Fremont County is located in south-central Colorado, bordered by Park and Teller Counties to the north, El Paso County to the east, Pueblo County to the southeast, Custer County to the south, and Saguache and Chaffee Counties to the north. Fremont County comprises 1,533 square miles with an estimated population of 46,502. The county seat and largest city is Cañon City, located at the eastern mouth of the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas River.
Fremont County was established in 1859 and named after western explorer and politician John C. Frémont. While it shares with other Colorado counties a history of Native American habitation, agriculture, mining, and railroads, Fremont County’s history of oil extraction and correctional facilities has uniquely shaped its past and present.
The first dinosaur bone discovered in Colorado was near Cañon City in late 1869 or early 1870. Over the next decade, scientists discovered many more dinosaur bones. In the 1880s Yale paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh, with the help of Cañon City resident Marshall P. Felch, discovered and named the Stegosaurus stenops, known commonly today as simply Stegosaurus. Since then many other paleontological discoveries of the Late Jurassic period (160 to 145 million years ago) have been made at the Garden Park Fossil Area near Cañon City.
Archaeological study has found that humans inhabited Colorado as early as 11,000 years ago. Ancient indigenous groups inhabited the plains and mountains regions throughout the state but largely abandoned the whole of Colorado by the mid-1400s. The Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche, Blackfoot, and Lakota (Sioux) tribes all inhabited the areas surrounding Fremont County at certain points in time, but the Ute remained the dominant tribe in the region for many centuries and are the oldest residents of Colorado, likely arriving sometime around 1500.
Of the seven Ute bands, the Muache band, occupied the area east of the Rocky Mountains, their territory extending from Denver to Trinidad and down to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Today the Muache and Capote bands comprise the federally recognized Southern Ute tribe, based in Ignacio, Colorado.
Early Spanish expeditions in the 1500s and 1600s, such as the party of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, may have crossed into parts of southern Colorado, but the Spanish could not find gold or silver and thus lost interest in the area for the next century. In 1803 the eastern part of Colorado became a US territory through the Louisiana Purchase, while the western part of the state was still under Spanish control. In 1806 Zebulon Montgomery Pike set out on a federally commissioned expedition to explore the region. He and his party led a grueling trek down the Arkansas River and camped at present-day Cañon City near the Royal Gorge.
Tasked with conducting geographical survey of parts of the rural West, John C. Frémont first traveled through the Fremont County region in 1843, when he traveled up the Arkansas River to what is now Leadville. Between 1843 and 1852, Frémont conducted five expeditions that led him through land that would become Fremont County. He was supported by his guide, Kit Carson, whom Frémont popularized through accounts of their adventures. Frémont’s reports portrayed Carson as a rugged mountain man, and his reputation grew throughout the country. Following his decade of expeditions, Frémont went on to serve as a politician and presidential candidate in the 1856 election.
In the decades before the respective gold and silver rushes, Cañon City was an important supply center on the wagon roads leading to mountain mining camps.
Prior to establishment of the Colorado Territory, the Fremont County area was part of the Kansas Territory. In 1861, the Colorado Territory was established with seventeen original counties, including Fremont County. The county originally comprised parts of modern-day Huerfano and Custer Counties. The last change made to the Fremont County borders was in 1899, when Teller County was established and took part of northern Fremont County. In 1862 Cañon City was named the county seat.
Trade and agriculture were the county’s primary industries until the 1860s, when the oil industry propelled the economy, and later during the 1870s and 1880s, when coal mining and railroads changed the face of the county. The names of several Fremont County communities, such as Coal Creek and Coaldale, reflect the role of the coal industry in the county’s development.
The Oil Spring site outside of Florence was the location of the first commercial production of oil in Colorado and the first oil well drilled in the state. Prospecting at the site led to the development of Colorado’s first oil company, G. Bowen & Co., in 1860, though it was never a commercial operation. The Colorado Oil Company began drilling its first oil well in 1862, but production never advanced beyond one to three barrels per day, because oil at depth was not found. Oil production stalled at Oil Spring, but in 1881 promoter and businessman Alexander M. Cassiday and oil driller Isaac Canfield finally struck deep oil. The successful find led to the development of the Florence Oil Field, which was in operation until the 1960s.
Coal and CF&I
Jesse Frazier discovered the first coal deposits in Fremont County near then-unincorporated Coal Creek in 1860. Frazier later sold his claim to Joseph T. Musser, who ran a small mining operation for just under a decade before selling it to the Colorado Coal Company, the predecessor of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I). Mining would remain relatively small scale until the 1870s, when the introduction of the railroad changed the region’s industrial capabilities. In 1872, enticed by the potential of the region’s burgeoning coal industry, General William Jackson Palmer extended his Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG) to Coal Creek. In 1874 the line was completed through Cañon City, which served as the western terminus of the D&RG until the end of the Royal Gorge Railroad War.
In the 1870s and 1880s other coal communities sprang up throughout the county, including Rockvale, Bear Gulch, Chandler, and later Prospect Heights. At one time there were nearly seventy coal mines in Fremont County, most of which were owned and operated by CF&I, which went on to dominate Colorado’s coal and mining industries. In 1906, it was estimated that 10 percent of Coloradans depended on the company for employment.
The early 1900s saw massive labor conflicts involving CF&I throughout Colorado, including a gold miners’ strike in Cripple Creek in 1903–4 and the Colorado Coalfield War in the 1910s.
Royal Gorge Railroad War
Once called the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River, the Royal Gorge is the county’s most notable natural feature, drawing tribal and European inhabitants for centuries. Scientists concur that the gorge is the result of erosion alone. The Royal Gorge is approximately ten miles long with granite walls 1,000 feet high. The Arkansas River, one of the longest in the country, runs through the gorge.
In 1877, when silver was discovered in what would become Leadville, the D&RG in Cañon City and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway in Pueblo began an aggressive competition to extend a rail line to Leadville through the narrow Royal Gorge, which had space for only one rail line. In 1879, after gunfights between the two railroad crews and a legal battle that ended at the US Supreme Court, the D&RG was granted the primary right to build a line through the gorge. The D&RG line through the gorge allowed for increased transportation between cities in Fremont County and the mining camps in the mountains.
Fremont County has a long history with penitentiaries. On January 7, 1868, the Colorado Territorial Legislature established the Colorado Territorial Prison in Cañon City, which officially opened June 1, 1871. The prison was generally well received by the community, as lawlessness in the rural western region had become violent and difficult to manage. After Colorado became a state in 1876, the facility was given to the state and renamed Colorado State Prison. Today it’s known as the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility or by its nickname, “Old Max.” The facility has housed many notorious criminals, including the cannibal Alferd Packard.
Throughout the twentieth century the county became home to more than a dozen state and federal correctional facilities at every level of security. The Federal Correctional Complex in Florence has four separate prison facilities within it, including the Prison Camp, the Federal Correctional Institution, the United States Penitentiary, and the Administrative Maximum Penitentiary, also known as “Super Max” or ADX. ADX is the only exclusively supermaximum security facility in the nation, housing the most dangerous convicts in the federal prison system.
In addition, Fremont County is the site of nine state correctional facilities, seven of which are within the East Cañon Correctional Complex just outside Cañon City. These include Skyline Correctional Center, Four Mile Correctional Center, Pre-Release Center, Arrowhead Correctional Center, Fremont Correctional Facility, Centennial Correctional Facility, and the Colorado State Penitentiary, which houses the state’s death row and execution chamber. The other two are the aforementioned Colorado State Prison and the Colorado Women’s Correctional Facility, located on the eastern edge of Cañon City. The original Colorado Women’s Prison operated from 1935 to 1968, but no longer houses inmates and is now the site of the Colorado Territorial Prison Museum.
Today, Fremont County is the home of thirteen correctional facilities. More than half the jobs in the county stem from the prison industry, and 38 percent of the populations of Cañon City and Florence are inmates.
An extensive irrigation system built in the 1860s led to a flourishing agricultural industry that carried on into the twentieth century as orchards and dairy operations grew.
Tourism also flourished as an industry in the twentieth century. The Royal Gorge had always attracted visitors, but the Royal Gorge Bridge, the United States’ highest suspension bridge, has brought thousands of visitors per year since its construction in 1929. The bridge was built to accommodate automobile travel but is used primarily as a pedestrian bridge.
In the 1920s local Cañon City resident and Baptist reverend Fred Arnold was appointed the Grand Dragon of the Colorado Realm of the Ku Klux Klan. It is believed that the Klan’s rise in the Cañon City area grew out of anti-Catholic sentiment in response to the Holy Cross Abbey’s intent to build a church in Cañon City. At the time Colorado had the largest, most influential Knights of the Klan organization west of the Mississippi River. The Klan held political power in the region from 1924 to 1928, not only controlling the Cañon City government but also influencing Fremont County and the state government in Denver. The organization’s political control of Fremont County gradually subsided following the sudden death of Arnold in 1928.
In the 1970s, Cañon City and other parts of Fremont County became popular destinations for film productions, particularly westerns. The Cowboys, starring John Wayne; The Duchess and the Dirtywater Fox, starring Goldie Hawn and George Segal; and How the West Was Won, starring James Arness and Bruce Boxleitner, were filmed in the surrounding area.
Today the Fremont County economy thrives on its correctional industry as well as on tourism. The Royal Gorge alone draws more than 200,000 annual visitors to the region. Cañon City and Florence maintain strong local historic preservation programs that have revitalized historic buildings in the communities to attract businesses and tourists.