Founded in 1878, Crested Butte is a former coal-mining town turned ski resort nestled in the Elk Mountains of northern Gunnison County. The town lies about twenty-eight miles north of the county seat of Gunnison and about the same distance south of Aspen. At nearly 9,000 feet of elevation and surrounded by mountains, Crested Butte routinely experiences below-zero temperatures and hundreds of inches of annual snowfall.
Crested Butte began as a supply camp for local silver mines in the 1870s and evolved into one of the most productive coal towns in the Rockies during the 1880s. Coal continued to drive the town’s economy until the mid-twentieth century. After the mines closed, a ski resort opened on Crested Butte Mountain, the nearby 12,000-foot peak from which the town got its name. In 1974 a historic district of some twenty properties in Crested Butte was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2002 the district was expanded to include 313 historic buildings and other structures.
When the first gold seekers arrived in the Elk Mountains in the 1860s, the area was home to the Ute people, who had tracked game across the mountains and valleys of Colorado for centuries. The Utes drove out many of the first prospecting parties, and the harsh winters and paltry gold deposits dissuaded most others from settling in the area.
The area again became the target of miners in the 1870s, and several silver mines were established in the mountains north of present Crested Butte. The surveying party of Ferdinand V. Hayden came through in 1873, and it was from the top of nearby Teocalli Mountain that Hayden named the peak that would later give the town its name. In 1877 Hayden published his Geological and Geographical Atlas of Colorado, which showed significant coal deposits around Crested Butte Mountain and mapped the silver district to the northwest.
The region’s mining activity and geologic promise attracted the attention of Howard F. Smith, an investor in a Leadville smelting company. In the summer of 1878, Smith laid out the town of Crested Butte southwest of the namesake peak, at the junction of the Slate River and Coal Creek. He had a sawmill shipped in from Cañon City and built a smelter. Even though he initially struggled to attract settlers, Smith’s timing was good—over the course of the next two years, thousands of miners came to the area seeking gold and silver, turning Crested Butte into the principal supply point for local mines.
Colorado railroad moguls William Jackson Palmer and John Evans watched the development of Crested Butte with great interest; they knew as well as Smith did that the area’s coal beds and plentiful timber represented a major business opportunity. On July 3, 1880, Smith, along with Colonel W.H. Holt and George Holt, formally incorporated the town under the Crested Butte Town Company.
In 1880, just before Crested Butte was incorporated, it was found that coal from the exposed beds along Coal Creek produced excellent coke—a higher-carbon, hotter-burning fuel that is used to produce silver, iron, steel, and other metals. The timing of this discovery was particularly convenient for Palmer, who had just formed the Colorado Coal & Iron Company (CC&I) and planned to build a steel works in Pueblo. Crested Butte’s high-quality coking coal would fuel his steel works, railroad, and other industrial endeavors. He needed only to extend his Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG) into the Elk Mountains.
Palmer wasted little time. Just over a year and a half later, on November 24, 1881, the first D&RG locomotive steamed into Crested Butte. That same year, CC&I opened the Crested Butte Mine, later known as the Jokerville Mine. Coke pits were dug below the mine. Crested Butte was officially on the map as a coal town.
Even before the railroad arrived, the town began to attract wealthy investors and build accommodations for the many businessmen and travelers who would soon be passing through. Leadville silver baron Horace Tabor opened the Bank of Crested Butte in August 1881, and the town company finished construction on the Elk Mountain House, a fancy three-story hotel, in December. By the summer of 1882, Crested Butte had five hotels, a church, a dozen saloons, and a dozen restaurants. As the population surpassed 500, two new schools were built in 1882 and 1883. City hall, a structure that has endured to the present, went up in 1883 at 132 Elk Avenue, and a blacksmith shop opened on the west side of Elk Avenue that same year.
By that time Crested Butte coal was being shipped all over the state, as well as to Utah and Nevada, for use in homes, mines, railroads, and blast furnaces. But for those who worked below the ground to extract the precious black fuel, Crested Butte’s coal boom came at a tremendous cost. Cave-ins and gas leaks were routine hazards of coal mining, but working in the Jokerville Mine proved to be especially dangerous because of the unusually high amount of gas that accumulated within. On January 24, 1884, the Jokerville Mine exploded, killing sixty workers and injuring dozens more. It was later found that the mine’s fire boss had restricted access to the tunnels that day because the gas had built up, but a miner had either ignored or missed the warning and went in with an open flame. Improperly sealed chambers, entry points built too close together, and the unrestricted use of open-flame lamps also contributed to the explosion. Using a different entry point, CC&I reopened the mine later that year, but gas continued to accumulate, eventually forcing the mine’s permanent closure in 1895. Along with pay rates and unionization, the hazardous conditions in mines played a major role in a series of labor disputes that plagued Crested Butte and other coal-mining regions in Colorado from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth century.
For much of the 1880s, the workers in Crested Butte’s coal mines were predominantly Anglo-Saxon, hailing from Wales, Scotland, England, and Ireland. Before the decade ended, however, the workforce began to diversify, with Slovenians arriving in 1883, Italians in 1884, and Croatians by 1890.
The town’s layout changed along with its social makeup. St. Patrick’s Catholic Church was built in 1894 to serve the growing population of Italians and Catholic Slavs, and each ethnic group built fraternal lodges to support their respective communities. The Society of St. Joseph, built in 1893, was the first Slav fraternal lodge in Crested Butte, while Croatians established the Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Perpetual Aid at St. Mary’s Lodge, and Slovenian groups convened at the Forest Queen Hotel.
In 1892 CC&I merged with John C. Osgood’s Colorado Fuel Company to form Colorado Fuel & Iron (CF&I), the premier industrial company in the state. In 1894 CF&I opened the Big Mine outside of Crested Butte. By 1902 it was producing 1,000 tons of coal per day. In addition to the mines and coke ovens it established around the town, CF&I left its mark within Crested Butte as well, building a company store and office at 308 Third Street, workers’ housing on Gothic Avenue, a service station, and numerous other commercial buildings and structures. The Big Mine remained the main economic engine of Crested Butte until the rise of oil and gas fuels forced the mine’s closure in 1952. Although mining of lead and zinc continued on nearby Mt. Emmons for a short time, the mining era in Crested Butte had all but ended.
In the days before the railroad and automobile, skiing was a practical form of transportation in Crested Butte and other snowy areas throughout Colorado’s mountains, but the activity did not become a recreational industry until after World War II. In the early 1960s, two Kansans, Dick Eflin and Fred Rice, bought a ranch three miles northeast of Crested Butte and converted it into a ski area, complete with one of the first gondolas in the state. After a slow first few years, business at Crested Butte Mountain Resort picked up in the late 1960s. Today, nearly 350,000 people visit the resort each winter, using its 15 lifts to access 1,547 skiable acres.
Like the immigrant coal miners of the 1880s and 1890s, the influx of ski tourists changed the physical makeup of Crested Butte. Hotels, restaurants, and boutiques arrived to cater to the seasonal visitors, and hippies and so-called “ski bums” made up a new group of residents. Eventually, an entirely new town, named Mt. Crested Butte, developed to the northeast to accommodate luxury condos, vacation homes, rental agencies, and large hotels.
In the 1970s, however, Crested Butte found that it could not totally break with its mining past. In 1976 a large deposit of molybdenum, a steel-hardening metal, was discovered beneath Mt. Emmons, just west of the town. The next year the US Energy Corporation planned to open a mine there, and Crested Butte residents formed the High Country Citizens Alliance (now High Country Citizens Advocates) to oppose it. They did not need to take action, as the price of molybdenum dropped in the 1980s, and the company decided not to open a mine.
But with such a large deposit waiting inside the mountain, residents lived for decades with the threat of a molybdenum mine opening and marring the scenic appeal of Crested Butte. From the late 1970s to the early 2010s, several companies attempted to exploit the deposit, but each time they were thwarted either by lawsuits or a drop in prices. Finally, in the fall of 2016, Freeport-McMoRan, now the world’s only molybdenum producer, signed a preliminary agreement to permanently remove its mining claims on Mt. Emmons and return some 9,000 acres to the US Forest Service. In November 2016, Crested Butte voters overwhelmingly approved Ballot measure 2A, agreeing to let the town borrow $2.1 million in order to permanently prevent mining on Mt. Emmons.
Crested Butte reflects a common economic arc among mountain towns in the American West—it was forged out of an extractive industry that eventually went defunct, then, out of necessity, the town transitioned into an outdoor recreation hub while still maintaining its historic character. Today, Crested Butte is known not only for its winter ski season but also for its summer mountain biking and scenic meadows full of brilliant wildflowers, which have earned it the title of “Wildflower Capital of Colorado.”
Cultural heritage is also an important part of the town’s identity. In 1972 the Town Council passed an ordinance designating the entire town as a historic district. It set forth the creation of the Board of Zoning and Architectural Review (BOZAR). The board also served as the historic preservation commission and established review criteria for preservation and rehabilitation of historic buildings. The town ordinances require architectural review for all new construction, preservation, rehabilitation, and additions to historic buildings. In 1974 part of the town was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the “Town of Crested Butte,” and in 2002 the boundaries of that district were expanded. In 1998 Crested Butte was awarded a State Historical Fund grant to conduct an intensive inventory and survey that included all primary and numerous outbuildings in the town. In 2005, on account of its firm commitment to preservation, the town was awarded the Stephen H. Hart Award from the Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado). Crested Butte was also listed as one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations in 2008.
Within the current historic district are 189 domestic buildings, 217 outbuildings, 44 commercial buildings, and 15 public/social buildings, structures that reflect the evolving economic, social, and political dynamics of Crested Butte from the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries. Horace Tabor’s bank building is among them, as is the original 1883 city hall—known locally as Old Town Hall—the 1883 blacksmith building, an 1883 stone school house, the Forest Queen Hotel, the CF&I office and other company buildings, and several buildings that housed the fraternal lodges of European coal miners.
In 2003 the Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum moved into Tony’s Conoco Building at 331 Elk Avenue, the same building that housed a blacksmith shop when it was first built in 1883. Community members and fans of the museum facilitated the move by raising a combined $1.2 million to purchase, rehabilitate, and install exhibits in this historic building. Today, the museum features permanent and rotating exhibits about the history of the Gunnison Valley, including the Ute people, the railroad, mining, ranching, skiing, and mountain biking.