Written for Watchdog Real Estate
by Nel Burkett
Curator of Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum
The earliest known inhabitants of the Gunnison Valley were the Folsom people. These archaic groups would settle on top of the hills around present day Gunnison in the winter and follow the game back up into the mountains during the summer. Around 11,000BC, the Ute People found their way into the Gunnison Valley to use as summer hunting grounds. By the 1800s trappers and traders started living in Ute Territory in greater numbers. During this time, more people were moving into the Gunnison Country, which served as hunting grounds for the Ute People. In 1859 gold was found in Colorado and the Colorado silver boom soon followed. Thousands of people flooded the region. The Gunnison Valley was a draw for miners in the late 1800’s. Like many areas in Colorado, the Utes’ time to remain in the Valley was limited due to the mineral-rich lands beneath their feet. Some of these people stayed permanently and tried to farm in the region. The farming and sheer number of new-comers put a huge amount of pressure on the game the Utes relied on for food, and by 1890 almost all the bison that the Utes needed were killed. As more settlers and miners moved into the region, more pressure was placed on the United States Government to move the Ute people off the valuable land. In 1868 the United States-Ute Treaty was signed that created a reservation just east of present day Gunnison and Crested Butte. In 1875 the remaining Utes were moved to the Uncompahgre Reservation. The Gunnison Valley was no longer home to the Ute People.
Miners were attracted to the Crested Butte area by the Hayden Survey of 1874 that revealed the natural wealth of the Gunnison Valley and the Colorado Rockies. His survey expedition helped influence the decision to make Yellowstone a park. Irwin first big mining boom town, thousands settled overnight. Crested Butte was established to supply the various mining towns, including included Ruby, Cloud City, Pittsburg, Elkton, Gothic, Bellvue, Scofield, Elcho, Crystal City, Turner, Forest Hill, Bowman, Ashcroft, and Aspen.
Miners would use cattle to carry equipment for their operations into the Valley. Once the animals had served this purpose, cattle would often be let lose into the wilderness. As loads boomed and busted, miners found opportunities to buy land with the wages earned from the ore they extracted from the rivers and mountains throughout the area. It was discovered that the cattle let loose survived the brutal winters. Miners recognized the value in animals that could weather the dramatic change in seasons and turned to cattle ranching.
Due to geographic isolation, miners relied on local supplies and ranchers needed local markets. The railroads had not yet connected the Gunnison Valley with the larger markets in Denver and Chicago which required ranchers to build businesses that were locally sustained. The railroad reached Gunnison in 1881 and opened up a whole new market for the ranchers of the Gunnison Valley. Geographic isolation was no longer a barrier to ranching families. Stock could be shipped to cattle markets in Denver, Kansas City, Omaha, and Chicago. The railroad ensured stability and market security to the Gunnison Valley ranchers. Construction of the Alpine tunnel allowed for the herds to reach Denver in a day, reducing feed costs and weight loss in the animals. In 1897, a mining boom created demand for beef and wool. As such, the sheep industry also gained a foothold in the area. In 1905, the Gunnison National Forest was established, putting 963,395 acres under the protection and regulation of the Federal Government.
Howard F. Smith, Crested Butte’s founding father and first mayor, sold half of his interest in the town and 1000 acres of coal land to William Jackson Palmer, the owner of the Denver and Rio
After the silver and gold had run out, the industry turned to coal. The largest mines (the Big Mine, Jokerville Mine, and Floresta Mine) were owned by Colorado Coal and Iron Company. In 1892, John D. Rockefeller bought out the company to join with his Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I). Rockefeller created a monopoly over steel through vertical integration. ). In its heyday, 400 men worked the mine and produced 1,000 tons of coal a day. Many coal men were classified as unskilled workers as the Company would bring in people from other countries for hard manual labor in the coal fields. The business brought in Welsh, Slavic, Croatian, and Italian workers who had immigrated to the US for work.
Howard F. Smith sold half of his interest in the town and 1000 acres of coal land to William Jackson Palmer, the owner of the Denver and Rio Grande railroad, in an effort to get the railroad extended from Gunnison to Crested Butte. Smith was successful and the railroad arrived in Crested Butte on November 21st, 1881.
The Big Mine operated until 1952 and was the last of the coal operations in the area. Hard rock miners came back to dig deeper into the mountains to find silver and lead ore. The Keystone Mine on the backside of Mount Emmons (known locally as the Red Lady) was reopened for this very reason. These hard rock miners helped to keep the town economically stable. Often it gets repeated that only 150-250 people lived here year round after 1952 when the Big Mine closed, which alludes to the notorious idea that Crested Butte was a ghost town until recently. However, the snow was good and the natural resources were abundant in 1952. In 1955, the Denver & Rio Grande Western removed the last of the train tracks from the valley.
In 1961, the ski area opened on Crested Butte Mountain and a new type of immigrant was moving to town. While they were often referred to as “hippies,” these were people from across the country and the world who found themselves at the end of the road. There are hundreds of stories of how each one of them ended up here and why they stayed, but together they ushered in the Crested Butte of today.
Flauschink was established in 1969 to bring old timers and the new residents together at an end of a long winter for a celebration. The tradition holds today with a long heritage of royal “has been’s” and an annual crowning of the king and queen.
Elk Avenue was first paved in 1975 and was the only paved road for many years.
The first Mountain Bike Tour took place September 17, 1976, when 15 people rode their homemade “klunkers” from the Grubstake in Crested Butte over the 12,705 foot Pearl Pass to Aspen.
The Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association is the first of its kind. Established in 1983, this is the oldest mountain biking club in the world. The first mountain bike trails were actually mule (from the mining era) and wildlife trails.
Crested Butte Mountain Theater was established in 1972 with the opening of The Dark of the Moon. The theater continues to put on community productions, making it the longest continually running community theater in Colorado.
To find out more, visit the Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum on 4th and Elk