Named for former president James Garfield, Garfield County is a mountainous county in western Colorado. Covering 2,956 square miles, it is bordered to the north by Rio Blanco County, to the east by Routt and Eagle Counties, to the south by Pitkin and Mesa Counties, and to the west by the state of Utah. Garfield County has a population of 57,298. The county seat is the mountain resort city of Glenwood Springs, located at the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado Rivers. With a population of 9,614, it is also the county’s largest city. Other major towns include Rifle (pop. 9,172), Carbondale (6,427), and New Castle (4,518).
Interstate 70, completed in 1992, follows the Colorado River through picturesque Glenwood Canyon, meeting state route 82 in Glenwood Springs. Route 82 enters the county from the southeast corner, following the Roaring Fork River out of Pitkin County. In addition to the hot springs at Glenwood Springs, Garfield County is known for its remote mountain scenery and its abundant energy resources.
From about the mid-sixteenth century until the late nineteenth, the Garfield County area was inhabited by a band of Utes called the Parianuche, or “Elk People.” The Utes hunted elk, deer, and other mountain game. They also gathered a wide assortment of roots, including the versatile yucca, and wild berries. In the summer, they followed game such as elk and mule deer into the high mountain parks, and in the winter they tracked the game back down to lower elevations. The Parianuche also returned each winter to soak in the hot, mineral-rich pools near present-day Glenwood Springs, a practice believed to revive both body and spirit.
Arrival of Europeans and Anglo-Americans
In 1776 the Spanish friars Silvestre Escalante and Francisco Dominguez were the first Europeans to enter the Garfield County area, searching for a route from Santa Fe to Monterey, California. It took nearly eighty years for the next group of nonnatives to show up; in 1857 US Army captain John B. Marcy and his men sought a direct route from Fort Bridger, Wyoming to the San Luis Valley. In 1860 a group of gold seekers led by Richard Sopris arrived in the Roaring Fork Valley and were apparently the first whites to soak in the hot springs.
The Colorado Gold Rush of 1858-59—the primary impetus for the organization of the Colorado Territory in 1861—had whetted Anglo-American appetites for valuable minerals and sent them scouring the rest of the Rockies in search of the next big strike. Aimed at clearing the Utes from mining areas in the Front Range, the Treaty of 1868 reserved the western third of the territory for the Utes and prevented white settlement there. But the treaty did not prevent white surveying teams, such as Ferdinand V. Hayden’s in 1874, from gathering information on mineral deposits and other natural features on Ute lands.
By 1876 geographic data from the Hayden Survey produced the first accurate maps of the Garfield County area, and a few years later ranchers and miners were staking claims in the Roaring Fork Valley and mountain parks throughout the western Rockies. The Utes, who had relied on the game and other resources in these places as part of their 500-year-old seasonal migration pattern, now found their winter havens occupied by whites. The Utes were pushed closer to a breaking point as their resources dwindled and supplies promised by the US government rarely arrived on time or at all.
The breaking point finally arrived in the summer of 1879, when Utes at the White River Agency in present-day Rio Blanco County killed Indian agent Nathan C. Meeker and his staff after Meeker tried to force the Utes to give up their way of life and become Christian farmers. The Meeker Incident terrified whites all over Colorado and prompted swift retaliation by the US government. By 1882 the US Army forced the remaining Parianuche onto a new reservation in eastern Utah. However, Utes continued to visit the Garfield County area until 1887, when a Ute was allegedly murdered near Rangely, sparking the conflict known as "Colorow's War."
A few months before the Meeker Incident, James M. Landis, a hay-hauling entrepreneur from Leadville, built a log cabin near the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado Rivers. Landis was the first permanent white settler in the valley, but he would not be alone for long. Later in 1879, a group of prospectors had come to investigate rumors of silver carbonate deposits high in the mountains. They built a small settlement, Dotsero, near the mouth of the Colorado River Canyon.
Although they were camped outside the Ute reservation, the men took no chances, building a log fort named Fort Defiance. Two years later, Landis and several others filed for the creation of a 640-acre townsite called Defiance. Although no significant mineral deposits were discovered, the founders were nonetheless convinced that people would swarm to the new town once it was advertised in newspapers. Few came. But that did not mean Coloradans could not be lured to a site by empty claims of mineral riches, as the story of Carbonate, Garfield County’s first seat, would show.
High in the Flat Top Mountains, the same year Defiance was founded, a swindler named “Scar Face” Bill Case (possibly Casa) planted silver ore from Leadville in an abandoned mine shaft. Bill knew that even the slightest whisper about the next big silver strike could whip people into a frenzy, and he was about to bring thousands to the county on a fraudulent rush.
After convincing his naive partners that he had struck a huge silver deposit at a place called Carbonate, Bill went back to Leadville and tricked silver baron Horace Tabor into buying his “claim” for $100,000. Tabor’s purchase of the barren mine set off a bonanza of fraudulent sales, with empty claims sold and then resold for many times their original price. Carbonate sat above the tree line, and deep snow made it inaccessible for most of the year. Nevertheless, thousands of prospectors arrived to turn the high ancient lakebed into a bustling town, complete with shops, saloons, and even a post office.
When Garfield County was finally organized in 1883, the frigid, fraudulent boomtown of Carbonate was named the county seat. Scar Face Bill had already spent his money when Carbonate miners began realizing there was no silver to be found. Tabor had also grown skeptical and sent inspectors to the camp, but by the time the hoax was discovered Bill had already left for Ute lands to the west.
Meanwhile, Isaac Cooper, a Civil War veteran from Glenwood, Iowa, combined assets with some of the original founders of Defiance and moved the struggling town about six miles to the west. Sometime in the early 1880s, Cooper’s wife convinced him to rename the town Glenwood Springs, after their Midwestern home. An exceptionally harsh winter in 1883–84 brought a merciful end to the three-year hoax at Carbonate. Its remaining inhabitants moved down to Glenwood Springs, which was designated the new county seat in November 1883.
Garfield County acquired its current size when its northern half was taken to form Rio Blanco County in 1889.
Carbondale and Rifle
As mining claims were being staked near present-day Aspen during the late 1870s and early 1880s, many white families began moving into the Roaring Fork Valley to farm and supply the miners farther south. Raising stock or growing potatoes, twenty of these families settled in southeastern Garfield County and formed the basis for the town of Carbondale—named after Carbondale, Pennsylvania—and incorporated in 1888. Shortly after the town incorporated, Richard Sopris prospected the surrounding land for precious metals but found nothing; he did manage to leave his mark on the community as the namesake of Mt. Sopris, Carbondale’s most prominent landmark.
In 1887 the Denver & Rio Grande was the first of several railroad lines to pass through Carbondale, and the town hosted as many as 500 railroad workers in its early years. Carbondale has a prominent ranching history and is still known for raising quality stock today. Events such as the Carbondale Wild West Rodeo, held every Thursday between June and late August, reflect the town’s strong ranching heritage.
The town of Rifle, located west of Glenwood Springs at the confluence of Rifle Creek and the Colorado River, was also founded in 1882. The town incorporated in 1905. It developed as a hub for farming and ranching, sustained by the arrival of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in 1890.
Hot Springs and Tourism
Along with ranching, tourism developed as another supporting leg of the Garfield County economy by the late nineteenth century. Used by the Utes for centuries, the hot, mineral-rich pools for which Glenwood Springs was named attracted the attention of whites beginning in 1860. Walter Devereux, a well-connected mining engineer who worked with the wealthy Jerome B. Wheeler in Aspen, secured most of the capital for Glenwood Springs’ development in the 1880s. He had the first bathhouse and vapor cave built around the Yampa Spring in 1886. Devereux also invested in the Colorado Midland Railroad, which he and many others hoped would make Glenwood Springs into a resort destination. In October 1887, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad beat the Colorado Midland to Glenwood Springs, but the Colorado Midland followed in December. The railroads offered discounted rates to and from the mining camps scattered around Glenwood Springs and also carried visitors to Devereux’s massive bathhouse on the hot springs, completed in 1890.
The bathhouse was an expensive, luxuriant building of red sandstone designed by Austrian architect Theodore Von Rosenberg. It cost more than $100,000 and featured two parlors, a doctor’s office, and thirty bathing rooms for men and a dozen for women. Its floors were made of imported mosaic tiles. A casino, requiring all its patrons to be dressed to the nines, occupied the second story. When wealthy patrons complained about sharing the large pool with other people, Devereux had a separate facility built. The wooden pool house offered a soak in the springs for half the price at the stone bathhouse.
After the spa facilities were complete, Devereux began construction on a huge hotel to accommodate spa guests. He modeled his Hotel Colorado after a sixteenth-century Italian mansion, and when completed in 1893 it was at the pinnacle of luxury in the state. In the ensuing decades the hotel and spa complex would draw thousands of the nation’s wealthiest health seekers to Glenwood Springs.
In addition to ranching, agriculture, and tourism, Garfield County has a long history of extractive energy industries, beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing through the present. Although all have undergone periods of boom and bust, the coal, oil, and natural gas industries have nonetheless provided jobs, infrastructure, and other crucial economic development for Garfield County.
By the 1880s, it was clear that Garfield County’s ancient rock beds did not hold the silver that would make it as rich as some places nearby, such as Aspen. But the county did possess large deposits of coal, the fuel that kept the silver mines running at Aspen and elsewhere. As early as 1881, coal-mining camps sprang up in Coal Basin, Spring Gulch, and Marion. By 1896 ten coal mines employed 457 workers across the county. The town of Carbondale soon became the coal-shipping hub of the Roaring Fork Valley. Immigrants from Sweden, Austria, Italy, and Greece worked in most of the Garfield County mines, and some mines, such as the South Canyon mine, employed black miners. The fact that most workers were minorities or foreigners and most mine owners and bosses were native-born whites was a source of tension from the start.
In their daily forays into the dark mine shafts, coal miners braved a slew of dangers, including gas leaks, avalanches, explosions, and collapses. Large mining companies like Colorado Fuel & Iron (CF&I) made workers buy their own tools and paid them by the tonnage, meaning they had more incentive to spend their time mining instead of making their workspaces safer. Wages were paltry compared to what men risked to earn them, and they were often not issued in cash but in scrips. These pieces of paper could be traded for food and supplies at company-owned stores, making workers even more dependent on the company to survive.
But the fact that the state’s entire economy depended upon their work also gave coal miners a tremendous amount of leverage. The scant pay and daily dangers endured by miners fostered a kind of subterranean brotherhood, one that helped them organize strikes to demand safer mines and fairer pay. By the 1890s, many miners joined nationwide unions like the United Mine Workers.
In 1893 near New Castle, missed paydays and safety concerns led to a strike at the Vulcan Mine. It ended after CF&I threatened to permanently close the mine, and workers were forced to return to work for even lower wages than before. The next year, the company used the same tactics to beat another New Castle strike, this one a five-month holdout at Consolidated Mine.
The failure of strikes allowed unsafe mining operations to continue, leading to mine disasters. In 1897 the Sunlight Mine exploded, killing a dozen workers. A 1901 explosion at the Spring Gulch Mine killed six. A raging fire destroyed the Consolidated Mine in 1899, although no one was hurt. Perhaps no other mine better encapsulated the vicious cycle of the mining industry than the Vulcan Mine. The mine often filled with flammable methane gas, and it exploded three times between 1896 and 1918, killing a total of eighty-five workers. After the second explosion, in which eight of the thirty-three killed were men who survived the first blast, the state coal mine inspector found the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company guilty of negligence. However, the office also found the company’s $75 offer to families of the victims to be sufficient, and imposed no harsher penalties.
Coal mines in Garfield County continued to operate until the end of the twentieth century. During that time, workers won improvements in pay and safety, and major disasters became less frequent. But the hazardous nature of the industry meant that it could never fully escape tragedy: major explosions or fires, most of them deadly, occurred in 1965, 1981, and 1990.
Oil Shale Development
In response to the energy crisis of the early 1970s, energy companies and the federal government began development of large deposits of oil shale in western Garfield County. When heated, oil shale produces crude oil at a rate of about twenty-five barrels per ton. The industry surrounding this new fuel source caused Garfield County’s population, which had grown slowly but steadily for the past few decades, to increase from 14,281 in 1970 to 22,514 in 1980. To accommodate the influx of oil workers, Exxon built a company town north of Parachute called Battlement Mesa in 1975.
But the boom was not to last—development of oil shale proved too costly to sustain, and by 1982 Exxon was the last company to pull out of the Garfield County shale project, taking with it a payroll of about $85 million. Two thousand people immediately left the area, and the county economy fell back on its traditional pillars of ranching, agriculture, and tourism.
Today, Garfield County is home to a burgeoning, if controversial, natural gas industry. The county’s more than 8,000 natural gas wells provide energy to homes and businesses across the region and support the Garfield County economy, but they have also been shown to pose a threat to public health and the local environment.
In 2000 gas companies began using hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," a process that uses a highly pressurized mix of water and chemicals to crack subterranean rock and release deposits of natural gas, to tap Garfield County’s natural gas reserves. By 2007 thousands of wells were drilled. On the heels of the oil shale pullout, many welcomed the jobs and money that the gas companies brought. But county commissioner Tresi Houpt and others were concerned about potential environmental and community impacts, and they funded a study to analyze the industry’s impact.
In 2008 public health specialist Jim Rada analyzed air samples from homes just beyond the mandated 150-foot radius from drilling rigs. He found large amounts of chemicals, including xylenes, which can irritate eyes and lungs, and benzene, a known carcinogen. Analysis of data collected by Rada found that in addition to trucks and rigs belching out diesel fumes, gas wells and storage tanks leaked methane and benzene. Other tests showed that drilling operations emitted a mixture of smog-creating chemicals. It was one of the first studies that analyzed the public health effects of fracking, and a follow-up investigation by the Colorado School of Public Health confirmed that drilling produced increased risks of cancer, headaches, and lung problems in the local population. Despite this study, regulators from the industry and Environmental Protection Agency noted that emission levels met EPA standards.
David Ludlam, executive director for the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, questioned the test data and said those who claimed that fracking produced health risks were jumping to conclusions. For a brief period after 2009, the industry blocked subsequent local studies and refused to work with the Colorado School of Public Health. But in 2010 and 2011, other national studies on fracking found that the process uses up to 750 different chemicals, and endocrinologist Susan Nagel began renewed studies on water contamination in Garfield County. The results of the first phase of Nagel’s research were released in March 2014, and suggested a link between drilling spills and higher concentrations of hormone-disrupting chemicals nearby. Both Nagel’s research and drilling are ongoing in Garfield County today.
South Canyon Fire
Like its extractive energy industries, Garfield County’s large tracts of open space have proven to be both a boon and a hazard for county residents. Tourists and residents alike enjoy breathtaking views of Glenwood Canyon and hikes to wondrous sites such as Hanging Lake, but the splendid scenery can also be deadly, as illustrated by the South Canyon Fire in July 1994.
On July 2, in the middle of an especially dry summer, a lightning strike ignited a fire on Storm King Mountain. By July 6, fifty firefighters were battling the blaze, their jobs made difficult by dry and windy conditions. On the afternoon of the next day, the wind picked up and changed direction, blowing the fire into an inferno that claimed the lives of fourteen firefighters (thirty-six made it to safety). The South Canyon Fire changed the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) approach to firefighting, forcing it to more carefully consider orders to send in fire crews. After the fire, the BLM built a memorial trail on the mountain to honor the sacrifices of the “Storm King 14,” as the deceased firefighters were called. In 2014 Glenwood Springs held a memorial service to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of their sacrifice.