An Isolated Empire: A History of Northwest Colorado
BLM Cultural Resource Series (Colorado: No. 12)
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Chapter X:

The most recent stage of development in northwestern Colorado came in a fifty-year period. From 1890 to 1940 towns were founded; natural resources were exploited; and vast areas of the public domain were withdrawn from open range used by homesteaders and cattlemen. The period was one of consolidation and reorganization; the old frontier rule of "he who got there first" was no longer in effect. Now settlers had to deal with corporations, governmental agencies, and the law.

After the removal of the Utes in 1880, townsite companies began to organize towns within northwestern Colorado in anticipation of the rush that would come because the land was now open. Additionally, better transportation routes from Wyoming helped to stir interest in settlement. In 1882 the town of Rangely was founded, replacing the older town of Golden City, which had been located at the mouth of Cottonwood Creek. Steamboat Springs, as has been mentioned, was founded in 1885 by James Crawford, while in 1889 the Craig Land and Mercantile Company was formed. That year 320 acres were purchased from Frank Ranney by Frank Russell, Jerry Hill, and the Reverend W. B. Craig for $2,500. Additionally, a Mr. Barkley sold 160 acres to the company for $1,500. [1] W. H. Tucker, a partner, laid out the streets, and in 1892 a hotel was erected. The general store at Hayden was bought out and moved to Craig; it was sold to the Hugus system in 1893 or 1894. The Craig townsite was obviously designed to make a profit for the promoters. While the town grew slowly, it was hardly a money making operation. As one old timer put it: "Nobody got rich out of the Craig Company" [2]

Another example of townbuilding was the creation of Hayden, Colorado, in 1894 when the townsite was laid out by William Walker. Prior to this time, Hayden had been a little trading post catering to first the Indians, and later to cattlemen. Walker's townsite company proposed to develop and sell property, and in 1906 the town was actually incorporated. It was the fourth or fifth largest town in the Yampa (Bear) River Valley. [3]

It was built to compete with Craig as the "capital" of the northwest. The two towns fought each other for trade and other services for the cattlemen of the area. Steamboat Springs, being somewhat isolated in the Elk River Valley, remained a supply point for the eastern regions.

In 1912 Hahn's Peak finally lost status as county seat of Routt County. A fire in 1910 wiped out most of the town and, under great pressure, the county seat was shifted to Steamboat Springs. Craig, Hayden, Meeker, Axial, Maybell, and Lay were all in the competition. [4] Craig got its way in 1914 when Moffat County was carved from Routt, and it became the county seat of the new district, much to the dismay of Hayden, the other prime contender. [5]

One of the more interesting features of economic development in the region was the J. W. Hugus chain stores. These stores were located in Meeker (headquarters), Craig, Hayden, Palisade, Clifton, Rifle, Wolcott, Axial, Pagoda, Walden, Granby, and Steamboat Springs; also Rawlins and Wamsutter, Wyoming. [6] The chain operated general stores throughout the region, serving cattlemen, miners, and settlers alike.

The Hugus chain, incorporated in 1889, was the largest single corporation in northwest Colorado. It had seven auxiliary banks, and it owned the Wyoming Transportation Company, which acted as a freight service for the Hugus stores, and provided stage and freight lines for the western part of the state. [7] The Hugus chain folded in the 1930's, a victim of the depression, but the company was well-remembered, for it helped many struggling settlers or cattlemen survive. It was said of the Hugus chain: "They were almost the backbone of this country. They gave unlimited credit to the farmers. . .". [8]

Meeker was also the home of the Harp Transportation Company founded in 1887. At first the company was a stage line run by Simp Harp of Meeker between that city and New Castle, Colorado. The Harp, Wright, and Daum Stage Company sold out to "Kit" Carson (no relation to the well-known Christopher "Kit" Carson of mountain and political fame) in 1888 when he started running stages from Glenwood Springs to Meeker. However the Carson stage line was so unreliable that it soon folded. [9] Simp Harp began a new stage company that ran to Rifle, and it continued to serve Meeker by horse and stage until 1915, when Harp bought a Cadillac motor car which he used for service. The Harp company has continued to serve the White River Valley, and it is the oldest continuous non-rail transportation company in the state of Colorado. [10]

At the same time, Enos Mills, a long-time resident of Estes Park, Colorado and a well-known naturalist, campaigned for the creation of a national park and wildlife area near Estes. In 1915 Rocky Mountain National Park was created and thousands of acres on both sides of the Continental Divide were made tourist attractions. During the 1920's, the Fall River Road was built to provide a highway from Estes Park to Grand Lake, Colorado, and soon thousands of tourists were using the spectacular trail. Rocky Mountain Park helped draw many tourists into Middle Park, and later into the far northwestern corner of the state. [17]

As early as 1880 a deer and elk meat industry developed in North Park. One pioneer family, the Rhea's of North Park, provided over 2,000 pounds of dried elk and deer meet to Denver and Cheyenne butchers. [11]

At the same time, a major elk meat industry was in operation in the Meeker area. Here, thousands of pounds of elk meat was shipped during the late 1880's and early 1890's to Denver, Cheyenne, and points east. This business died out prior to 1900, because the slaughter of elk so depleted the herds, that areas once swarming with the animals were no longer profitable for hunting. [12]

Another early industry of the region that has continued to grow was the hunting and fishing business. For many years the elk, deer, antelope, and other game animals had been hunted. However, the region got national publicity in 1901 when Vice President Theodore Roosevelt came to Meeker and hunted in the nearby mountains, bagging a mountain lion. The Roosevelt visit provided the stimulus needed for the promotion of a hunting industry. [13] The Trapper's Lake area, the Flattop Mountains, and other places such as the Elk River valley were promoted as excellent hunting areas.

In addition to the development of land in the area, the United States government began efforts at resource protection. As has been noted, the White River Forest Reserve was withdrawn in 1891, becoming the White River National Forest in 1905. Other forest areas were withdrawn in line with national policy; Routt National Forest (1905) and Arapaho National Forest (1906) were created. With the withdrawal of millions of acres of grazing and forest lands, the government became, to a large extent, the arbiter of disputes between cattle and sheepmen, settlers and miners, and others. In the formation of these protected reserves, the early Forest Rangers who patrolled them became a symbol of the continuing efforts at conservation. It took a number of years for many farmers and cattlemen to accept the idea of grazing permits. The days of the old frontier were gone in the northwestern regions by 1910. [14]

Additionally, thanks to the furor stirred up by the robbing of antiquities in the southwest, particularly in the Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon regions, the Antiquities Act of 1906 was passed to protect historic sites. [15] From this Act came the development of National Monuments to provide protection for historic, scenic, or archeologically valuable sites. One such area in northwest Colorado was the scenic canyon of the Green and Yampa Rivers, about which John Wesley Powell was so enthusiastic. Bones of dinosaurs had been found in the canyons of Utah and to protect these antiquities, an area of the canyons was formed into Dinosaur National Monument in 1915. This withdrew the lands in and around the canyons and provided protection from exploitation by unscrupulous developers. In 1938 the Monument was expanded into Colorado and enlarged to 326 square miles. [16]

One of the other "discoveries" in northwest Colorado was that of oil. Oil was known about quite early; in 1893 oil springs were located on Oil Creek, and the next year a company was organized to develop these fields. Nothing seems to have come of this effort, however, for no major oil production took place until 1902. In 1902 the Poole well was brought in near Rangely, and soon an oil boom developed. It was short-lived because deep wells had to be developed to tap the reserves, and for the amount of oil gained it was not worth the effort. [18] The Rangely fields continued to produce on a modest level, and were superseded in the early 1920's, when a number of basins were tapped for the first time. In 1924 the Iles field was brought in, while in 1926 the Hiawatha field began to produce. Powder Wash came in in 1931, while the Thornburgh field has been producing since 1925. Tow Creek, one of the earlier fields, came in during 1924, and White River in Rio Blanco County had produced on a modest scale since 1890. [19] Since these early fields were discovered, numerous other oil fields have been found and worked. The real boom came during and after World War II when oil demand skyrocketed.

In North Park oil was discovered and later developed. The Colorado Immigration Board noted that in northwestern Colorado there were numerous oil domes such as the Moffat, Iles, Gossard, Elk Springs, Snake River, Thornburg, Axial, Beaver Creek, Sage Creek, Tow Creek, Deep Creek and Wilson Creek. [20] Yet, with all this potential, production remained low. The Hiawatha field to date has produced only 129,296 barrels, while Powder Wash has produced 927,738 barrels and the Iles field has produced 357,753 barrels. [21] However, there have been a few good producers such as the Moffat field, which has produced 5,444,849 barrels since 1925. [22]

One of the last major economic developments in the northwest was an attempt at homestead colonization. In 1915 the Great Divide Homestead Colony Number One was organized to try dry-land farming in the area near the present-day Great Divide. Volney Hoggatt, bodyguard of Frederick G. Bonfils, the founder of the Denver Post, promoted this scheme. Hoggatt became the editor of a magazine dedicated to dry-land farming called, Great Divide. It was published by the Denver Post, and it was a mouthpiece for Hoggatt's schemes. Hoggatt also had the advantage of being the Registrar of the State Land Board. He was appointed to this post in 1912. The idea of colonization was not new; as early as 1911, the Great Northern Irrigation and Power Company had contracted with the State of Colorado to reclaim some 150,000 acres of land. The company failed to hold up its end of the bargain and went under. [23] Here is where Hoggatt used his position in state office to secure about 275,000 acres of land northwest of Craig. In March 1916 a train of immigrants arrived with "fifteen carloads of household goods and stock and one coach containing sixty men, women, and children." [24] Craig saw a new boom coming, and noted that there was simply no room for the hundreds of settlers expected. [25] By 1917 hundreds of miles of barbed wire had been strung, and water wells had been drilled; Hoggatt's colony of Great Divide was in full operation. The initial success of this colony stimulated a proposed colony in Carbon County, Wyoming, which luckily never came about. The colony survived until the mid-1930's with indifferent success. Hoggatt constantly promoted the venture through the Denver Post, until his death in 1934. [26] There is no estimate of the number of settlers who arrived in the area, but considering the land and a lack of water, it is likely that settlers departed as fast as they came. For Craig, the land boom never amounted to much, and the economy of the region gained little from the experience. The Great Divide adventure proved once again that "booms" were not the answer for northwestern Colorado; it is a good historical example of unwise land use in the West.

Great Divide
Great Divide, Colorado, ca. 1917. Colorado State Historical Society.

Within the last fifty years, this region has been under-used; newer industries such as hunting and fishing have helped take up the slack. Probably one of the most significant events in the area was the advent of the automobile and paved roads. In the early 1920's Berthoud, Loveland and Fall River passes were paved, providing easy access to the parks. Beyond Middle and North Parks, roads were extended through the Gore Range and into the Yampa Valley. The coal industry helped bring roads into the Upper Yampa Valley, while ranchers were served by new roads built from Wyoming south. Looking at modern roadmaps, one sees a single major road from Craig to Wyoming, and only one leading south into the White River country. A highway was built down the White River to Rangely and on into Utah. This major east-west connection was U. S. 40, which was built across the West in the 1920's (as the "Victory Highway") to provide a transcontinental roadway. This highway crossed the entire region and provided the backbone of the current road system. [27] The automobile provided cheap and easy transportation for the nation, yet the northwest corner, while greatly benefited by the car, remained isolated. The coming of cars and trucks certainly helped lower transportation costs, bring tourists into the area, and provide easier local movement, but the impact, as with the coming of the railroad, turned out to be rather limited.

Land Advertisements Such as This Lured Thousands of Settlers to the West

One of the new industries that began in the 1920's and has been greatly stimulated by the automobile was skiing. Skiing clubs sprang up in Middle Park by 1921, while Steamboat Springs discovered the sport in the mid-1920's. From these small beginnings, the industry struggled along on a local basis until after World War II, when a major increase in Colorado's population helped the development of ski resorts. Automobile travel into the mountains became easier and soon the Front Range was covered with ski areas. As skiers moved west during the mid-1950's and well into the 1960's, ski resorts proliferated, and soon names like Breckenridge, Steamboat Springs, and Dillon were common to all skiers. [28]

The history of northwestern Colorado can be summarized as being an area that constantly wanted and needed development; the natural resources were there and known about quite early. However, a multiplicity of factors kept the region from developing along the same lines as did the Front Range area, which may have been a blessing in disguise. For all practical purposes, northwestern Colorado was actually an extension of Wyoming, socially and economically, until at least the 1920's. The reason for this was that transportation and services lay to the north. The mountain barrier was effective in hindering development in a traditional manner. From the days of open range cattle to mining and on into modern commercial uses, the land has been exploited, but never to the fullest possible extent. Traditionally, northwestern Colorado has been an area of great potential but because of such factors as poor transportation, the lack of capital and a sparse population, little actual development has occurred.

Recently, the northwest corner of Colorado shows the promise of a boom. Oil shale has shown great potential, while the re-birth of the coal industry, brought on by the increased demand for energy, has brought this corner new prosperity, and has caused radical changes in the social and economic make-up of the region. Possibly the coal boom will prove to be more lasting, and certainly it will have a greater impact on the area than other events in its history have had. With these new developments, the northwest corner may well have an economic future that had been promised for so many years.

Map 10. Northwest Colorado, 1890-1940 (click on map for an enlargement in a new window)

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Last Updated: 31-Oct-2008