When six-time Hungarian national ski champion Gabor Cseh immigrated to the United States in 1956, he chose to live in Colorado for the opportunities the mountainous state offered in the still-young ski resort industry.

At the time, Interstate 70 did not yet connect the population in Denver to the Western Slope ski areas, but Denver had been recently joined to Boulder via the new turnpike. So Cseh set out to scour the mountains above Boulder, searching for the perfect place to build a new ski area that would have both great terrain and easy access to Denver.

"He found the place above Eldora (townsite) and he just thought this would be the perfect place," said Gabor Cseh's son, Andras Cseh. "There was snow, and it was relatively accessible."

Cseh's vision became a reality in the winter of 1962-63, when Lake Eldora opened for its first day of skiing with two T-bar lifts. This winter -- after a handful of ownership turnovers and economic struggles through in the ski area's early decades -- the resort is celebrating its 50th birthday.

And while visions for what the resort should be have come and gone through the years, Eldora Mountain Resort today remains true to at least part of Cseh's vision -- a place that caters to local skiers.

"We realize exactly what we are," said Jim Spenst, Eldora's current general manager. "And that's a great Front Range ski area that's easily accessible to the Boulder metropolitan area."

A step up from the rope tow

The task of developing the new Lake Eldora ski area was taken on by a group of investors, which included the original landowners, who formed Lake Eldora Corp. And though the layout of the area was largely the design of Gabor Cseh, he ended up being forced out of the ownership group, his son said.

After cutting trails and installing the two T-bars, the ski resort opened during a lackluster winter when snow was slow to fall in the mountains west of Boulder. In fact, relatively dry winters plagued the ski resort -- which built a base lodge before its second winter -- during its early years, allowing it to open only for about 30 days for multiple seasons in a row.

Still, having a local resort was an exciting development for many Boulderites, including John Waugh, who skied opening day at Eldora when he was about 11 years old. For Waugh, who now works at Eldora as a marketing photographer, the new ski area was far superior to the existing Boulder options.

"My first experience on skis was rope tow in Chautauqua," he said. "My mom used to occasionally take me out of school and we'd go skiing at Chautauqua."

Waugh's memory of Eldora's first day includes being pulled up the slope by a T-bar with too-tight spring tension.

"Halfway up the mountain, it lifted me off the ground and then it twisted and we were pointed in the wrong direction," said Waugh, who was riding with his sister. "When it touched down, it pulled my sister off, but it went up the back of my coat and drug me up the hill."

Even so, he remembers the event affectionately.

"Skiing was different in those days," he said. "There weren't any liability issues. It was a hardy group of people who did it."

Snowmaking and night skiing

Despite the enthusiasm of some local skiers -- and the desire of the University of Colorado ski team to train there when there was enough snow on the ground -- bad weather and bad management conspired to sink Lake Eldora Corp. It was forced to declare bankruptcy after just a few seasons of operation, according to a history of the ski area compiled by Seth Masia, online editor for the International Skiing History Association.

Eldora was sold to Tell Ertl, a mining engineer with no experience in the ski industry, who immediately went to work making changes to the resort for the 1967-68 season.

"The two innovative things that Tell did was add snowmaking and night skiing," said Rob Linde, Eldora's current marketing director.

At the time, snowmaking at resorts was still rare, but Ertl realized that Eldora needed consistent snow to be successful. Linde said that in the decades since, a focus on great snowmaking has remained a priority for Eldora.

According to an oral history recording with Ertl's wife, Theo, the snowmaking equipment allowed Eldora to stay open for about 150 days in the winter of 1967-68.

Ertl also decided to add the Corona Bowl just a couple of years into his ownership. He slashed all the trees in the zone, blasting out 1,500 stumps, according to a Daily Camera article. But the Corona Bowl, which opened in 1970, ran into problems from the start.

"The backside was just not thought out very well," said Waugh, who worked at Eldora's ski school in the 1970s. "Tell wanted a bowl, so he went out and cut one, and he didn't think about the wind."

The treeless bowl ended up being scoured by the wind, and it also suffered from the fact that it cut into a natural spring near the top, which ended up coating a swath of the bowl in thick ice, Waugh said. (The problem was later fixed with a drainage pipe.)

Ownership turnover

Even with the innovations, Eldora again struggled financially by the late 1970s and early 1980s, due in part to the opening of the Eisenhower Tunnel, which allowed greater access for Front Range skiers to the larger resorts on the other side of the Continental Divide.

Management of Eldora was eventually taken over by O.Z. Minkin in 1985, who turned out to be a long-time fraudster. Minkin's shady financial past caught up with him, and he was indicted on federal fraud charges in Los Angeles and sent to prison for five years, according to the history compiled by Masia. Eldora didn't open at all for the 1986-87 season.

Management of the resort then passed in 1987 to ski industry veteran Andy Daly, who had been running Copper Mountain, and then to Vail Associates two years later. Officials at Vail Associates, like Ertl before them, wanted to build a hotel at the ski resort, but once it became clear that Boulder County wouldn't approve such a development, the resort went back on the market.

In 1991, the resort was sold to the group, including local resident Chuck Lewis, that still owns the area. Over the last 20 years, the group has stabilized Eldora's financial health, shedding any ambitions to turn the resort into an overnight destination and instead plowing its resources into the enterprises that make it appealing as a day area.

"They understand how to operate a ski resort efficiently and what the limits of growth are," said Masia, of the International Skiing History Association. "The big guys got in trouble when they overbuilt."

The formula appears to be working.

"If you're close to a good population center and you have something about the hill that locals love, you can survive on selling lift tickets and hamburgers," Masia said.

One of the things that locals most love about Eldora, in Masia's opinion, is the ski school -- especially the setup for beginners and children. Novice terrain is separated from other parts of the mountain, and it's next door to the ski rental area.

Using the existing resources

Eldora has plans for expansion moving forward, but according to Spenst, the manager, those plans are focused on making the resort an even better day area.

In 2011, Eldora filed a new master plan with the U.S. Forest Service that outlines desired upgrades, including replacing old chairlifts, adding new high-speed lifts, opening more terrain and renovating its lodge. Those plans have encountered some opposition from the local Sierra Club chapter and a group of residents in the Eldora townsite, who worry that the expansion will negatively impact the riparian corridor along Middle Boulder Creek and further fragment habitat.

Eldora officials have said they are fully considering the environmental impacts. The U.S. Forest Service will make the final decision on whether the expansion can move forward.

"What we're asking for approvals on is to fully utilize the resources that are right here," said Spenst, noting that part of Eldora's charm its lack of a corporate feel. "We're going after three things: great snow surfaces; friendly, helpful employees; and improving product offerings."

Eldora plans to open this year on Nov. 16 with a 50th anniversary party.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Laura Snider at 303-473-1327 or sniderl@dailycamera.com.