Gunnison county is located on Colorado’s Western Slope. Gunnison county is the area surrounding the current towns of Gunnison and Crested Butte. It is made up of alpine valleys, majestic 14,000 foot mountains and deep scenic canyons, including the rugged Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Several swift-flowing rivers and creeks pass through the area, which has allowed it to flourish.
The early inhabitants of the Gunnison county area were Ute Indian tribes. Colorado’s Utes once consisted of seven bands with as many as 10,000 members. Spanish explorers passed through the area more than 400 years ago while searching for wealth and a route to California. They sold the Utes their first horses. The Utes were considered to be a relatively peaceful tribe and rarely caused the early white men any trouble.
In the early 1800’s, mountain men and fur trappers moved into the area. Furs were never easy to obtain in the rugged Colorado Rockies and a drop in prices collapsed the area’s fur trade in the 1840’s.
In the early 1850’s, the demand arose for a transcontinental railroad to join the East and West. Due to the ruggedness of the terrain in the Rockies, the best route was a subject of serious debate. In 1853, Congress passed a bill that called for four teams of Army engineers to survey a route. Captain John Gunnison of the Army Topographical Engineers was chosen to survey a central route. Gunnison was forty-one years old and had eleven years of wilderness surveying experience.
Gunnison’s expedition left Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in June of 1853. On September 2, they crossed Cochetopa Pass. The team was encouraged by the expanse of open land they found beyond the pass–at least until they reached the Lake Fork canyon through which the Gunnison River passed. While looking for a way to bypass the huge crevice, they found a deeper crevice called Black Canyon with its 2,500 foot walls and turbulent, rushing water. The team decided to cross at Lake Fork and did so with great difficulty. The continuing rough terrain found west of Lake Fork convinced Gunnison that a railroad route through this area was impractical. Note: His opinion was later proven to be incorrect, as the D&RG railroad did build a route through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in the 1880’s.
Gunnison’s expedition ran into disaster when Paiute Indians attacked the group in October 1853 in the Green River area of Utah. Gunnison and eight of his men were killed in the attack. The surviving members continued on and concluded the mission in 1854.
In the latter part of the 1850’s miners began moving into the Gunnison county area in search of placer gold. Growing pressure from the increasing number of whites in the area created friction with the Utes and several miners were killed, which caused other whites to flee the area. Many small prospecting parties continued to work the area through the 1860’s and 1870’s. In 1870, coal was discovered near the present site of Schofield.
In 1873, Dr. John Parsons of Denver became convinced that the Gunnison area was rich in mineral wealth. In 1873, Parsons led a prospecting expedition of thirty men into the area. One of these men was Sylvester Richardson, a geologist, wanderer and dreamer, who saw the Gunnison area as a land of opportunity. He would later become the founder of the town of Gunnison.
In April of 1874, Richardson led a group of twenty settlers out of Denver and toward the Gunnison area. Strong snowstorms caused some members to abandon the journey and return to the comforts of Denver. The remaining members continued on to the present site of Gunnison and divided the land into lots. Some began building cabins. During the harsh winter of 1874-75, all of the original settlers except Richardson had either moved on to other areas or returned to Denver.
In 1875, Richardson returned to Denver to recruit more settlers. Only three retuned with him. Two of the three were the Outcalt brothers, John and William.
Colorado entered the Union in 1876 and Gunnison County was established. 1879 was a year of expansion for the area. Miners, speculators and adventurers began moving to Colorado in search of wealth.
By 1880, the cattle industry was established in the Gunnison Valley due to the difficulty of growing crops in an area that only received approximately eleven inches of rainfall per year, and had a short growing season due to its high elevation. To effectively farm the area, primarily to produce hay for local horse and cattle feed, the fields had to be cleared and leveled, and irrigation systems built to divert water from the rivers and creeks.
It was the railroads that enabled the Gunnison area to prosper in the late 1880’s. Two narrow gauge railroads initially serviced the Gunnison area. The Denver and Rio Grande (later the D&RG Western) railroad entered Gunnison in 1881, and the Denver, South Park and Pacific (DSP&P) in 1882, although it quickly discontinued operations in the Gunnison area. The D&RGW narrow gauge railroad was the primary means of transportation, both for people and agricultural goods, as well as for minerals and coal, for approximately 70 years. After World War II ended, the railroad gradually declined as cars and trucks took their business. The D&RGW railroad ceased all operations in the Gunnison area in 1955.
Note: The D&RGW railroad tracks from Gunnison to Crested Butte ran through the Esty Ranch, and both the DSP&P and D&RGW railroad tracks from Gunnison to Salida ran through the LeValley Ranch.