with crystal-blue eyes and a flashing smile, he had risen through the ranks at Telluride Mines, Inc. and then the Idarado, from tram loader to mine foreman, and he fiercely loved his job.

But he knew that mining in Telluride wouldn’t last forever. Even the Idarado, as big and booming as it was in the late 1960s, would surely eventually go bust. Then what?

Mahoney dreamed of creating a ski area in his quiet dead-end valley, like the ones that were already cutting steep white swaths through forested mountainsides in other parts of Colorado as he was growing up.

Mahoney’s dad, a miner, had started skiing at the turn of the 20th century in Bonanza, Colo. The family moved to Telluride with their pack of boys in the 1930s when Mahoney was three years old. “What there was to do in the winter in Telluride was either sleigh riding down Oak Street or skiing,” Mahoney said.

The Mahoney boys didn’t have a sleigh. But they did have their dad’s old skis, and they found another pair in the house they moved into. Before long, they knew everything there was to know about skiing in Telluride.

There was skiing on Catholic Hill. Rope-tow skiing at the beaver ponds, Grizzly Gulch and Firecracker Hill. Power line skiing. Skiing behind cars. Tub skiing. Riding the Penn Tram up and skiing down. Summertime skiing on sugar snow in the high mountain basins. That was about it, back then. But Mahoney longed for more.

“When I was in high school, I used to sit at my desk and look out of those south-facing upstairs windows of the old school house and draw pictures of the ski runs I imagined,” Mahoney said. “I laid out the whole mountain up there. I knew Telluride would make a good one.”

The Man with the Plan

Joe Zoline thought so too.

In 1968, the California lawyer and businessman who would later become known around town as “Joe Zoe” arrived from Beverly Hills, by way of Aspen, with a big idea to build a real honest-to-god ski resort in Telluride.

He had already taken a wild leap, and bought an entire property, sight unseen, that would form the ski area’s core. Now, he had come to take a look at what he’d bought, and realized it was a critical – but only tiny – piece of what was required. He needed local support and guidance now, to make his vision a reality.

So he pitched his idea to the local Rotary Club down at Kate Mulvey’s Roma Restaurant (the very same place where her goateed father Carlos Giardi had been busted back in 1940 for a notorious highgrading operation).

Standing in front of the crowd like an old-time mine promoter, Zoline promised that the Telluride ski area would be “bigger than Vail, as large as Ajax, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk combined, and twice as big as Mammoth in California.” But the Rotary Club members were unimpressed. They had seen other ski area proposals come and go. Who was to say Zoline could follow through?

“It was a little bit like L.L.Nunn talking to his unbelieving public about alternating current, with the exception that people at least knew what skiing was,” wrote Richard and Suzanne Fetter in Telluride, From Pick to Powder (Caxton Press, 1979).

Zoline, like Nunn, believed unswervingly in his vision. All he needed a like-minded visionary who understood the nature of this place, and the local ground game, to help make it happen. So after the Rotary meeting, Zoline turned to Mulvey and asked, “Who can I talk to?” And Mulvey said, “Talk to Bill Mahoney. He’s a nut for skiiing.”

It was the beginning of a beautiful partnership – and a new era for Telluride.

Knitting Up the Mountain

Over the next few years, Mahoney moonlighted as a ski area development consultant for Zoline while continuing to work full-time as a foreman at the Idarado Mine. His reputation as a tough, determined, take-charge guy preceded him from the mine to the ski mountain.

“He and my dad made a tremendously strong connection with each other,” Zoline’s daughter Pamela Lifton-Zoline said. “Billy knew everything my dad didn’t know and my dad knew everything Billy didn’t know – about how the world works, about how Telluride works, about how finance works. They put it together. If you had designed two people, it probably would have been hard to find such a good, complete fit in terms of the skills that were needed.”

While Zoline focused on promoting and financing the new ski area, Mahoney zeroed in on land acquisition and the Forest Service permitting process, bringing Telluride native Johnnie Stevens and a few other local “ski nuts” on board to help. By 1970, they had cut a few ski trails and were doing Sno-Cat tours, guiding people from the top of Prospect Basin all the way down to the very bottom of the mountain.

That same year, Zoline flew to France and talked to Emile Allais about assessing Telluride’s potential as a ski area. Allais, a former French world champion skier, had already developed eight of the world’s top ski resorts. Mahoney took some time off from the mine and guided Allais all around the mountain. Together they rode its chutes and glades, from Prospect Basin to the old Gorrono ranch and down the front hillside, trying to knit the complex terrain into a set of potential runs and lifts.

Ten days later, leaving miles of ski tracks in his wake, Allais concluded that Telluride definitely had potential. He gifted Mahoney with his own ski bindings as a token of his friendship.

Not long after that, Mahoney announced to his wife Twylla and kids Mona and Billy Junior over dinner that he had decided to quit his job at the Idarado Mine to become mountain manager for the proposed ski resort being developed by Zoline. It was an epic cliff huck into bluebird sky.

“Bill Mahoney is a perfect example of Telluride’s transition from mining to skiing and how it can all come together in one person,” reflected Joe Smart, a longtime Idarado employee who lived in Telluride through this time and now oversees the Idarado’s safety and water quality compliance programs. “It wasn’t that the miners went away and the skiers came in. It was truly an organic transition.”

Dawn of a New Era

If you could pinpoint the year that Telluride committed to its new destiny as a ski town, it would probably be 1972. That’s when the USFS granted a 50-year special use permit for the ski area and the first five double chairlifts went in – all at once – just like the tram building frenzy around Telluride of a century ago.

“Five lifts, 440 beds, SKI AREA IS FULL GO” proclaimed a banner headline in the May 11, 1972 issue of the Telluride Times, reporting on a recent community meeting at the Nugget Theatre. 300-plus Telluridians had packed the floor of the old movie house to hear Zoline’s most recent progress report. He promised the crowd that by the end of the year, there would be “five miles of lifts capable of carrying 1,200 skiers per hour and handling 2,500 skiers per day on the mountain.”

Most people in the ski industry thought he’d never make it.

“And quite frankly, we maybe should not have made it,” reflected Stevens, who became the infant ski resort’s second full-time employee shortly after Mahoney signed on. “We had a great hundred-year-old community. We had a great potential ski mountain. And other than that, we had not much. But we had a belief. We just kept plugging away at it. We were young. We just worked and worked and worked and worked and skied and skied and skied and skied. In the end it all turned out, but it was tough.”

One day shortly after opening, they only sold seven lift tickets. Often they sold less than 100. And in the winter of ’76-’77, it barely snowed at all. But slowly, slowly, the ski area gained momentum, and names like “Spiral Stairs,” “Pick and Gad” and “Pandora” became more associated with ski runs than the mining claims and features they were named for.

As Telluride schussed toward its new resort identity, it was still very much a mining town, too, with dirt streets and dust all over the place. The Idarado was, in fact, just entering its peak production years.

“People don’t realize there was this overlap period to start with,” Lifton-Zoline said. “The ski area started in ’71 and the mine didn’t close until ’78. So there was a seven-year period when the ski economy was getting off the ground while at the same time, mining trucks were roaring down through Main Street all day long.”

Culture Clashes

The community was changing fast – and not just because of skiing. As Mahoney explained it, “That was when the hippies come to town. Young rebel kids.”

The Vietnam War had boiled up beneath America’s thin skin like a raw red carbuncle in an acidic caldera of social unrest. Wandering hippies spilled across the country in a tie-dyed tide, surging into places like Telluride that were beautiful, cheap to live in, far from the insanity of Vietnam, and free (or so they imagined) from the smothering establishment and the materialistic world.

“They began drifting in: long hair, scruffy clothing, beads and an unabashed love for marijuana in a conservative town long noted for its production and consumption of straight whiskey,” writes David G. Lavender in The Telluride Story: A Tale of Two Towns (Wayfinder Press, 2007).

What could possibly go wrong?

Almost right away, pinballs of animosity started zinging every which-way around the town. “For some unknown reason, the hippies didn’t cotton to Joe, a successful business man out of LA,” Mahoney said. “They let the air out of his tires. They were mean to him.”

A lot of the newcomers also “had a total disregard for mining,” recalled Stevens, who was raised at the Idarado Mine as the son of the Pandora Mill superintendent. “They thought that the miners were a bunch of dummies.”

Tempers flared to the point where the Fourth of July parade had to be cancelled one year after devolving into a drunken brawl. It was the Wild West, all over again.

“A lot of the issues had to do with concentrate trucks going up Main Street. It had to do with tailings blowing. There was some reasoning behind their attitude,” Stevens acknowledged. “But the disrespect for a lot of what we had been – the mining community – was pretty inexcusable, in my opinion.”

The disrespect could go both ways, of course. Telluride’s authoritarian town marshal, Everett Morrow, kept a wary (some would say malicious) eye on the strangers coming into town as he rolled his cigarettes one-handed. The Telluride Times reported that he once walked in on a Seder service at the Senate along with the state liquor inspector to investigate the serving of wine at the ritual service, stoking outrage in the town’s nascent Jewish community.

Common Unity

In 1974, less than two years after Zoline had blown the whistle that started construction on the Telluride Ski Area, a slate of young newcomers wrested control of the Telluride Town Council away from the old guard, winning five slots that were up for election, including mayor. Their first action was to suspend Marshal Morrow.

Many in the mining community perceived the slate’s success as a hostile takeover. Others shrugged and carried on with the civic-minded business of the town, just as they had always done. When Joe Smart came to Telluride in 1972 to work in the Pandora Mill, he followed their lead.

He served as Exalted Ruler of the local Elks Lodge. He volunteered as an EMT for the Telluride Ambulance Association, and was a reserve deputy for the Sheriff’s Office. He coached Little League baseball and was a Scout master. Occasionally he’d take home a hungry kid whose parents were out partying at the bar, and feed him dinner.

The Idarado Mining Company, in those days, still wove its way through the community fabric in countless ways, providing affordable housing, a town doctor, and mass transit long before it was a popular catchphrase.

“I was always encouraged by Idarado to be part of the community,” Smart said. “If I had to go on a fire or ambulance run, there was never any question. I was doing all these community things and the mine was always supportive of it. They were trying to foster a community. Common Unity.”

Looking back on those years, four decades later, it is easy to see that a new kind of common unity was crystalizing in Telluride, deep within the faults of those fractious times.

“The sense we all had to depend on each other was more evident than it is now,” Lifton-Zoline said. “You might find political enemies, but then they’d be driving the ambulance when your child got hurt.”

““Things were a lot easier back then,” Smart added. “If we had a problem, we talked about it, maybe even shouted about it, maybe even took it outside, and then you forgot about it and went and had a beer and it was yesterday’s problem, long forgotten.”

The New Face of Telluride

In November 1978, just as the chairlifts started scooping up skiers for their first turns of the season, the Idarado closed for good and just like that, Telluride’s hundred-plus years as a mining town skidded to a stop. Now the new ski economy would have to carry Telluride into the future.

Ron Allred, a dentist-turned-developer, and his business partner Jim Wells bought the ski area from Zoline, just a couple weeks before the Idarado shut down.

It was pretty tough times in town. Not only were the miners out of work. A lot of the local businesses had shuttered, and the local bank was on the brink of insolvency as people withdrew their life savings and left town.

“I saw those people packing up their cars and boarding up their houses,” Allred recalled. “They loved living here. They didn’t really want to leave but they had no choice.”

With Mahoney’s help, Allred was able to put some of the unemployed miners back to work on the ski mountain, where they proved their mettle doing the hard physical labor of clearing ski runs and building roads and lifts.

“These people were workers,” Allred said. “If they needed to dig a tree, they’d do it by hand if they didn’t have a piece of equipment. I’d always ask ‘Do you think you can do this?’ And they said, ‘Damn right.’”

Mahoney and Stevens teased Allred mercilessly about his baby blue jumpsuit and girly mittens and awkward skiing style, but they stuck faithfully by his side and saw Telski through its next phase of development and expansion. All three were eventually inducted into the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame.

Slowly, a new Telluride emerged from the old, and its fledgling ski area metamorphosed into an international ski and golf destination with world-class terrain, high-speed lifts and a gondola transit system that whisked folks for free from Telluride to Mountain Village, just as the tram systems of a century ago had ferried miners and ore up and down the mountainsides.

When Chuck Horning purchased Telluride Ski and Golf in 2003, he heard about the big bad mining company up at the end of the valley. He decided to investigate the situation for himself, and was a little surprised to learn about what Idarado had actually been up over the past decade, working to heal the open sores of a century of mining, while preserving the open space and mining heritage of the high country.

“They did first-rate work up there,” Horning acknowledged. “They are really looking to be a responsible neighbor. They are good people.”

Of course, not everyone saw it that way.

Blowing in the Wind

There is a story that some of the Telluride hippies danced in the streets the day the Idarado shut down back in ‘78. No more trucks of concentrate would be rumbling through the town they had claimed for themselves.

On windy days, though, for years afterward, silky clouds of dust would rise off the tailings piles and swirl through the streets like a dirty secret that could almost be forgotten.

The dust obscured the armies of lawyers and consultants that were gathering on the horizon to mount a decade-long legal battle over the Idarado remediation.


Next week: “It’s a RAP – The Battle over Idarado’s Cleanup”