Building Camp Hale: A Deeper History of America’s High-Altitude Army Training Ground
The Pando Constructors built Camp Hale with extraordinary speed. Their unsung contributions to America’s war effort set the stage for the 10th Mountain Division’s heroism during World War II.
High in the Colorado Rockies, between Minturn and Leadville on US Highway 24, there sits a flat, open valley, some three miles long and nearly a mile wide. History buffs and regular high-country travelers might know that this was the site of Camp Hale, the World War II training camp for the 14,000-man 10th Mountain Division.
Faded Forest Service interpretive signs in the area show the camp in its glory in 1943—a thousand white buildings that housed the only American military unit specifically trained for mountain and winter warfare. Camp Hale, which was named for Brigadier General Irving Hale, born and raised in Denver and commander of the Colorado regiment that captured Manila during the Spanish-American War, is Colorado’s most famous military unit. Generations of Colorado skiers have thanked the veterans who returned to Colorado to start the ski areas of Aspen, Vail, and Arapahoe Basin.
But there’s more to the story of Camp Hale. In fact, the deeper history of what could have been the birthplace of modern Colorado’s booming ski industry is relatively unknown because the people who built it—the Pando Constructors—have been overlooked. With President Joe Biden set to designate Camp Hale as a national monument in late 2022, the incredible work of the Pando Constructors is more relevant and important than ever before.
Camp Hale’s story began in 1940, before Pearl Harbor thrust the US into World War II, when three East Coast ski enthusiasts—Charles Minot Dole, Roger Langley, and Roland Palmedo (who, in 1936, combined to create the National Ski Patrol System, with Dole as its president)—were worried about how unprepared America was to become embroiled in the war that had just started in Europe. More specifically, the trio was concerned that the US Army would not be able to effectively fight and survive in Europe’s harsh alpine regions.
Their efforts to alert the Army to their fears were initially met with official indifference, but as the US became more involved with the international war effort, plans were made to create a unit capable of countering Germany’s mountain troops. Several sites around the country were evaluated as a site for a potential training camp, but the one that met all the criteria was a place in Colorado known as the Pando Valley. Sitting at an elevation of 9,250 feet, the area had the high altitude necessary to acclimate the troops. The valley’s steep cliffs and an annual snowfall of 250 inches made it the ideal training ground. It was 100 miles west of Denver, so it was remote, yet accessible by road and the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. Plus the mining town of Leadville was only twenty miles away.
In October 1941, the Army authorized the Dole-Langley-Palmedo trio to begin recruiting skiers, mountaineers, and outdoorsmen to what became known as the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment, forerunner to the 10th Mountain Division. Its members began training on Mount Rainier, near Seattle, Washington, while construction started at the Colorado site.
Moving with incredible wartime swiftness, by the end of March 1942, the Army had authorized construction. The initial budget was five million dollars, but the cost would balloon to thirty million by the time the project was completed. Declaring eminent domain, the land for the camp and its artillery range was purchased by the government from local property owners, who at that time consisted mostly of ranchers.
Over 10,000 men—mostly men beyond draft age and others who were otherwise exempt from the draft— became the workers for an organization known as Pando Constructors. With no adequate housing nearby that could hold such a large army of workers, the men first had to build their own barracks—eighty-eight of them.
Construction began in April 1942,—an extraordinary feat that has largely gone unheralded until now. By the middle of 1942, the mostly forgotten Pando Constructors workmen had finished their temporary camp and had concurrently begun work on the military cantonment area. It was now time to finish what they had started back in April: the main camp.
Built in just seven months were 226 barracks, thirty-three administration buildings, a 676-bed hospital, a veterinarian hospital for horses, mules, and dogs, five churches and chapels, 100 mess halls, a bakery, three theaters, one field house, indoor pistol ranges, seven post exchanges, two service clubs, one officers club, horse and mule barns, grain storage, coal storage, numerous warehouses, a stockade, vehicle-maintenance facilities, weapons ranges, six underground ammunition magazines, four water storage tanks, three fire stations, a school, post office, medical and dental clinics, a combat village, two ski areas, and much more. It was an amazing feat of wartime construction that has largely been overshadowed by the heroics and sacrifices of the soldiers who trained at what was essentially a small city built high in the Rocky Mountains.
The photos that follow track the amazing history of how this instant city came to be, and the incredible accomplishments of the Pando Constructors who made it possible to train America’s mountain troops here in Colorado