Salida is a city of about 6,000 in the Upper Arkansas River valley, surrounded by Colorado’s central Rocky Mountains. It is the county seat of Chaffee County. Salida is named for the Spanish word for “exit,” as it is located near the mouth of a canyon of the Arkansas River. Major thoroughfares include US Highway 50, known in town as Rainbow Boulevard, and State Highway 291 (West First Street). Formed as a railway depot town in May 1880, Salida developed into an industrial hub of the central Rockies and is now known as a center for outdoor recreation and tourism.
The Tabeguache band of Ute people inhabited the present-day area of Salida for centuries before whites began to arrive after the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59. In the 1863 Conejos Treaty, the Tabeguache gave up their claims to all lands east of the Continental Divide, including the Upper Arkansas Valley, and agreed to move west of the divide. The treaty, however, was controversial among Colorado’s other Ute bands, who did not attend the negotiations nor agree with the land giveaway. The Tabeguache, along with other Ute bands, were ultimately forced out of the state in September 1881.
In the 1870s, white homesteads cropped up in the Upper Arkansas Valley, while farther east, railroads competed for the right to build a line from Cañon City to mining districts in Leadville and today’s Gunnison County. By the end of the decade, successful mining had led to the development of the town of Gunnison, incorporated about fifty miles west of present-day Salida in March 1880.
Later that spring, William Jackson Palmer’s Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG) won the railroad battle and built a line west from Cañon City through Royal Gorge and Cotopaxi. The line would eventually continue west over Marshall Pass and into Gunnison. Along the way, on May 1, 1880, the railroad reached the site of present-day Salida, where it established a town called “South Arkansas.” Alexander C. Hunt, former territorial governor of Colorado and a board member of the D&RG, had already begun platting the new town in April.
By June 12, 1880, South Arkansas had more than 100 buildings spanning both sides of the Arkansas River, according to the Gunnison News. The paper added that “several hotels are completed and already overcrowded.” The Mountain Mail served as the town’s first newspaper, printing its first edition on June 5, 1880, and reporting a week later that dozens of families were camped near the river, “some of them waiting for houses” in “the liveliest town in Colorado.” The News attributed the new town’s fervent early growth to its being “the nearest railroad and shipping point to the Gunnison country.”
On July 24, 1880, the Mail reported that “our town is to be hereafter known as Salida,” a name “christened” by Hunt and based on the town’s location and function as an “outlet for the numerous mining camps over the range and on the South Arkansas River”; the paper even provided its pronunciation, “Sah-lee-dah,” though today residents pronounce it “Sah-lie-dah.” In August the D&RG completed a line north to Leadville, solidifying Salida’s role as a rail hub.
Salida grew quickly from 1880 to 1883 but saw many of its earliest buildings consumed by fires in 1886 and 1888. After the fires, the city passed an ordinance banning wood-frame buildings in its downtown commercial district. Important early buildings included the D&RG’s Monte Cristo Hotel (1883) as well as the railroad’s employee hospital (1885), and the Salida Steam Plant (1887), one of the first Edison electric plants in the country. Prominent early citizens included N. R. Twitchell, who was involved in many of the city’s earliest land transactions; Louis Wenz, a German immigrant who owned a furniture store; S. W. Sandusky, who had a dry goods store; and Peter Mulvany, who sold hardware as well as groceries and clothing.
While the city served as a hub for regional mining, railroad, and banking activity, the land surrounding Salida quickly became recognized for its agricultural potential. Hay and grain shipments were sent to Gunnison as early as July 1880, and an 1891 edition of Colorado Farmer praised the area’s “well tilled ranches” and “thousands of acres of splendid stock range.” In 1898 the Chaffee County Record reported that farmers around Salida were producing “excellent crops of wheat, oats, peas, potatoes, and alfalfa.”
By that time, Salida had a population of around 2,000, with two public schools, an opera house, several churches, and a host of surrounding mines pulling out iron, gold, and silver ore.
As precious metal mining continued in the surrounding area in the early 1900s, Salida added new buildings and infrastructure to support the mines. In 1902 the Ohio and Colorado Smelting Company built a smelter about one mile from the city, and by 1904 it was processing gold, silver, lead, and copper ore from ten different Colorado counties. The smelter’s fortunes waned as the decade wore on, however, and it operated at a loss for several years before closing in 1920. Today, the smelter’s most visible legacy is its towering brick smokestack, which rises above Salida at a height of 365 feet.
By the early twentieth century the town had also developed a granite industry, with multiple quarries in operation by 1908. As early as 1911, the Salida Granite Company operated a granite-finishing plant in the city, which was expanded several times to meet increasing demand for the area’s high-quality stone. Salida’s granite, which received much attention at a 1920 expo, was used in monuments across the country.
In 1928 the bitter rivalry between Salida and Buena Vista over the title of county seat—which stretched back to the early 1900s—was finally settled. Chaffee County residents voted to move the county seat to Salida from Buena Vista, with the former having nearly four times the population of the latter.
Salida’s population hovered around 5,000 during the ensuing decade, when many other rural communities suffered population loss during the Great Depression. Federal New Deal projects in the city included development of a hot springs center on the southwest side of town, just off US Highway 50. In 1936 some 200 men employed by the federal Works Progress Administration dug a pool and a five-mile underground pipeline to fill it with water from the nearby Poncha hot springs; the facility is now known as the Salida Hot Springs Aquatic Center.
In 1941, with rail transportation giving way to the automobile, the famed Monte Cristo Hotel was torn down, as was the adjacent D&RG rail depot.
The Salida Museum began in 1954 with a collection begun by Harriet Alexander, the city’s first councilwoman. When she died in 1971, her will provided money for the construction of a new, two-room museum building, which houses the Salida Museum today.
In the late 1980s, the city acquired the steam plant building and converted it into a community theater and events center that maintains the look and feel of the old power plant. By that time, Salida’s days as an industrial rail hub were long behind it; the city had evolved into a bustling tourist town, with outfits such as River Runners introducing visitors to some of the best whitewater rafting in the nation.
In 2008 the old D&RG hospital, which had been expanded and renovated several times throughout the twentieth century, moved to a new, modern medical campus off Highway 291 and became known as Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center.
Browns Canyon, north of Salida, had long been a popular destination for outdoor recreators before President Barack Obama declared the area a national monument in 2015. Today, Salida serves as a gateway to not only Browns Canyon but also Monarch Ski Area to the west and several Fourteeners, including the Collegiate Peaks and Mounts Shavano, Tabeguache, and Antero, to the northwest.
The Salida economy is further anchored today by retail and real estate businesses, as well as the Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center, which employs nearly 650. Although the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020–21 has dealt a major blow to tourism, Salida’s location and myriad attractions make it well positioned for recovery in the postpandemic economy.