The Valley of Opportunity: A History of West-Central Colorado
BLM Cultural Resource Series (Colorado: No. 12)
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The Valley of Opportunity is a title that symbolizes development and settlement throughout west-central Colorado. From the days of native-American occupation, to the most modern period, mankind realized the value and importance of the Grand (Colorado) River valley and its tributaries like the Eagle.

Early man saw that in the valley were sources of water, lush vegetation, and wildlife. They therefore used these resources to sustain themselves and they saw the Grand Valley as a major trailway between the Continental Divide and Utah. The Spanish explorers, Dominguez and Escalante, in 1776, traversed the Grand River valley on a northerly course while seeking a trail to California. This journal provided the first recorded European description of the region.

During the early to mid-1800s, fur traders and trappers came into the area, some from the eastern plains, beyond the Continental Divide, and others from New Mexico, to the south. These men, some Spanish/Mexican, others American, found little beaver along the Grand River and mainly used the valley as a passegeway into Utah where the Green, White, and other streams provided great quantities of the furry animals. Antoine Robidoux built a trading fort at the mouth of the Gunnison and Uncompaghre Rivers near present day Delta and it represented the first American settlement anywhere near the Grand Valley.

The next entrance came with official government explorations. John C. Fremont arrived in the Eagle River valley while on his way to Oregon in 1845, and then he returned to Colorado in 1848 where his party nearly perished in the snowy San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. Disaster ended Fremont's efforts. However, in 1853 John Williams Gunnison was commissioned to survey a transcontinental railroad route over the legendary Cochetopa Pass. In his effort, Gunnison surveyed a line to the mouth of the Gunnison and Grand Rivers, later to become the townsite of Grand Junction.

In 1860 a group of miners, led by Richard Sopris, explored the Aspen and Glenwood Springs regions in search of minerals. None were discovered, but a mountain near Carbondale was named in honor of Sopris. The final gasp of exploration came in the 1870s when numerous geologists, geographers, and botanists under the direction of Ferdinand V. Hayden surveyed the western slope of Colorado. These surveys provided a wealth of information and provided the final touches preparatory to settlement in west-central Colorado.

In 1879, Ute Indians, residing on the White River Reservation near Meeker, rose in rebellion. They killed Agent Nathan Meeker and others. The U.S. Army was called in to restore order. By 1881, after outcries from the Anglo citizens of Colorado, the Utes were removed to reservations in Utah and far southwestern Colorado. The west slope was, at last, open to settlement.

The rush for western Colorado was soon in coming. The San Juans had already been invaded by miners and now it was west-central Colorado's turn. In the mid-1870s the upper Eagle River valley was settled. Redcliffe, Holy Cross City, and other towns were founded. By 1879, the Aspen region was under development and precious metal mining was established in the high country. Coal mining also developed in the early 1880s to fuel the smelters and towns that arose from silver extraction efforts.

Possibly the most important event in the region was the advent of transportation systems, beginning with roads and trails and culminating with railroads. In 1882, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad reached the junction of the Gunnison and Grand Rivers on its way to Utah. The city of Grand Junction had been founded a year earlier. Meanwhile, the Rio Grande and the Colorado Midland raced each other to reach Aspen. The Midland chose the Hagerman Pass route while the Rio Grande used Tennessee Pass, the Eagle Valley, and Glenwood Canyon. By 1887, the Rio Grande reached Aspen, tapping the mines. The Midland arrived the next year.

What is more important, is that a rail connection from Denver to Leadville to Aspen, via Glenwood Springs was formed. The town of Glenwood Springs, founded in 1881, grew thanks to the rails. In 1890, the Rio Grande and the Midland jointly built a line from Glenwood to Grand Junction, thus assuring the success of the Grand Valley.

Along with the rails came settlement. In order for the Grand Valley to survive, agriculture became a necessary industry. Massive amounts of water in the Grand River provided irrigation resources and by 1900 such projects covered the valley. Sugar beets, fruit trees, and other crops became the main source of income for the Grand Junction to Rifle region. Wheat, cattle, and hay were raised in the drier areas from the valley floors. Homesteading occurred in the uplands while valley areas were generally sold on a commercial basis. Agriculture took up the slack when the silver industry collapsed during the Panic of 1893, and Aspen, Redcliffe, and other silver towns were wiped out overnight.

Coal mining continued to support the economy as did a fairly major tourist industry at Glenwood Springs, but agriculture was the keystone of west-central Colorado. This remained true until recently.

During the early 1900s an oil shale boom occurred along Parachute Creek. Retorts were built, stock sold, and claims staked. However, by 1920 it was over, when the great Texas oil fields were brought in and prices dropped. Other mineral activities in the area included uranium mining near Rifle, Grand Junction, and at Gateway. This went on from about 1900 to 1950. The real boom took place after World War II, but it died by 1955. Oil and gas exploration also happened in the 1920s and continues to the present.

West-central Colorado can be characterized as a region that developed along geographic lines, using its natural resources and pathways to provide settlement and a stable economy. Unlike other regions in Colorado, the Grand Valley was not settled in the traditional frontier sense. It had many of the amenities foreign to the frontier before, or at the same time, as settlement took place. This makes the Valley of Opportunity unique, for in the truest sense Colorado's history and development fail to fit into the typical Turnerian "mold" of frontier development. The people who settled this region were not "misfits," nor outcasts, nor dreamers of fortune. In the main, they were solid citizens, with some means, who came west for the express purpose of recreating their lifestyles. Witness Glenwood Springs named after Glenwood, Iowa. The Midwest influence was strong in the settlement of west-central Colorado and remains so to this day.

Mining, of course, was something of an aberration in this pattern. However, even Aspen was settled in an organized, business-like manner by Midwesterners. How unusual to see crude mining camps develop into cultured cities!

Steven F. Mehls has, for the first time, not only provided a consolidated history of west-central Colorado based on extensive research, but he has also pointed out, very clearly, how unique this area's history and development really is. Mr. Mehls, in this work, is showing the reader a phase of western American history that is little known but of vast importance to our understanding of what is known as "The West".

Frederic J. Athearn
Denver, Colorado
July, 1982

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Last Updated: 31-Oct-2008