Chaffee County lies in central Colorado on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains and along the Upper Arkansas River valley. It is bordered by Lake and Park Counties to the north, Park and Fremont Counties to the east, Saguache County to the south, and Gunnison County to the west. Chaffee County’s unique shape is due to the western boundary following the Continental Divide and the eastern boundary generally following the Arkansas River and the Mosquito Range. The elevation in Chaffee county ranges from 7,000 feet to over 14,000 feet; the county is home to fifteen Fourteeners—mountains rising over 14,000 feet—the most of any county in Colorado.
Chaffee County has a population of 17,809. Salida (population 5,236), along Highway 50 in the heart of the Arkansas Valley, is the county seat and largest town. Buena Vista (pop. 2,617) sits in central Chaffee County along Highway 24 and is popular for whitewater rafting. The town of Poncha Springs lies in the southern part of the county at the junction of Highways 50 and 285. Unincorporated towns include Granite, along Highway 24 in the north; Nathrop, along highway 24 between Buena Vista and Salida; and Monarch in the west along Highway 50.
From about the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries, Ute people occupied present-day Chaffee County, primarily the Arkansas River valley. The Utes were hunter-gatherers who subsisted on various mountain roots and berries as well as on deer, elk, buffalo, and small game. The Utes followed seasonal migration patterns, tracking game into the high country during the summer and wintering along the foothills and in river bottoms. The Utes obtained horses through their interaction with the Spanish to the south, and the animals allowed Utes to expand their hunting grounds. By the early nineteenth century, the Arapaho and Cheyenne occasionally wintered near the Arkansas River.
Explorers, Trappers, and Gold Seekers
The French first arrived in the Arkansas River valley in the eighteenth century. Trading and trapping, particularly beavers, began in the early nineteenth century, but the valley was considered dangerous for Europeans on account of the presence of Ute and Arapaho peoples. Despite this, early Coloradans, including Kit Carson, trapped and wintered in the area.
After the start of the Colorado Gold Rush in 1859, thousands of prospectors traveled to Colorado with hopes of finding their fortunes in the Rocky Mountains. Cache Creek became the first notable white settlement in Chaffee County. It began in 1860 with a population of 300, and by the following year the town had 3,000 residents. This area included a three-mile stretch of river and an additional two miles on the Cache Creek. The Chalk Creek and Monarch areas quickly became other sites for gold seekers in the area. These sites produced high yields of gold during the Colorado Gold Rush period between 1859 and 1867.
With the establishment of the Colorado Territory in 1861, present-day Chaffee County became part of Lake County. It has since been split into a number of counties in the region.
Following the end of gold panning and sluicing in the late 1860s, white homesteaders began to establish farms and ranches along the river. As more whites moved into the Arkansas River valley, relations with the Utes ranged from amicable to hostile. The Ute leader Ouray, for example, was often friendly and even helped some homesteaders cross the river, but other Utes ordered whites off the land. The Treaty of 1868 relocated the Utes to a large reservation on Colorado’s Western Slope, allowing for the development of farms and ranches in the valley. Farmers grew hay, alfalfa, lettuce, oats, and vegetables. In the 1860s Otto Mears built a toll road that ran over Poncha Pass to transport grains and produce to market. On Chalk Creek, Charles Nachtrieb built the area’s first water-powered grist mill.
Colorado became a state in 1876. On February 8, 1879, the state government divided Lake County into northern and southern parts. The southern portion was named Chaffee County after Jerome Chaffee, a businessman and politician who had invested in local mines. The town of Granite, in northern Chaffee County, was designated the county seat, but later that year residents voted to move the county seat to Buena Vista, a more centrally located city.
Buena Vista was settled in 1864 and incorporated in 1879. People were drawn to the area for mining but settled in Buena Vista due to the valley’s fertile land. To the south, Nathrop began as the ranch of Charles Nachtrieb in 1865. In 1880 the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG) finished laying narrow-gauge tracks into Chaffee County, ending the line in the town of South Arkansas, later renamed Salida. Thereafter, Nathrop prospered as a railroad town between Buena Vista and Salida, developing a prosperous town center around the rail depot built just north of Nachtrieb’s ranch.
While the D&RG continued west to Gunnison over Marshall Pass, Jay Gould’s Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad (DSP&P) also completed a line into Chaffee County, running to Buena Vista and later north to Leadville. A third line, the Colorado Midland Railroad, was the first standard-gauge railway to run into the Arkansas valley, arriving in Buena Vista in 1887. It also eventually reached Leadville. These three primary railroads served passengers and brought supplies and minerals to and from the towns and mines in Chaffee County.
Throughout the late nineteenth century, numerous mines operated throughout Chaffee County, producing gold, silver, iron ore, copper, and zinc. The Mary Murphy Mine in the Chalk Creek District, operated by the Mary Murphy Gold and Silver Mining Company of St. Louis, was the most famous. It held deposits of gold, silver, zinc, and lead, and by 1881 it was producing thirty tons of ore per day. Located on Murphy Mountain, the mine was two miles from the D&RG railroad and two miles from the town of St. Elmo. Meanwhile, the Colorado Coal and Iron Company (CC&I) ran the highly productive Calumet Iron Mine north of Salida. Mining in Chaffee County peaked between 1885 and 1888, when production of gold, silver, and lead totaled more than $1 million each year.
The 1893 repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which guaranteed a market for silver, sent the Colorado economy into a downward spiral. The price of silver dropped from around $1 per ounce in 1890–91 to around $0.60 by the turn of the century. While the county’s gold and silver mines were able to continue production throughout the 1890s and into the twentieth century, the Panic of 1893, as it was known, caused a shift toward the production of more industrial materials such as coal and iron. Smelting also became an important part of Chaffee County’s economy.
In 1900 independent smelters operated in Romley, which supported the Mary Murphy and Monarch Mines. Most other smelters were run by the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) from Denver, which merged with Guggenheim, an international smelting company, in 1901. Following World War I, the smelter in Smeltertown, northwest of Salida, shut down due to a reduction in mining.
On January 1, 1916, W. H. Boyer, an African American miner, staked a manganese ore claim in Wells Gulch. This twenty-acre deposit produced high-grade manganese, which was shipped to the steelworks in Pueblo to be made into steel for military use during World War I. In August 1916 William Hillzinger and Charles Fulford bought the mine, where they discovered a tungsten deposit. The auxiliary find set off a rush to the area, with numerous people staking out claims on the large tungsten deposit.
Granite and ore mining continued into the 1920s. In 1928 the contract for granite for the Denver City and County Building was awarded to Mt. Princeton Granite, quarried at Mt. Princeton, east of Nathrop. The Salida Granite Company had its most productive era in the 1920s, and the pink granite of this quarry, located in the Turret District, north of Salida, was used in the construction of the Mormon Battalion Monument in New Mexico. The Great Depression of the 1930s slowed much of this industry, as the economic stagnation halted demand for construction materials.
In the early and middle twentieth century, mining companies consolidated throughout Chaffee County, decreasing the number of mines and jobs. In 1930 the Monarch Mine was bought by Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I)—formerly Colorado Coal & Iron—and it became the largest mining operation in Colorado and one of the few mines left in the county.
Over the course of the twentieth century the base of the Chaffee County economy gradually shifted from mining to a combination of new industries, including corrections and tourism. In 1925 Horace Frantzhurst built the Frantzhurst Fish Hatchery just north of Salida. The hatchery raised trout and operated from 1925 to 1953. In 1956 the Colorado Division of Wildlife bought the hatchery and renamed it the Mt. Shavano Fish Hatchery and Rearing Unit. This hatchery helped to supply Colorado’s streams and rivers with fish where they had dwindled due to overfishing beginning at the turn of the century.
In 1928 Chaffee County voted to move the county seat for a second time, from Buena Vista to Salida, which was then the most populous city. In 1932 construction of the new Chaffee County Courthouse in Salida was completed. It was designed by Walter DeMordaunt and is one of only a few Colorado courthouses built in the art deco style. It was listed on the State Register of Historic Properties in 1996.
In 1939 a federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) project built the Salida Hot Springs complex. Monarch Ski Area represents another WPA project in the county. The ski area officially opened in 1939, though skiers had been using the mountain since 1914. The WPA built a rope tow on a slope called Gunbarrel, which was used to ferry skiers to the top of the slope. The WPA then gave the site to the city of Salida.
In the 1950s the city sold Monarch for $100 to a private owner. This led to increased development. Electricity, water, and indoor plumbing were added to the lodge. The owners cut additional slopes and added a T-bar tow system. The 1960s brought a chairlift and additional changes. In 1968 Elmo Bevington purchased Monarch, and additional lifts, lodges, and expansions extended into the 2000s. In 2002 a group led by Bob Nicolls purchased the ski area and continued its development. Today, Monarch is worth over $7 million.
The corrections business had been a consistent employer in Chaffee County since 1891, when the first state reformatory was built near Buena Vista. The facility began as a reformatory for juvenile offenders and housed between 94 and 153 juvenile inmates in its first two decades of operation. A medical unit was added in 1920, and in 1947 an academic program was established for the juvenile inmates. In 1978 the reformatory became an adult, medium-custody facility: the Buena Vista Correctional Facility. In 1991 a boot camp was added. It was then officially named the Buena Vista Correctional Complex due to its capacity to hold both medium- and minimum-custody inmates. The site now has a capacity for up to 1,259 inmates and is one of the largest correctional facilities in the state.
Today, Chaffee County is a destination for outdoor adventure seekers. It hosts winter sports at the Monarch Ski Area. Each summer, hundreds of mountaineers arrive to climb the county’s fifteen Fourteeners, including Mts. Columbia, Harvard, Oxford, Princeton, and Yale, members of the famous Collegiate Peaks. Other activities include biking, river rafting on the Arkansas, and visits to local hot springs. A popular site for rafting, hiking, and fishing is the newly designated Browns Canyon National Monument, located between Salida and Buena Vista. President Barack Obama established the monument in 2015.
The largest employers in Chaffee County today are the tourism and recreation industry and federal and state agencies, including the Buena Vista Correctional Complex. While they were essential to the county’s early development, ranching and agriculture currently represent a very small portion of the county’s economy. Due to a relatively mild climate and affordable housing Chaffee County has recently attracted many retirees to its borders. Chaffee County represents a common shift in many local Colorado economies from mining to recreation and tourism.