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View from the Summit
by Catherine Cunningham : Editor, Terrain.org

Westward Expansion


Bill Thomas in 1937 with engine #69, the last train to leave Frisco.
  Bill Thomas in 1937 with engine #69, the last train to leave Frisco.

The opening song of the elementary school spring program was introduced by the high staccato of a young-old-timer voice, “Go west, young man, thar’s… gold… in… them… thar… hills!”

Giggles broke out from somewhere behind the curtains. Urgent “shushes” made them cases.

The quest into the unknown—into the “Wild West”—could be scary, dangerous. A baby somewhere in the audience wailed. Others reasoned that the prospects of a new start, maybe even striking it rich, was worth the risk of exploring new lands.

The set had been prepared with the enthusiasm so evident of young stagehands. The train engineer peered into the blue yonder—the audience—from a cardboard steam engine. He wore the requisite striped white-and-chambray cap and overalls, and he moved in time with the train and the tune. The rig was painted black, almost certainly with the tempera paint always a grade school staple. I imagined the smell of the damp, chalky surface. The locomotive chugged and the engineer hollered, “All aboard!”

Many of the other performers were dressed in a wide variety of costumes, reminiscent of Wild Bill Cody, Calamity Jane, and Wyatt Earp. The stage and performers were nearly as perfect as the setting and cast on Little House on the Prairie for the musical’s theme: Westward Expansion.

Kids on the Denver and South Park railway tracks that ran along the alley between Main Street and Galena Street.
Kids on the Denver and South Park railway tracks that ran along the alley between Main Street and Galena Street, year unknown.

Our own little cowboy was dressed as one of his favorite characters, Davy Crockett. He wore a fringed, leather jacket, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat—the latter only because we couldn’t find the “coonskin” cap. Weeks leading up to the spring program, I would often heard him singing, “…happy traaaaaaails to you, until, we meet, agaaiunn.” This song would be reserved for the grand finale, presented by the whole school.

In the meantime, he was in the second set of songs and stood among his fellow Kindergartners and first-graders on the aluminum risers. They had approached from stage right, the first-graders then the Kindergartners, finding their places before searching the audience for their families. Almost every one took a turn to wave excitedly at his or her family, smiling broadly.

The recorded, karaoke-style music played softly, so as not to drown out the young singing troupes. The music teacher gallantly pumped her conductor-arms and coaxed the tunes out of tiny, shy mouths. My heart swelled and my eyes moistened as I watched through the viewfinder of the video camera and zoomed in on that boy in leather fringe coat.

Despite being outnumbered, the balance of sound was distinctly stronger on the first-grader side of the stage. With their advanced age, experience, and wisdom, they held an advantage on remembering their words and singing aloud. The end of each of their songs met with booming applause and whoops from the audience. One could sense the giddy satisfaction welling up in their small chests.

Looking west along Main Street Frisco.
  Looking west along Main Street Frisco, year unknown.

We all know by now that most folks got over their reservations about expanding westward. Settlers have eagerly populated the West, from the Mississippi to the Pacific coast. First, the Ute Indians, then trappers, and finally prospectors—cashing in on the rich deposits of the area—settled much of the area around our hometown of Frisco, Colorado. In 1882, Frisco boasted a population of 250, two railroads, several businesses, hotels, and saloons. The town thrived on mining until 1918. During the Great Depression, the population dipped to just 18 residents and then crawled back to 50 by 1946. Easy access out of Denver is credited as one of the reasons it survived among many other small mining towns that did not. Frisco continued through tenuous stages of growth through the 1960s and even through the oil-and-gas bust of the 1980s.

Skiing and tourism became the new industries to grow mountain communities. Arapahoe Basin Ski Area was developed in1946, following by Breckenridge in 1961, Vail in 1962, Keystone in 1970, and Copper Mountain in 1971. Technology lagged miserably, however, with primitive lifts, clothing, skis, and bindings. In recent decades, these technologies have boomed with high-tech materials and innovation. The ski and snowboard industry singularly feeds the winter tourist appetite in the Summit and Eagle counties each year.

Just like any community, there is a delicate balance between growing and dying. It is like a 20-way teeter-totter:

  • Grow town revenues and we get more people and businesses relying on the services needed, resulting in the need to grow town revenues
  • Create and protect open space and the demand for a finite land resource increases the cost, placing it out of reach for a segment of the community
  • Housing out of reach makes it more difficult for “locals” to work their jobs in the service sector, causing them to commute from other communities
  • Commuters add volume to already stressed traffic and infrastructure, causing road damage and closures, resulting in cost and inconvenience to all the road users

And the teeter totters on.…

Frisco's old schoolhouse in modern times set among the colors of autumn.
Frisco's old schoolhouse in modern times set among the colors of autumn.  

Frisco was often the wallflower—among the more sexy ski-in/ski-out towns—despite its location immediately off Interstate 70, just 60 miles west of Denver. Frisco was the place on the way to the resorts. When discussing Frisco with people from beyond Colorado, few were familiar with it. Most assumed “San Francisco,” until it was explained, “No—near Breckenridge,” at which point to light bulb would glow (if only slightly).

In 2000, the population of Frisco was 2,443. Perhaps more interesting is that between 1990 and 2000, there was a decrease in Frisco residents aged 0 to 4 years and those aged 35 to 39 years, according to the Town of Frisco 2007 Affordable Housing Fast Facts. The age group 50 to 64 more than doubled and the age group 65 to 79 more than quadrupled during that same time. the median household income for a family of three in Summit County is $70,900. The 2006 median home price in Frisco was $520,000.

On the one end of this teeter-totter sits a population of low- to middle-income families, struggling to make ends meet. On the other end is a single person or couple, possibly one who has retired well-off or is independently wealthy, who does not need to work. The math is easy as the teeter-totter tilts and puts the family at a disadvantage to compete for rentals or home ownership. The result we now see is decreased enrollment by Frisco residents at Frisco Elementary School, where the children now sing “Westward ho!” But at what cost?

Buffalo Mountain beyond the Frisco valley in wintertime.
  Buffalo Mountain beyond the Frisco valley in wintertime.

At a recent town council meeting, a Frisco resident who moved to the town within the last two years was heard to say that she purchase a $1.4 million home and expects the town council to do everything in its power to ensure that “nothing changes.”

I understand the sentiment. I wish the town could be the same as it was when I moved here ten years ago. But I also understand that such wishes are impossible. For instance, simply could not purchase my current home in today’s market.

Frisco is a westward expansion. It has the makings of a truly great Western town—access to and by a major metropolitan area, a beautiful setting, and year-round amenities. Yet it also struggles with the challenges inherent in such a desirable location. It will take long-term vision and leadership to strike the balance between “nothing changes” and “Westward ho.”

I am hopeful to have a supply of Frisco Kindergartners performing in spring programs for generations to come.


Catherine Cunningham is an environmental specialist with the U.S. Department of Energy's Western Area Power Administration, a federal agency responsible for marketing hydroelectricity produced at large dams throughout the West. She is also a planning commissioner for her mountain town.
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All photos courtesy Town of Frisco.


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