With a population of nearly 60,000, Grand Junction is the largest city on Colorado’s Western Slope. The city takes its name from its location at the junction of the Gunnison and Colorado (formerly the Grand) Rivers, in the heart of the Grand Valley. Grand Junction lies near some of the state’s iconic natural features, including Colorado National Monument, Grand Mesa, and the Book Cliffs. It is the county seat of Mesa County.
Since its establishment in 1881, the city and its surrounding land have been the site of railroads, factories, orchards, highways, and vineyards. Grand Junction’s rapid early growth was due in large part to the agricultural productivity of surrounding communities, such as Palisade and Fruita, as well as major irrigation projects funded by the federal Bureau of Reclamation. In the mid-twentieth century, the city also served as the processing hub for the Western Slope’s uranium mines. Today, tourism and agriculture are the main drivers of the Grand Junction economy as thousands of outdoor recreation enthusiasts visit the city each year to hike, bike, camp, and raft in the area, as well as tour the Grand Valley’s fruit orchards and wineries.
The climate and landscape of the Grand Valley shaped the history of those who lived there, from Paleo-Indians and Ute people to the earliest white settlers and today’s mixed-ancestry population. The valley has historically hosted large populations of game and is generally warmer than the surrounding plateaus and mountains, making it a prime hunting and wintering area for both humans and animals.
By 1400 or so the Grand Valley became the homeland of the Ute, who remained the dominant group until their removal by the US government in 1880. Although many white Coloradans called for their removal from the state after the Meeker Massacre of 1879, the Utes were initially offered a reservation in the Grand Valley that included the present site of Grand Junction. But Otto Mears, a road builder on the Western Slope who got along well with the Utes and went with a Ute delegation to survey the valley, wanted white settlers to move there instead. Foreseeing a profitable future of road and farm development, Mears convinced the Utes to reject the land as unsuitable for agriculture, and later in 1880 the Utes were forcibly removed to a reservation in Utah. White settlers quickly moved into the valley, eager to take up the Indians’ former lands under the Homestead Act. Perhaps sooner than he expected, Mears’s vision for the area would become reality.
On September 26, 1881, not even a month after the Utes had left the area, Civil War veteran and experienced town builder George W. Crawford—along with William McGinley, J. Clayton Nichols, and four other unidentified men—established the City of Grand Junction. As president of the Grand Junction Town Company, Crawford helped design and build the town’s irrigation ditches, the first of many irrigation projects in the valley. Three ditches were finished in the city’s first year, kick-starting the local farm and ranch economy.
The town developed quickly, as hunters, merchants, and developers followed the ranchers and farmers. By January of 1882, Grand Junction had a church, a general store, several local social groups, a newspaper, and a deal to bring the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG) into town. The Randall House, a community building that was likely the town’s first brick structure, went up on the corner of Fifth and Main Streets later that year along with the two-story Mandel Opera House. The first D&RG train arrived in November 1882. Crawford and other founders laid out plans for parks, schools, and local government. The town’s first schoolteacher was Nannie Blain, who moved from Cañon City in the early 1880s. By 1886, Grand Junction had several hundred residents. The societal structure was similar to Denver at the time, with many more men than women and most residents in their twenties and thirties. A Colorado business directory listed fifty-nine businesses in Grand Junction in 1883.
Farmer Elam Blain harvested the Grand Valley’s first fruit crop in 1884, taking advantage of the area’s mild winters and long growing season. Soon, the valley was home to dozens of apple, pear, apricot, cherry, and peach orchards. By 1900 the fruit industry was booming, using Grand Junction as a shipping hub to send its produce to far-off metropolises such as Denver, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Ranchers, too, shipped their cattle from the city’s railroad depot. Less than two decades after its establishment, Grand Junction had grown to a population of 3,503 residents and 181 businesses.
Early Grand Junction was home to people of many professions and backgrounds. Hunting clubs and women’s groups were among the earliest social organizations, and residents could enjoy opera, plays, and musical performances, such as those by the Grand Junction Coronet Band. Italian railroad workers and their families established a thriving community in the southwest downtown district during the 1880s; one of Little Italy’s most prominent businesses was Stranges Grocery, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.
In 1885 Henry M. Teller, US senator from Colorado, secured federal funds to build an off-reservation Indian boarding school in Grand Junction. The city’s local school expanded into a brick building in 1887, while the region’s first Fruit Fair took place in 1890. That year Barney Kennedy oversaw the installment of a narrow-gauge, horse-drawn trolley rail system that ran along Main Street from First to Seventh Streets. Meanwhile, stagecoaches and passenger trains took people to and from outlying communities such as Palisade, De Beque, and Parachute. One of the most popular early lodging places was the Brunswick Hotel, which was built in 1886 and hosted social and political events in addition to travelers.
Farming and ranching powered Grand Junction’s early boom days, but by the turn of the twentieth century town officials were ready to take their agricultural economy to the next level. In 1899 Charles Mitchell, Charles Boettcher, Charles Cox, and John Campion brought the sugar beet industry to Colorado when they created the Colorado Sugar Manufacturing Company and built the state’s first beet-processing factory in Grand Junction. Cox, a resident of Mesa County, was instrumental in securing the city’s support for the factory.
While the factory was being built, Mesa County Immigration Commissioner A. A. Miller published a promotional booklet designed to entice sugar beet farmers to the area, calling Grand Junction “Queen City of the Western Slope.” Miller assured would-be settlers that an annual beet crop was certain and that the crop would sell at “a fixed price.” Miller had simple, urgent advice for potential immigrants: “Secure your land at once and start the plow.” As Miller and other city officials expected, sugar beets become one of the foundational crops propelling growth in Grand Junction, and the city’s population jumped from 3,503 in 1900 to 7,754 by 1910.
The new sugar beet crop as well as the fruit industry benefited greatly from the Highline Canal, a federally sponsored irrigation project completed in the early twentieth century. In 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt created the Bureau of Reclamation, a federal agency responsible for engineering water allocation projects in the American west. To the relief of Grand Valley farmers, the bureau soon lent its support to the struggling canal project, and the first irrigation water was delivered in 1915. The project would eventually irrigate more than 40,000 acres, expanding the fruit industry and enabling farmers to grow greater variety of crops, including corn and wheat.
A Monumental Boost
As its agricultural economy diversified after the turn of the century, Grand Junction also gained one of the state’s most iconic natural attractions with the creation of Colorado National Monument in 1911. The movement to create the monument began with quirky outdoorsman John Otto, who came to the Grand Valley in 1906 and fell in love with the red-tinged landscape of canyons, mesas, and sandstone spires west of Grand Junction. On his own with two burros, Otto built a network of trails through the scenic country and began lobbying for its preservation as a national park.
Otto soon gained the support of Grand Junction officials and newspapers, and local lobbying efforts culminated with President William Taft’s declaration of the national monument on May 24, 1911. Thanks to Otto’s diligent trail-building, visitors could immediately begin exploring the new monument, and Grand Junction suddenly had a world-class tourism attraction to augment its robust agricultural economy.
Depression and Recovery
Although it was established in Grand Junction, the center of Colorado’s sugar beet industry soon shifted to the Eastern Slope, where vast beet fields watered by the South Platte and Arkansas Rivers outproduced Grand Valley farmers. The price of sugar dropped, and the Grand Junction beet factory was eventually forced to close during the Great Depression, though moisture from surrounding mountains helped insulate the rest of the valley’s agricultural industry from the hardship that many other farming communities faced.
In addition to abundant water, federal relief agencies played a critical role in helping Grand Junction through the Great Depression. In fact, the Resettlement Administration, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, had an office in Grand Junction and brought unemployed families to the area to make a new start in farming. Other New Deal programs provided additional relief. The Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps provided jobs improving local irrigation infrastructure and building Rim Rock Drive, a twenty-three-mile scenic road that cuts through Colorado National Monument.
During and immediately following World War II, the federal government continued to fuel Grand Junction’s economic growth. In 1943 the US War Department bought a fifty-four-acre site in Grand Junction and built a refinery that produced uranium oxide for the government’s nuclear weapons program. After the war, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) coordinated uranium mining in western Colorado through its offices in Grand Junction, and profits from the uranium industry propelled personal incomes in Grand Junction above the national average. In 1950 the Climax Uranium Company converted the old sugar beet factory into a processing plant for uranium ores mined in the Paradox Valley. By 1954 Grand Junction had fifteen uranium companies and dozens of mining and mine supply companies. The Climax plant operated until 1970, when the price of uranium dropped and the industry became unviable.
Education and Tourism
While Grand Junction struggled during the Great Depression of the early 1930s and the uranium bust of the 1970s, the city continued to develop both culturally and economically. Adding to the city’s rich cultural tradition was the establishment of the Lowell School, a junior college, in 1925. In 1937 the school was renamed Mesa College and had expanded its educational offerings. Groups such as the Rotary Club, Women’s Club, Fortnightly Club, and the Lions Club contributed books to the college’s library at Houston Hall, and the campus was also the site of social and political activism. The college added a bachelor’s program in 1974 and master’s program in 1988. Today it enrolls more than 10,500 students as Colorado Mesa University (CMU).
As CMU developed into one of the premier educational institutions on the Western Slope, tourism became one of Grand Junction’s most profitable industries. Using the city as a base, visitors explored Colorado National Monument, Grand Mesa, and other natural attractions. In promotional literature during the 1930s, the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce touted the scenic views of Rim Rock Drive, claimed that the Grand Valley had “more sunshine than in the Florida resort area,” and extolled the beauty of Grand Mesa, a “majestic playground” that “is incomparable in mountain scenery.”
To augment tourism and attract new residents, Grand Junction restructured its downtown area in 1962. Main Street was adjusted to have larger sidewalks, potted plants, and more foliage. The pedestrian mall encouraged people to walk, shop, and spend time downtown. The Grand Junction Commission on Arts and Culture was formed in 1990 to support the area’s artistic resources and cultural activities. Renovations and renewed support for the arts added to the city’s charm, attracting visitors as well as new residents—some 30,000 people called Grand Junction home by 1993.
Today, Grand Junction remains a tourism hotspot, as thousands come to the Grand Valley each year to hike, camp, bike, raft the Colorado River, rock climb, and tour local orchards and wineries. The city’s downtown district includes a variety of shops, restaurants, and cultural events. Tourism revenue reached an all-time high in the city during the summer of 2015, when taxes from lodging receipts totaled $159,366. In addition to the lodging, food, and retail industries, many of Grand Junction’s major employers are in education and healthcare, including Mesa County Valley School District 51, St. Mary’s Hospital, CMU, and the Grand Junction Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Grand Junction’s diverse economy depends as much on the local environment as it does on individual businesses and industries, and that environment faces major challenges from climate change in the coming years. According to local water officials, the Colorado River’s overall flow levels are threatened by rising temperatures, and the water is already over-appropriated to downstream states as a result of decades-old interstate agreements. Institutions such as the Ruth Powell Hutchins Water Center at CMU and initiatives such as the Grand Valley Regional Water Conservation Plan—an agreement between the Grand Junction, Clifton, and Ute water districts—reflect residents’ efforts to maintain their natural resources. Additionally, the Mesa Land Trust, a nonprofit conservation group, helps protect riparian environments along the river by securing conservation easements.
As its population of more than 60,000 prepares to meet the challenges of the future, today’s Grand Junction has certainly lived up to its founders’ vision of a town that would become—and remain—the commercial and cultural hub of the Western Slope.