A Pass By Any Other Name: Monarch vs. Vail
Mountain folks can be some of the easiest-going people you’ll ever meet – most are real “live and let live” people. But just when you think you’ve got them figured out, they dig their heels in about an issue. Something that on the surface, you wouldn’t think they’d care so much about.
That seems to be the case in this little known story about Monarch Pass and Vail Pass and how these two high mountain thoroughfares are connected. But first, let me set the stage. It was the 1930s and the state of Colorado was working diligently on its highway systems, trying to shorten many routes by developing roads that connected Colorado’s mountain communities. An arduous task, even by today’s standards with state-of-the-art construction equipment and blasting technology.
But back then it was a guy by the name of Charles D. Vail who was heading up the massive highway operation. He was well-respected and earned a grand reputation, particularly regarding the re-routing of Monarch Pass between Salida and Gunnison. Originally, this pass was called the Monarch-Agate Pass. The pass is widely considered one of the most scenic in Colorado, offering a panoramic view of the southern end of the Sawatch Range from the summit.
So when this extension of U.S. Highway 50 was finally complete, the state decided to honor the head of the highway engineering department and renamed it Vail Pass. It didn’t take long for the natives to get restless. The new name did not sit well with the local residents of that high mountain community. In fact their attachment to the traditional name was so strong that they painted over the new highway signs which had been erected in honor of Charles D. Vail. Officials eventually relented and restored the name of Monarch to the pass, as its still known today.
However, highway officials were not deterred from paying tribute to this important man. When a new mountain pass finally pushed between Dillon and Minturn, it cut the highway driving distance across the state drastically. Before then, folks had to travel over Fremont Pass to Leadville and then over Tennessee Pass and Battle Mountain to get from Denver to Grand Junction. Eventually, this westward route was shortened with the opening of Shrine Pass, which leads to the town of Red Cliff. Finally in 1940, the construction of U.S. Highway 6 bypassed Shrine Pass in favor of a new route.
Even though this new pass traversing the Gore Range had only been a dream of Charles D. Vail, it was appropriately named after him, becoming a lasting tribute to a man who was instrumental in getting us around in a shorter amount of time.
As time went on and the area grew, Vail (the man) got a bigger tribute, one he probably had not bargained for. In fact, when the town of Vail’s founders were considering names for their new ski resort, many favored Shining Mountain, which was the name the Ute Indians had given the area. Fortunately, one quick thinking member of the group shared that the name might imply that the slopes were icy. Eventually the group voted on Vail – it’s short and easy to remember. So they adopted the name of the town after the name of the pass named after the highway engineer .
I’m sure a guy like Charles D. Vail took it all in stride. As a hard-working highway construction engineer he was more interested in the gravel than the gory. But after the first tribute took off like a monarch in flight, I’m sure he’d be pleased to know that his name has gone on to represent a pass, an alpine village and a world class ski resort. I’m sure he wouldn’t pass that up!