The city of Montrose lies in the heart of the Uncompahgre Valley on Colorado’s Western Slope, about sixty miles southeast of Grand Junction and sixty-three miles east of the Utah border. With a population of about 20,000, it is the county seat and largest city in Montrose County. Montrose’s main thoroughfares are US Highways 50 and 550, which connect the city to the towns of Olathe and Delta to the north, Gunnison County to the east, and the San Juan Mountains to the south.
Founded along the Uncompahgre River in 1882, Montrose was one of many towns established after the violent removal of the Ute people from western Colorado in the early 1880s. It began as a supply town for mines in the San Juan Mountains, and it quickly became an agricultural hub thanks to the area’s mild climate and fertile valley soil. Today, the city is surrounded by farms irrigated by both the Uncompahgre and the Gunnison Rivers, thanks to an irrigation tunnel completed in 1909. While agriculture remains a central pillar of the community, Montrose also serves as a hub for outdoor recreation and tourism, with Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park just a short drive from town.
For hundreds of years, the site of present-day Montrose was a winter campground for the Ute people, who spent the cold season in the relative warmth of the Uncompahgre Valley; they named the river “Ancapagari” on account of its reddish color. Two distinct bands of Utes, the Tabeguache and Parianuche, lived and hunted in the area of today’s Montrose.
By the 1860s, Ute people across Colorado were feeling pressure from whites who had already advanced deep into the Rocky Mountains in search of precious metals. In exchange for relinquishing the mining districts in the central Rockies, the Treaty of 1868 reserved for the Ute people a large section of land on Colorado’s Western Slope, including today’s Montrose County. However, by the late 1870s, white prospectors illegally occupied Ute lands in western Colorado, drawn by precious metal deposits in what is now Gunnison County and the San Juan Mountains. Poor treatment of Utes on the reservation resulted in the violent Meeker Incident of 1879, after which the US Army force-marched the Parianuche and Tabeguache Utes to a reservation in Utah.
Montrose was founded in January 1882 by Joe Selig, a prospector and one of the original citizens of Gunnison who operated a liquor and cigar shop there in the late 1870s. After a series of discarded names, including Pomona and Dad’s Town, Selig selected “Montrose” after his favorite character from the Walter Scott novel A Legend of Montrose. The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG) was already building a line from Gunnison to the site of Selig’s new town, which was described as “a magnificent farming country” and “the only natural shipping point . . . to the above mining regions” in the San Juan Mountains. By February 1882, Montrose had a post office, and there were already forty houses built, with twenty more under construction.
The railroad arrived that September, spurring the growth of the new town to a frenzied pace. By January 1883, Montrose had a population of more than 700, and by the end of the year it was named county seat of the new Montrose County. Some of the earliest buildings were the Mears House hotel, the Montrose Messenger newspaper, and the Uncompahgre Valley Bank. The town also featured “eleven stores, two forwarding houses, one drug store, six restaurants, two lumber yards, three livery stables, two shoe shops, one watchmaker, three real estate dealers,” and “five blacksmith shops,” as well as “fifteen saloons” and an assortment of other businesses.
Among Montrose’s first retailers were R. C. Diehl, who ran a dry goods business out of the city’s first commercial brick building; J. V. Lathrop, who built a hardware store on Main Street in 1889; and J. C. Frees, who operated Montrose Mercantile. Irrigation ditches were already under construction by this time, and ranchers were grazing large herds in the surrounding meadows.
In 1888 George Smith, Montrose’s first blacksmith, sunk an artesian well dubbed “Iron Mike.” The well became a local curiosity, with its mineral-rich waters said to inspire travelers to return to Montrose. Iron Mike provided water for the city’s first bathhouse, located at the second Belvedere Hotel, built in 1896. By that time, Montrose had grown to a population of around 1,300.
Early Twentieth Century
One of the most important developments in twentieth-century Montrose was the opening of the Gunnison Tunnel, a 5.8-mile irrigation tunnel completed by the US Bureau of Reclamation in 1909. The tunnel brought water from the Gunnison River in the nearby Black Canyon to the Uncompahgre Valley, boosting the region’s agricultural potential and spurring further growth in Montrose. President William Howard Taft was on hand to celebrate the tunnel’s highly anticipated opening.
With agricultural business booming, the prosperous early decades of the twentieth century brought a number of new buildings to downtown Montrose. In 1912, after using a simple wood-frame structure for railroad traffic since its founding, the city successfully petitioned the D&RG to build a new depot at 21 N. Rio Grande Avenue. The vegetable warehouse of J. F. Warren, built in 1915 at 147 N. First Street, exemplified the large number of agricultural storage and shipping facilities put up around the city. Montrose was also home to the Wonder-Weir Mercantile Company, which opened its Main Street doors in 1905 and became the largest wholesale retailer on the Western Slope. For entertainment, residents could head to C. F. Pennington’s pool hall or the Crystal Theater, both of which resided on the same Main Street block from 1912 onward.
The city’s institutions got new homes during this period as well. A new Montrose County Courthouse, the work of Denver architect William N. Bowman, went up in 1923, with the building dedicated to locals who served in World War I (the old county courthouse dated to 1884 and was originally built as a skating rink by Joe Selig). After decades of doing city business in the backrooms of other buildings, Montrose finally built a city hall in 1927; the Art Deco building was the first of its kind in the city and housed the city library for several decades. A new post office building, built in the Renaissance Revival style, followed in 1932, and several years later the federal Works Progress Administration oversaw the completion of a new county jail.
Montrose was also home to a camp of the federal Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s, which was tasked with, among other things, maintaining and enlarging the massive network of irrigation ditches and canals around the city. Thanks in part to the federal projects and the city’s relative insulation from the effects of the Dust Bowl that devastated agricultural communities elsewhere in Colorado, Montrose’s population increased during the years of the Great Depression, reaching 4,764 by 1940.
Although agriculture continued to drive Montrose’s economy after World War II, tourism and outdoor recreation became increasingly important as well. Nearby Black Canyon of the Gunnison, which had been declared a national monument in 1933, attracted visitors, as did the Curecanti National Recreation Area (the result of another Bureau of Reclamation project) after it was established in 1965.
In 1956 the Ute Indian Museum was built in Montrose on land granted to Ute leader Ouray and his wife Chipeta in 1875. Chipeta, who died in 1924, is buried there, and a monument to her husband, one of the most prominent Indigenous leaders of his time, went up two years later. The museum was rebuilt and expanded in 2017.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, Montrose received a number of improvements thanks to city manager Jim Austin, who served in the position from 1971 to 1980. Although Austin occasionally had to overcome what he described as a certain local “orneriness” and “stubbornness,” he was able to add several parks, a bike path, a new industrial park, and senior housing during his tenure. One of his most highly touted accomplishments was the lure of a Russell Stover candy factory to Montrose, which opened in 1973 and operated until the COVID-19 pandemic caused it to close in 2020. By the end of Austin’s tenure, Montrose’s population had grown from around 6,500 in 1970 to 8,722.
In 1988 the city further solidified itself as a recreational destination by adding the Montrose Regional Airport, which is often used by skiers headed to Telluride. In 1999 Black Canyon of the Gunnison became a national park, driving annual visitation to the site to more than 250,000.
Today the city of Montrose remains a prominent agricultural hub, as well as a tourist destination providing accommodations and access to visitors of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the San Juan Mountains, and myriad other outdoor recreation sites nearby.
In addition to tourism-related businesses, the city is home to other industries and initiatives representative of a robust regional economy. One of the largest employers in Montrose today is Montrose Forest Products, a lumber company that provides some 575 jobs. Production of industrial hemp (cannabis) is also a burgeoning industry in the fertile Uncompahgre Valley, with acreage increasing from 4,000 acres in 2018 to 13,000 acres in 2019. The Montrose Urban Renewal Authority, formed in 2016, has attracted numerous businesses to the city’s downtown, winning Downtown Colorado’s 2019 Governor’s Award for Best Urban Renewal Project.
Meanwhile, the Montrose Regional Airport added some $627 million to the local economy between 2013 and 2018. A planned expansion of the airport indicates the city’s continued importance as a regional hub of transportation and tourism.