Colorado History

Five Things Joe Biden Should Know About Camp Hale and Leadville

Leadville sits between Colorado's two highest peaks.
Leadville sits between Colorado's two highest peaks. Jonesey via WikimediaCommons
On October 12, President Joe Biden is scheduled to visit Colorado and designate Camp Hale as a national monument. Just outside of Leadville, Camp Hale is where the 10th Mountain Division trained during World War II, learning mountain and winter warfare.

Senator Michael Bennet has attempted to gain more protection for Camp Hale for years, trying to pass the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act through Congress several times; although it made it through the U.S. House of Representatives, it has never gained enough sway with Republicans to pass the Senate. In August, he asked Biden to use his power to designate it as a national monument outside of the CORE Act, since the process has been delayed.

Bennet is currently fighting to retain his Senate seat against Republican Joe O'Dea. All three Republican members of the House from Colorado signed a letter penned by Lauren Boebert opposing the designation, arguing that doing so usurps the democratic process.

“While Camp Hale and our servicemembers that were stationed there made important contributions to World War II, we don’t support the efforts of extremist environmentalists who are seeking to hijack this historic place to create a new land designation — a designation that literally does not exist — to prohibit timber harvesting and mining on nearly 30,000 acres of land,” the letter reads.

Camp Hale would be the first new monument that Biden designates during his presidency, though he has expanded several others. Once it is designated as a national monument, new mining and drilling will be prevented on the site. The proposed scope of the area in the CORE Act includes 28,676 acres around Camp Hale and another 17,122 acres in the Tenmile Range.

As Biden prepares for his first trip to Colorado since he visited in the wake of the Marshall fire, here’s what he should know about Camp Hale and the Leadville area:

The idea for the 10th Mountain Division was based on ski warfare tactics of the Finnish army

After seeing Finnish soldiers successfully fend off Soviet troops in 1939 with guerrilla mountain tactics, including skiing, the U.S. Army took a page out of the Finns’ playbook, according to a 2006 New York Times article. Camp Hale, with an average high temperature of under 40 degrees Fahrenheit from November through February, was the perfect place to train; troops reportedly referred to it as "Camp Hell" because of the harsh conditions.

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Ruins from some of the buildings at Camp Hale.
Decumanus~commonswiki via WikimediaCommons
American skiing wouldn’t be the same without members of the 10th Mountain Division

Despite the cold and the isolation, many 10th Mountain vets acquired a lifelong passion for skiing and returned to the area where they'd trained after they got home from war. About thirty members of the division are in the United States Ski Hall of Fame. One is the late Pete Seibert, who founded Vail Ski Resort in 1962; Vail Resorts now represents nearly forty ski resorts across the country and reported $347.9 million in income for fiscal year 2022.

The Central Intelligence Agency used Camp Hale for its Tibet program.

When China began taking control of Tibet and ending Tibetan self-governance in 1956, Tibetan people rebelled. The United States saw an opportunity to teach Tibetans how to disrupt Chinese activity, and Camp Hale was one of the sites where that training occurred. There, Tibetans trained in radio operation, flight, light and heavy weaponry, demolitions and guerrilla tactics. Of the 49 men trained and returned to Tibet in air drops, only twelve survived; that led to the United States reassessing its strategy and supporting fighters already on the ground in Tibet with supplies and leadership from those trained at Camp Hale. When the Dalai Lama fled to India for asylum in 1959, two men trained at Camp Hale aided in his escape.

Leadville helped early Coloradans get rich

One of Denver’s most famous citizens is the "unsinkable" Molly Brown, a wealthy Colorado woman whose real name was Margaret Brown and who survived the sinking of the Titanic, allowing her to continue pushing both philanthropy and women’s rights. How did she become that wealthy? By marrying a man who got rich investing in a mining company: Johnny Brown, a company manager, got in on the 1870s silver mining boom in Leadville, which made it the second-largest city in Colorado at the time. In 2020, however, the population was just over 2,500, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Leadville looms large

Leadville enjoys the highest elevation of any city in the country, sitting at 10,152 feet between the top two peaks of the Rockies, Mount Elbert and Mount Massive, around the headwaters of the Arkansas River in the Rocky Mountains.

The weather on Wednesday looks mild; with any luck, Biden will encounter none of the hellish conditions faced by the 10th Mountain Division.
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Catie Cheshire is a staff writer at Westword. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire

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