Montrose County covers 2,243 square miles in western Colorado. Named for its seat, Montrose, the county is bordered to the north by Mesa and Delta Counties, to the east by Gunnison County, to the south by Ouray and San Miguel Counties, and to the west by the state of Utah.
The county has a population of 41,276. The Uncompahgre Plateau divides Montrose County into northeastern and southwestern segments. Montrose, with a population of 19,132, is located along the Uncompahgre River in the northeastern segment. Several miles downstream on the Uncompahgre lies the community of Olathe (pop. 1,573). The two towns are connected by US Route 50, which cuts through a large corridor of heavily irrigated farmland along the Uncompahgre as it flows north into Delta County. Northeast of Montrose, the Gunnison River flows through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, an area managed by the National Park Service.
The central part of the county is managed by the US Forest Service as the Uncompahgre National Forest. In the county’s southwestern segment, the town of Naturita (pop. 635) is situated off State Route 141 along the San Miguel River. The town of Nucla (pop. 734), once a hub for uranium mining, lies a few miles north of Naturita. Route 141 follows the Dolores River as it flows northwest from Naturita into Mesa County. Montrose County’s first Anglo-American communities developed in the early 1880s, after the Ute people were forced from the area following the Meeker Incident of 1879. Agriculture has long been the driver of the county economy, spurred by irrigation projects such as the Gunnison Tunnel, completed in 1909.
By about 1500 the Montrose County area was home to Paiute and Ute people. The Paiute ranged into the area from southern Utah, while three distinct bands of Utes, including the Parianuche, Tabeguache, and Weeminuche, occupied the area on a seasonal basis.
The Utes were nomadic hunters who tracked elk, deer, buffalo, and other game into the high country during the summer and spent the winter in sheltered areas along rivers. The Parianuche, for instance, wintered in the Uncompahgre River valley between present-day Montrose and Grand Junction. In addition to hunting, the Utes gathered a wide assortment of roots and wild berries from the landscape.
By the early seventeenth century, the northern frontier of New Spain pressed up against Ute lands in southwestern Colorado. The Utes’ relationship with the Spaniards was one of alternate raiding and trading, although the Spaniards rarely made it as far north as present-day Montrose County.
Official Spanish exploration of the Montrose County area began with the expedition of Juan de Rivera in 1765. Rivera’s mission was to have Indigenous people lead him to a crossing of the Colorado River and investigate rumors of silver deposits in the mountains.
In July 1765, Rivera’s expedition reached the Dolores River in present-day Montezuma County. Following a treacherous passage through Dolores Canyon, the expedition proceeded to present-day Naturita, where Rivera and his men camped with Tabeguache Utes. Rivera eventually crossed the Gunnison River west of present-day Delta and then headed south along the Uncompahgre, passing present-day Montrose and reaching present-day Colona before heading back to Santa Fé.
Rivera’s expedition carved out a route for future traders and explorers, such as the friars Silvestre Escalante and Francisco Dominguez. In July 1776 the friars were dispatched to find an overland passage from Santa Fé to Monterey, California. They followed Rivera’s old route through the Uncompahgre Valley, reaching the Gunnison River near present-day Delta. Dominguez and Escalante continued into Utah, where a punishing October blizzard forced them to head back to Santa Fé.
The Spanish Era of Montrose County’s history ended when Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821. The area then came under American control in 1848 after the Mexican-American War.
In 1853 John Williams Gunnison from the US Corps of Topographical Engineers became the first white American to enter the Montrose County area, surveying the Gunnison River along Black Canyon and the site of present-day Montrose. Gunnison’s expedition was one of several unsuccessful federal parties dispatched to find railroad routes through the Rockies.
In 1868 the Ute people were granted a reservation of some 16 million acres on Colorado’s Western Slope in exchange for relinquishing the Front Range and its prosperous mines to the United States. Whites were forbidden from prospecting or squatting on Ute lands, and Indian agencies were set up at various places throughout the reservation. While one purpose of the agencies was to serve as distribution centers for annuities—money and supplies—promised to the Utes in treaties, they also served the purpose of increasing the Utes’ dependence on the government, making them more vulnerable to further land grabs.
In 1879 Utes at the White River Agency in present-day Rio Blanco County revolted against Indian Agent Nathan Meeker, who had tried to force the Utes to abandon their old ways of life and become Christian farmers. Meeker and ten others were killed in the attack, which terrified whites all over Colorado and prompted calls for the Utes’ removal. In a new agreement in 1880, the Utes near the White River Agency, as well as the Tabeguache and Parianuche, were forced to leave their lands in Colorado and move to a reservation in Utah.
By 1881 most Utes were forced out of present-day Montrose County, and whites were fast on their heels. They set up small agricultural communities on the San Miguel River at Naturita in 1881, on the Parianuches’ former wintering grounds at Montrose and Olathe in 1882, in the Paradox Valley at Bedrock in 1883, and on Wright’s Mesa in the southern part of the county around the same time. In 1882 the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad reached the tent town of Cimarron, east of Montrose, and the town quickly developed into an important cattle shipping hub. Montrose County was established in 1883, carved from western Gunnison County. The Redvale area on Wright’s Mesa was settled by the 1890s, and the town was established in 1907.
After 1881 some Utes continued to range into Montrose County to hunt, and their interactions with white immigrants ranged from violence to trade. On Wright’s Mesa, for instance, the Utes burned a cabin on land owned by Edwin Joseph in 1884. In Bedrock, however, a hotel proprietor known as Mrs. Johnson regularly welcomed and fed Ute hunting parties, and they repaid her hospitality with deliveries of venison.
Of all these early settlements, Montrose would prove to be the largest and most significant on account of its proximity to mining camps in the San Juans, farms and ranches in the Uncompahgre Valley, and its early road and rail connections. The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad arrived in September 1882, and the fledgling town developed into a hub for supplies shipped by rail to mines in Ouray County and Telluride. In July 1882, there were already 125 houses in Montrose, and by 1890 the town supported a population of 1,330. Successful early businesses included Dave Wood’s Magnolia Freight Lines and Buddecke & Diehl, a miners’ outfitting shop.
Agriculture quickly became the most lucrative venture in Montrose County. Cattle ranching was the main pursuit around Montrose and Olathe, along with the raising of alfalfa and other crops thanks to several ditches that were dug in the 1880s. Using the route of today’s Highway 90, ranchers in Naturita drove their cattle over the Uncompahgre Plateau to the railhead in Montrose.
It soon became apparent that the growing number of farms in the fertile Uncompahgre Valley threatened to overtax the waters of the Uncompahgre, which were recharged each year by seasonal runoff and only a small amount of rainfall. Residents in the Montrose area had considered drawing additional water from the Gunnison River since the 1880s, but the steep walls of the Black Canyon presented a difficult obstacle.
In 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Newlands Act, the first program to provide federal funds for irrigation in the arid American West. A delegation from Montrose successfully pitched the Gunnison Tunnel project to reclamation officials in Washington, DC. Construction on the tunnel, which would finally allow water to flow from the Gunnison to the Uncompahgre Valley, began in 1905. On September 23, 1909, to great fanfare, President William Howard Taft presided over the official opening of the 5.8-mile tunnel.
The Gunnison Tunnel expanded the agricultural capacity of the Uncompahgre Valley by about 80,000 acres. By 1925 the area farmed under the project totaled 61,637 acres, with production valued at just over $3 million. Major crops included alfalfa, wheat, potatoes, oats, sugar beets, and apples. Area ranchers raised nearly 13,000 cattle and 28,129 sheep as well as large numbers of pigs and poultry.
While farmers in the county’s northeastern area could draw water from the Uncompahgre and Gunnison Rivers, southwestern Montrose County was far drier, making irrigation even more crucial for early white settlers. In 1889 the Naturita Cattle and Land Company built the first reservoir for irrigation on Wright’s Mesa. In 1896 the settlers of what would become the community of Nucla began construction on the area’s first irrigation ditch, although it would not be completed until 1904.
While agriculture has been the backbone of the Montrose County economy since its creation, the area also has a rich history of copper and uranium mining.
Around 1895 Tom Swain, the first store owner in the tiny outpost of Paradox in western Montrose County, discovered a sizeable copper deposit a few miles west of Bedrock. Instead of developing a mine himself, Swain made sure the news got out and stocked his store with mining supplies. In 1898 the La Sal Copper Company opened the Cashin Mine, and production boomed from 1899 to 1908. Production fell off thereafter, and the mine changed hands multiple times and operated intermittently between 1922 and 1972.
In 1896 prospector Tom Dullan re-staked a previously abandoned mining claim in western Montrose County at the confluence of the Dolores River and Roc Creek. Earlier prospectors had hoped that a yellow mineralization on the sandstone bed was evidence of some kind of profitable metal, but it was not gold, copper, or silver, so the claim was abandoned. Nobody was able to confirm what the substance was until Dullan sent samples to the Smithsonian for identification in 1896.
The yellow mineralization was found to be a rare form of uranium and vanadium ore. Around the same time Dullan sent his samples in, European scientists were discovering and researching the applications of the radioactive elements vanadium, radium, and uranium. All three would come to have various applications in medicine, industry, and arms production. The excitement over these materials crossed the Atlantic, and interest in Dullan’s Montrose County claim was high enough that he sold it to a group of California investors in 1897. By 1898 the claim had again changed hands, and after further testing it was found to be among the richest sources of uranium in the world. The first person to begin extracting the rare ore was Gordon Kimball, an ore-buyer from Ouray who began leasing the claim in 1898. Kimball was paid $26,000 for every ten tons of ore he could extract and ship to France, where the uranium would be isolated.
Kimball’s extraordinary profits on Roc Creek induced other prospectors to try their luck mining for radioactive elements in Montrose County. In 1899 some of those prospectors found carnotite ore, a source of radium, in the same area, and western Montrose County experienced a small boom period of radioactive mining. The raw material still had to be sent to France for processing until North America’s first radioactive metals mill was built on La Sal Creek in 1900. This first radioactive metals boom brought more people to the western Montrose County communities of Bedrock, Naturita, and Paradox, with the population of the latter two towns doubling between 1900 and 1920.
Demand for vanadium rose after 1920 because it was used as an alloy for steel, and the United States Vanadium Corporation (USV) began developing vanadium mining and milling operations throughout the state. In 1935 USV built a company town in Montrose County on the west side of the San Miguel River, northwest of Nucla and east of Paradox. The company named the town Uravan—a contraction of uranium and vanadium—and by 1936 the town had housing for 250 residents, as well as gust housing, a US post office, a theater, medical clinic, store, churches, a school, and a community hall.
The next year Colorado’s Western Slope became the world’s leading supplier of vanadium. The radioactive metals industry insulated the Montrose County economy from the Great Depression, and the industry ramped up even further during World War II, when vanadium was essential for the nation’s military buildup and uranium was needed for the Manhattan Project, the government’s secret attempt to build a nuclear bomb.
Montrose and San Miguel Counties continued to supply uranium for the nuclear power industry from the 1960s to about 1980, when a collapse in prices ended large-scale radioactive mining in western Colorado.
Today, agriculture continues to be the main driver of the Montrose County economy. The value of its agricultural products was $103 million in 2012, an increase of 54 percent from 2007. The county currently has more than 1,100 farms and ranks sixteenth in the state in the total value of its agricultural products. In 2012 Montrose County was the second-largest producer of poultry and eggs in Colorado, and the fifth-largest supplier of cow milk. These rankings will likely change by the time of the 2017 US Census of Agriculture, as the county’s largest dairy producer, Whitfield Dairy, ceased milk production in mid-summer 2016.
Though essential, agriculture is not the only important segment of the Montrose County economy. Local and state taxes linked to operations at Montrose Regional Airport totaled $9.5 million in 2015, and the airport provides 2,035 jobs. The Montrose County School District employs 948 and Montrose Memorial Hospital provides 622 jobs. In 2006 3M Company opened a grinding-wheel production facility in Montrose, and in 2015 the company contributed $56,000 to the community in support of schools, youth foundations, and military veterans.