“A Fantasy land,” “a mystique,” “a state of mind”—these are only some of the expressions used to describe the Western Slope of Colorado, commonly defined as the roughly one-third of the state that lies west of the Continental Divide. The serpentine divide forms the region’s eastern boundary, running 276 miles from the Wyoming border to New Mexico and separating the Western Slope from Colorado’s more populous Front Range and the broad San Luis Valley.
Though it is home to 10 percent of Colorado’s residents, the Western Slope contains 33 percent of the state’s land, some of the state’s most popular tourist and recreation areas, and about 70 percent of its water. The fact that most of the state’s natural resources lie on Colorado’s west side while most of its residents live in the east has led to tension and conflict, especially over the topic of water diversion.
Those who live west of the divide might say that they feel different from other Coloradans due, in part, to their unique relationship with the area’s rugged terrain, numbing cold, heavy snow, and stark isolation. Some residents of the Western Slope feel as though their needs and desires are overlooked by a distant state government that does not understand their needs and concerns. Yet, Coloradans are increasingly linked together by shared economic interests as well as a common desire to conserve the landscapes and resources that make the state such a special place to live.
The Western Slope has been inhabited for more than 10,000 years. From Paleo-Indian occupation around 12,000 BC to the era of the Ute people (c. AD 1300–1880), the area’s early inhabitants were mostly nomadic hunter-gatherers, who followed large game on seasonal routes between the region’s many elevation zones. Evidence at the Mountaineer Archaeological Site near Gunnison indicates that Paleo-Indian peoples occupied the Western Slope as early as 12,000 BC. During the Archaic Period (6,500 BC–AD 200), Ancestral Puebloan peoples occupied parts of the Colorado and Gunnison River basins. Perhaps the most well-known of the Western Slope’s early inhabitants were the Ancestral Puebloan peoples, who lived in the Mesa Verde and the Four Corners regions from about 350 BC until approximately AD 1300.
The Ancestral Puebloans were the first of many farmers in Colorado, relying on crops of maize to supplement their hunting and gathering economies. Their extensive use of irrigation showed an awareness and understanding of the challenges of farming in an arid environment, but in the late thirteenth century, a period of crippling drought appears to have dealt the decisive blow to a society already suffering from violence due to religious, economic, and political strife. Nevertheless, the lessons these people learned about living in an arid and isolated land would prove instructive to those who followed, particularly the Ute people who moved to the Western Slope after AD 1300.
The Utes came to western Colorado from the Great Basin, in what is now eastern California and southern Nevada. Unlike the Ancestral Puebloans, who inherited a rich agricultural tradition, the Utes brought with them to Colorado the hunting-and-gathering way of life known as the Mountain Tradition. As it turned out, that way of life suited them well in the arid parts of the Western Slope, and especially well in the Rocky Mountains’ resource-rich river valleys. Ute people hunted buffalo, mule deer, jackrabbit, and elk, and collected a wide assortment of seeds, nuts, roots, and berries from the landscape. Over centuries they carved well-worn trails throughout the mountains, many of which later became the routes of stage lines, railroads, and highways. Many of the Utes’ favored wintering grounds featuring hot springs, including the areas of present-day Glenwood Springs, Pagosa Springs, and Steamboat Springs. Over time, Colorado became home to nine distinct bands of Utes, each of which laid claim to various parts of the state.
Utes held dominion over much of western Colorado until 1880, when most were expelled by the United States government. The Treaty of 1868 left the Utes most of their land west of the Continental Divide in exchange for land along the Front Range and in the San Luis Valley. But several years later, significant gold discoveries in the San Juan Mountains compelled the federal government to negotiate the Brunot Agreement, which brought the San Juans under the jurisdiction of the Colorado Territory. Many Utes were displeased with both agreements, as they were signed by leaders who did not necessarily represent the wishes of each band. In 1879 Utes at the White River Agency near present-day Meeker revolted against Indian Agent Nathan Meeker, who had attempted to force them into an agricultural life. The incident prompted calls for the Utes’ removal across the state, and in 1880 the government forced the Northern Ute bands to a new reservation in Utah. The Southern and Ute Mountain Utes, who did not participate in the Meeker Incident, retained a narrow strip of land near the New Mexico border, where they live today.
Exploration and Fur Trade
The first Europeans to visit Colorado’s Western Slope were the Spanish explorers of the mid-eighteenth century, beginning with Juan de Rivera in 1765 and Fathers Silvestre Escalante and Francisco Domínguez in 1776. The Spanish never made a concerted effort to extend their dominion very far into the Ute homeland, but they did leave a legacy on the Western Slope, including the name for the ruddy river that drained and formed large swathes of the region—the “Rio Colorado.”
The next wave of foreigners to venture into the Ute lands of western Colorado consisted of European, Canadian, and Anglo-American fur trappers. With thousands of beaver living along the many streams that flowed out of the high mountains, western Colorado offered a bonanza for mountain men during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. In 1828 the St. Louis trapper Antoine Robidoux built Fort Uncompahgre, a trading post near the confluence of the Gunnison and Uncompahgre Rivers. The fort was the first of its kind on the Western Slope and served as a supply and trading center for fur trappers in the vicinity. It was also a link between Santa Fé to the south and the beaver-rich country around the Green River to the north.
The center of the fur trade on the Western Slope, however, was Brown’s Hole in the extreme northwestern corner of Colorado. The valley got little snow compared to surrounding areas, so it was lush with grass and aspen stands and made a perfect place for suppliers and fur trappers to conduct business in Colorado’s short summers. From the late 1820s to 1840, the annual rendezvous at Brown’s Hole was the scene of extensive trading. In 1836 three trappers built Fort Davy Crockett on the Green River in Brown’s Hole. Isolated and constantly threatened by Native Americans, the fort was referred to as “Fort Misery” by those who traded there. By the early 1840s, the fur trade was all but finished in Western Colorado, due in part to the over-trapping of beaver and a change in fashion tastes abroad. Both Fort Uncompahgre and Fort Davy Crockett were abandoned, marking the end of one of the most colorful eras in Western Colorado’s history.
Early American Era
Though the fur trade era in this part of Colorado was relatively brief, the trappers who participated in it were among the first Anglo-Americans to truly become familiar with the Western Slope. Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, and other former trappers later served as guides for official US expeditions into the region, such as those led by John C. Frémont (1843–53), John W. Gunnison (1853), and John Wesley Powell (1869).
Collectively, the expeditions of the mid-nineteenth century demonstrated that the terrain of western Colorado was simply far too rugged to allow for a transcontinental railroad route, but each venture helped shed light on major natural features and resources. The Hayden expedition of 1872–73 proved especially useful in that regard. Working with telescopes, barometers, and glass-plate cameras, Hayden’s team peered into nearly every nook and cranny of the Western Slope. The maps produced by these surveying expeditions would soon lure mining engineers, road and railroad builders, cattle barons, investors, town builders, and loggers—the drivers of industrialized, expansionist America—to western Colorado.
The Colorado Gold Rush along the Front Range in 1858–59 prompted the organization of Colorado Territory in 1861. Around this time, several Western Slope areas became hotbeds of placer mining—a process that involves sifting out gold from gravel, mostly in streambeds. Breckenridge became one of the great mining towns in western Colorado history, while other mining districts sprang up in the Elk Mountains near present-day Crested Butte, in the Gunnison River Valley, and in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. These deposits were quickly panned out, but new discoveries over the next several decades would make mining a hallmark industry of the Western Slope.
Unlike the earliest discoveries, most of the gold found on the Western Slope in the 1870s did not lie conveniently at the bottom of streams but was lodged deep within the earth, bonded to quartz and other rock. Nonetheless, as the Ute Indians continued to cede territory in western Colorado, thousands of miners filtered into the Sawatch, Elk, and San Juan Mountains. Seemingly overnight, mining camps such as Ouray, Telluride, Lake City, and Silverton became boom towns. The Gunnison country caught gold fever in 1879, with Crested Butte, Irwin, Tin Cup, Gothic, White Pine, and Pitkin becoming booming mining camps. Aspen on the Roaring Fork River became one of the greatest silver camps in the United States, while Summit County continued to churn out both gold and silver.
Booms and Busts in Mining Country
As Colorado’s early miners found out, cycles of boom and bust have been a fact of life on the Western Slope since the area became part of the United States. Of the subsequent mining booms, coal lasted the longest, as the fuel provided essential energy for other industries, as well as heat, bricks, and electricity for Colorado’s growing towns. Hardy miners, many of them immigrants from southeastern Europe, worked in company towns throughout western Colorado. The work was hard and dangerous, and there was not much value placed on human life. These conditions led to labor strikes and tragic disasters, such as the 1884 Jokerville coal mine explosion near Crested Butte that killed sixty miners. Labor unrest plagued mining areas from the start, and the economic crisis that came with the collapse of silver markets in the early twentieth century hit the San Juan Mountain camps especially hard. In addition to gold, silver, and coal, other minerals had their day in Western Colorado. This included zinc from southeast Eagle County and molybdenum, a steel-hardening element, from the Climax Mine north of Leadville.
Compared to the earlier mining booms and the bloody labor disputes that accompanied them, the uranium boom of the mid-twentieth century might seem rather mundane, but it was certainly no less dangerous. An industry unique to the Western Slope, uranium mining was centered in the Paradox Valley near the town of Nucla in Montrose County. Uranium, an essential element in nuclear weapons, was found in the valley during the late nineteenth century, and North America’s first radioactive metals mill was built on La Sal Creek in 1900. This boom peaked in the 1950s, when nuclear energy was considered by many to be a savior in a world seeking cheaper, more efficient fuel. As the uranium mining industry declined in the 1960s and 1970s, evidence of radioactive contamination in the bodies of industry workers and in the environments of former mine and mill sites began to mount. Today, many places in western Colorado still grapple with the environmental and health effects of uranium mining.
In the 1970s, another brief boom period began when the federal government and private companies took steps to develop massive oil shale deposits in western Colorado. The deposits were located in the Piceance Basin near Meeker. In 1969 and 1973, as part of its Operation Plowshare program, the federal Atomic Energy Commission oversaw the subterranean detonation of nuclear devices near Rifle in an attempt to free deposits of oil and gas from surrounding rock. The blasts failed to free sufficient amounts of the resources, so no significant extraction occurred afterward. In general, extracting oil from subterranean rock proved to be more expensive than expected, and by the early 1980s world events and a drop in oil prices brought an abrupt end to the boom. Exxon and other oil companies pulled out of the region, taking thousands of jobs with them.
Agriculture and Tourism
Following Ute removal in the early 1880s, farmers and ranchers joined miners on the Western Slope. Grand Junction, Delta, and Montrose sprang up in 1881 and 1882, as did Glenwood Springs at the junction of the Colorado and Gunnison Rivers. Above the Colorado River, northwestern Colorado remained unsettled except for ranchers. Here and there, small towns sprang up for a variety of reasons. Steamboat Springs, Craig, Gunnison, and Yampa became cattle towns, while to the south, Durango prospered as a center for transportation, ore smelting, and agriculture.
Irrigation was critical to the success of many towns on the Western Slope. Colorado’s aridity hampered farming and ranching from the outset, so farmers around Grand Junction, Montrose, and other early agricultural communities dug ditches to water their crops. By the turn of the century, the newly created federal Bureau of Reclamation greatly expanded the amount of irrigated land on the Western Slope. The bureau’s Uncompahgre Project was the first major reclamation effort in Colorado and one of the earliest in the American West. In 1909 the bureau completed the project’s linchpin, the Gunnison Tunnel, a six-mile underground cavern that diverted Gunnison River water underneath Vernal Mesa to the Uncompahgre Valley near Montrose. With the help of irrigation, western Colorado soon became well known for its produce. The fruit industry—centering around Fruita, Palisade, Paonia, Cedaredge, and Hotchkiss—became world famous.
Unlike the early years of agriculture, the early years of ranching on the Western Slope were contentious as conflict between the region’s cattle and sheep ranchers broke out in the northwest part of the state over which livestock could feed on the best grazing territory. Ranchers in southwest Colorado, meanwhile, complained of Ute Indians leaving the Southern and Ute Mountain Ute Reservations to butcher cattle. Tensions between cattlemen and Utes who left the reservation sometimes flared into violence, as demonstrated by the Beaver Creek Massacre in 1885. Changes came to the region’s cattle industry in the twentieth century. In 1905 much of the land on the western slope came under the protection of the US Forest Service, which began charging grazing fees for cattle and sheep on the federal range. The furious stockmen fought the government to no avail, and in 1934 the Taylor Grazing Act, which later evolved into the Bureau of Land Management, further curtailed grazing on the public range. The involvement of the federal government proved to be an omen of things to come, as federal regulations ensured better conservation of federal lands even as it irked many ranchers.
Along with the removal of the Utes and the arrival of irrigation, there was one more ingredient needed to ensure the economic success of the Western Slope. In 1881 the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad arrived in Durango and Gunnison, followed in 1882 by John Evans’s Denver, South Park & Pacific railroad, facilitating the transport of mineral ores and supplies. The railroads also brought tourists who flocked to the Western Slope during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Tourist dollars allowed former mining towns such as Aspen, Breckenridge, Crested Butte, and Telluride to rebuild their economies and evolve into the cultural and recreational hubs we know today. The advent of the automobile and the construction of high-quality paved roads during the mid-twentieth century made Western Slope mountain towns more accessible than ever, propelling the growth of Colorado’s ski industry.
The ski industry and other recreational activities in western Colorado greatly depend on the region’s water supply. The Western Slope holds the source of the Yampa, White, Dolores, San Juan, Gunnison, Eagle, Roaring Fork, Animas and Uncompahgre Rivers. Yet, as important as all these rivers are to their local environments and communities, they are all tributaries to the mighty Colorado River, the most important river in the southwestern United States. That designation has come at a high cost to the river; even though 70 percent of its water originates in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, much of that water has been diverted to support urban growth and agriculture on Colorado’s Front Range as well as in Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and California.
Tensions between water users run high in the western United States, but perhaps nowhere do they run higher than in Colorado. Most of the state’s water is in the Western Slope, but the majority of the population lives on the eastern side of the mountains, so Coloradans have built major diversions projects such as the Moffat Tunnel, Roberts Tunnel, Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, and the Colorado–Big Thompson Project to move water underneath the Continental Divide to Boulder, Fort Collins, Denver, and other cities. These and other transmountain diversion projects have been met with anger by residents of the Western Slope. They not only question the ecological wisdom of draining their watersheds but are also troubled by the fact that the economically and politically dominant urban corridor along the Front Range has unfairly used its influence to obtain the lion’s share of Colorado’s water.
As author and photographer David Lavender wrote in his 1976 book Colorado, the Western Slope “is a human as well as a physiographic entity,” and residents “like to think that while shaping the land, they have been shaped by it: by its long vistas, its angularity, even its stubbornness.” Perhaps nowhere else in the state is the convergence of human culture and landscape more apparent than on Colorado’s Western Slope. As Coloradans continue to grapple with the unpredictable economic and ecological effects of a changing climate, the rugged heartiness of the Western Slope’s residents will certainly be tested. Yet, the region’s traditions of innovation and determination will serve it well, and its residents will continue to take pride in the good things they have managed to wrest from the land.
This article is an abbreviated and updated version of the author’s essay “A Land Apart,” distributed in 2006 as part of Colorado Humanities’ “Five States of Colorado” educational resource kit.