Custer County covers nearly 739 square miles in south central Colorado, spanning the Wet Mountain Valley between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the west and the Wet Mountains in the east. It is bordered by Fremont County to the north, Pueblo County to the east, Huerfano County to the south, and Saguache County to the west.
As of 2015, Custer County has a population of 4,445. The county seat is Westcliffe, located in the heart of the Wet Mountain Valley at the junction of State Highways 69 and 96. The town of Silver Cliff lies just to the east along Highway 96. Farther east, in the Wet Mountains, are the ghost towns of Querida and Rosita, as well as the small communities of Greenwood and Wetmore along Hardscrabble Creek. The rest of the county is dotted with nearly 200 farms and ranches. Silver West Airport lies along Highway 69 south of Westcliffe.
Custer County was established in 1877 and named after Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana (1876). Cattle ranching has been the primary industry in the county since the decline of mining in the late nineteenth century.
Native Americans sporadically inhabited the area that would become Custer County for at least 10,000 years prior to the arrival of Europeans. Ute people dominated much of Colorado, including the Wet Mountain Valley east of the Sangre de Cristos, by the sixteenth century. As nomadic hunter-gatherers, the Utes took advantage of the mild summers of southern Colorado to hunt game and forage for edible plants throughout the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
The Comanche Empire extended into the Wet Mountain Valley in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but when its boundaries moved farther south, the Utes regained control of the region. Several other peoples, including the Arapaho, Pawnee, and Apache, also may have frequented the surrounding mountains and plains.
In 1779 Spanish forces under Juan Bautista de Anza defeated the Comanche leader Cuerno Verde near Greenhorn Peak, just south of Custer County. French and American fur trappers frequented the region in the early to mid-nineteenth century in search of valuable pelts. The valleys of the Sangre de Cristo Range proved to be an important crossroads for the powers vying for control of the future American Southwest. On his 1806 excursion to explore the southern portion of the Louisiana Purchase, Zebulon Pike followed Grape Creek, a tributary of the Arkansas River, into the Wet Mountain Valley; later that year, on the west side of the Sangre de Cristos, the Spanish arrested Pike and his men for trespassing. Other Europeans explored, hunted, and trapped in the area throughout the nineteenth century, including Kit Carson and John C. Frémont.
Mining and Settlement
Following the Colorado Gold Rush (1858–59), prospectors fanned out across Colorado’s mountains in search of the next big strike. Several prospectors found promising ore near Grape Creek and Hardscrabble Canyon in 1863. Other prospectors found silver and lead ore in the Rosita Hills in 1872, but these first developments floundered and were soon abandoned.
In 1874, however, prospectors found copper and silver ores south of present-day Rosita in what would be called the Humboldt-Pocahontas Vein. The find produced over $900,000 in precious metals in its first fifteen years and drew miners to Rosita, a mining camp that boomed to a population of more than 1,200 by 1875. But that year proved to be the beginning of the end for Rosita, as notorious robber Walter C. Sheridan relieved the local bank of nearly all its funds. A fire in 1881, the folding of Rosita Bank, and the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad’s (D&RG) decision to bypass the town effectively rendered Rosita a ghost town.
Rosita was not the only mining venture in Custer County, however. In 1877 the ex-sailor-turned-prospector Edmund C. Bassick discovered gold and silver two miles north of Rosita and founded the Bassick Mine. Lead was also found in large quantities nearby; the Terrible Mine on Oak Creek produced nearly $750,000 in lead ore. The town of Querida was established in the late 1870s to supply local mines and had nearly 500 residents by the early 1880s. The Bassick produced nearly $2 million in gold and silver by 1885, when the mine closed due to rising labor tensions and falling ore production. Querida endured into the early twentieth century, when local mining experienced a brief revival. But when mining tailed off again, it became a ghost town.
Although some Hispano shepherds settled in the Wet Mountain Valley in the mid-nineteenth century, American farmers, cattle ranchers, and miners soon became the majority of the population. In 1869 Elisha P. Horn, John Taylor, Frank and George Kennicott, and William Vorhis settled different sites in the valley. Frank Kennicott built one of the region’s only two-story log cabins, a structure that endures today. Another pair of homesteading brothers, Edwin and Elton Beckwith, established the Beckwith Ranch north of present-day Westcliffe in 1870. Despite its name, the Wet Mountain Valley is fairly dry, and these first settlers had to dig irrigation ditches in order to plant crops and raise livestock. Locals traded with other growing settlements, including Bent’s Old Fort farther down the Arkansas River.
More Americans were drawn to the area when the Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged individual families to settle the American West. Though many farmers found success with that program, other communities were not so successful. In 1870, for instance, Carl Wulsten led a group of German factory workers and their families from Chicago to the Wet Mountain Valley. They settled at Colfax, fifteen miles west of Westcliffe, but a lack of farming experience and property issues doomed the town, and it was promptly abandoned. Some of the Germans found work in the nearby mines.
On the eastern side of the Wet Mountains, another group of Illinoisans managed to establish a more permanent community. In 1870 twenty-five wagons from Spring Garden, Illinois, arrived at the spot where Hardscrabble Creek exited the mountains on its way to the Arkansas. There they established the settlement of Hammil, which is now Wetmore. The community gained a post office in 1879, a building that still stands today. In 1880 government surveyor Billy Wetmore came to the area and offered settlers pieces of his land on the condition that the town be named after him, giving rise to the present community of Wetmore.
In 1870 Edwin Beckwith brought 1,500 cattle from Texas to begin ranching in the area; his herd had increased to 13,000 by 1880, and Beckwith was elected state senator. Cattle ranching took hold in the county, but it would not become the dominant activity until the end of the mining era.
Possibly the most influential find in Custer County came in 1878, when prospectors found high-yield silver ore at a site appropriately named Silver Cliff. They opened lucrative mines, including the Bull Domingo, the King of the Valley, and the Lady Franklin. The town of Silver Cliff was founded near the mines and soon became the local hub for mining business. At its 1880 peak, the town hosted fourteen stamp mills and smelters and a population of 5,000; residents even campaigned to make Silver Cliff the capital of Colorado. They did not secure that title, but the region was populous enough to warrant its own county: Custer County was officially carved out of the southern portion of Fremont County in 1877 and Silver Cliff was later incorporated in 1879.
By 1884 Custer County mines produced nearly $5 million in silver and other metals, but production dropped sharply thereafter. Mining in Silver Cliff dwindled in 1885, and the mines operated intermittently afterward. The Custer County population dropped from more than 8,000 in 1880 to fewer than 3,000 by 1890. Then, in the 1890s, new cyanide-leaching processes enhanced miners’ ability to extract gold bound to other minerals, which briefly renewed interest in county mines. Payouts following the initial boom were modest, however; annual production of gold and silver rarely surpassed $40,000 after 1890, and the county population continued to drop, tallying 1,947 by 1910.
The D&RG completed its narrow-gauge line up Grape Creek to local iron mines and the Wet Mountain Valley by 1881, but repeated washouts prompted the line’s abandonment by the end of the decade. The area lacked a proper railway system until the D&RG built a standard-gauge line to Westcliffe in 1900–1, stopping a mile short of Silver Cliff. A drop in silver prices during the Panic of 1893 contributed to the decline of Silver Cliff’s mining industry, and residents soon either left the area or moved to nearby Westcliffe, which became the county seat in 1929. As mines closed, locals began to turn to agriculture.
Return to Farming and Ranching
Once limited to small-time farming and ranching operations that supported the mining districts, agriculture in Custer County greatly expanded as the turn of the century approached. During the 1890s, Custer County received state support to expand irrigation systems to combat dry conditions. The Custer County Reservoir, completed in 1892, supplied hay farmers with crucial moisture. These measures were the beginning of a unified water policy in the state of Colorado. Later, the completion of the DeWeese Reservoir in 1902 augmented the county’s agricultural water supply.
Increased global demand during World War I also helped local agriculture, which brought a final wave of homesteaders to the marginal lands around the Arkansas River and the Wet Mountain Valley. Among them was the Mingus Homestead, a small ranch in the Wet Mountains established by Pueblo resident Allan Mingus in 1913. The Custer County population rebounded during this period, reaching 2,172 by 1920. Dryland farms growing red wheat became the dominant feature of the county landscape.
A little more than a decade later, however, dry conditions coupled with overcultivation led to the environmental catastrophe known as the Dust Bowl. Even though Custer County’s population remained steady, it suffered greatly during the 1920s and 1930s on account of declining commodity prices after World War I and the Great Depression of the 1930s. New Deal projects provided some relief, but it took renewed demand for farm products during World War II to revive the county’s agricultural industry. Since then, cattle ranching and tourism have become the main economic drivers in Custer County.
Today, 212,500 acres—about 75 percent of the county’s land—are used for agriculture, and ranchers raise more than 9,000 cattle and calves. With the expansion of automobile ownership and highways in the early decades of the twentieth century, tourists also began visiting Custer County, a trend that continues today.
Today, the county remains primarily rural, with just over a quarter of its citizens residing in Westcliffe and Silver Cliff. Outdoor recreation opportunities abound in Custer County, which contains around 189,000 acres of public land, including the Greenhorn Mountain Wilderness Area, the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area, and the San Isabel National Forest. Visitors enjoy hiking, rock climbing, camping, hunting, fishing, bird watching, and other activities. Custer County is home to a diverse cast of wildlife, including seventy-three species of birds and thirty-eight species of mammals, from eagles and falcons to elk and bighorn sheep.
The county also attracts tourists each summer with the High Mountain Hay Fever Bluegrass Festival in Westcliffe, the county fair and rodeo, and a classic car show. Custer County provides a serene destination for Coloradans looking to escape the busy and rapidly developing Front Range