The Name Behind Vail, CO: Who Was Charlie Davis Vail?

Snowy Mountains in Vail
Vail, Colorado IMAGE CREDIT: Tim Fagan from Pixabay

With 37 mountain resorts, in three countries, on two continents, Vail Resorts is a giant of the snow sports industry. While Vail Resorts is a familiar commodity the world over, fewer people are aware of the history of Vail, Colorado the place, or the man behind the name.

CHARLIE DAVIS VAIL: THE HIGHWAY ENGINEER WHO TRANSFORMED COLORADO ROADS

Author Tom “Dr. Colorado” Noel has written, or co-written over fifty books, mainly on Colorado history. His most recent is Charlie Davis Vail: The Highway Engineer Who Transformed Colorado Roads is a biography of the longtime Chief Engineer of the Colorado Department of Highways who through ingenuity and tenacity transformed and opened up the state. Noel recently discussed his book with Complete Colorado Editor-in-chief Mike Krause on the public affairs TV show Devil’s Advocate.

VIDEO: Who was Charlie Vail, and how’d he get a ski town named for him?

Vail’s early life reads like a novel. As a railroad engineer, he was chased out of Mexico by Pancho Villa, escaping with his life and vowing to never return. From 1930 to 1945 he served as Colorado’s chief highway engineer. His most notable and important contribution was to stop I-70 from stopping in Denver. Rather than cut off the western slope, Vail believed that the highway should go straight up the state. In spite of pushback on a project that was too massive, too expensive, impossible even, he never relented.

Charlie Davis Vail
The engineer who transformed Colorado IMAGE CREDIT: Provided by author Tom Noel

Partnering with sometimes rival Senator Edwin “Big Ed” Johnson, together they lobbied Eisenhower’s office to approve the expansion, apparently by enticing the President with a Colorado fishing license. While Vail came up with the idea and started pushing and planning for it, he wasn’t alive to see his project come to fruition. Charlie Davis Vail died in office in 1945. Vail Ski Resort wouldn’t open until 1962, almost two decades later. The town of Vail was incorporated in 1966.

In addition to highway I-70, nearly every engineering innovation in Colorado that originated in the 1930s – the Red Mountain Pass, the Red Cliff Bridge over the Eagle River, the Monarch Pass – is because of Charlie Vail.  One can’t help but wonder what he would think today of the mountain paradise, and international company that bears his name.