Ouray, Colorado is a historic mining town located on the Million Dollar Highway in southwest Colorado. Sitting in a natural rock amphitheater at an elevation of 7,792 feet, the community that is so beautiful it is often called the Switzerland of America.
The town is named for Chief Ouray of the Ute Indian tribe, who had long made this area home before miners began to arrive. The nomadic Tabeguache Ute Indians had utilized this beautiful valley in the summer months for centuries, hunting the abundant game and soaking in what they called “sacred miracle waters.” The Ute called the area “Uncompahgre,” which was their word for “hot water springs.” Chief Ouray once lived in a small cabin at the foothills of the natural amphitheater.
When white men began to push into the Ute territory in the 1860s, Chief Ouray initially dealt with them with patience and diplomacy, so much so that he was often referred to as “The White Man’s Friend.” This changed, however, with the discovery of gold in Colorado, and miners in great numbers began to encroach upon their lands. After several treaties were made and broken, the Ute were finally pushed out of the area, and miners flooded the region.
“Ouray was a friend of the white man and protector to the Indians.” – The Denver Post
The town of Ouray had its beginnings in 1875 when prospectors from Silverton worked their way into the area via Bear Creek and the Uncompahgre River, searching for ore. The first recorded claims were made by A.W. “Gus” Begole and John Eckles in July. After they returned to Silverton for supplies, they were followed back north by several others, and a mining camp was established.
Nearby, prospectors made claims on the Cedar, Clipper, Trout, and Fisherman lodes. Another site called Mineral Farm was also located about 1.5 miles south of the mining camp and became one of the most prosperous early workings in the area.
On August 28, 1875, a notice was filed for the townsite of Uncompahgre, and a number of log cabins were built, and a post office was established in October. Otto Mears was awarded the contract to carry the mail to the various mining camps in the area. During these early days, the mail was often carried by dog sleds and skis in the winter. At one point, the snow was so bad that Mears’ carriers declared they could not get through, and Mr. Mears, rather face a charge of breach of contract, personally carried the mail on snowshoes. This mail contract probably led Mears to build the Ouray-Lake Fork Toll Road, known for years as the “Mears Toll Road.”
By the spring of 1876, more miners made their way to the area, and the town was surveyed and formally incorporated in October 1876 as the town of Ouray. It boasted a population of 400 people and 214 buildings within no time, most of which were made of logs. These structures included a school with 43 students, four general stores, one sawmill, an ore sampling works, two hotels, and a post office.
In the meantime, more rich discoveries were made at nearby Imogene and Yankee Boy basins. Ouray became the major supply center for these new strikes.
In January 1877, Ouray County was formed out of San Juan County, and Ouray became the county seat. At that time, the town was called home to about 1,000 residents.
By 1880, significant ore deposits had been found in the area, with the greatest concentration of high-quality ore found in the Ironton area 10 miles south of Ouray and the Sneffels District and Imogene Basin workings to the west and southwest. Ouray became the shipping point and supply center of the region at that time, a role that it would serve for over 90 years.
The Red Mountain Mining District came into its own in 1882, and Otto Mears constructed a toll road from Ouray to the new district. By that time, Ouray was taking on a true urban center’s trappings, as brick buildings began to replace the wooden ones.
By 1885, Ouray boasted a population of 1800 people, two weekly newspapers – the Ouray Times and the Solid Muldoon, an ore sampling works, a 10-stamp mill, a bank, three churches, several schools, and numerous restaurants, hotels, saloons, and fraternal organizations.
The same year, Otto Mears, who had built an extensive network of toll roads throughout southwestern Colorado in the past decade, finalized his “greatest road” – the predecessor of the “Million-Dollar Highway” between Silverton and Ouray. This rugged toll road followed the Uncompahgre River gorge, crossed Red Mountain, and skirted a narrow ledge hundreds of feet above the canyon floor.
In addition to mining, people were drawn to Ouray for its numerous hot springs and magnificent setting. As a response to this trend, the three-story Beaumont Hotel was built in 1886, and it was destined to become one of the finest hotels in the West. The lavishly furnished hotel, with its elegant dining room, opened in July 1887. Due to declining tourism, the hotel closed in 1964 and sat empty for more than 30 years. However, in 1998 it was meticulously restored to its original grandeur. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places today, it once again serves guests.
The same year the Miner’s Hospital opened in August 1887. Frank Carney built it on land donated by the Catholic Church with funds contributed by Ouray citizens. It remained open until 1964 and became the Ouray County Historical Society and Museum’s home in 1971. It is located at 420 Sixth Avenue.
The Denver & Rio Grande Railway arrived in Ouray on December 21, 1887. The railroad allowed low-grade ore, previously ignored because of exorbitant shipping costs, to be profitably exploited. The railroad soon built a depot, an engine house, a turntable, and other supporting buildings. Today, all of the railroad structures are gone.
The first of the narrow gauge railroad excursions came to Ouray in August 1888, which were promoted as “Around the Circle” tours. The original route traveled from Pueblo to Salida, over Marshall Pass to Gunnison and Montrose, before making its way to Ouray. Travelers then took stagecoaches from Ouray to Chattanooga to board the Silverton Railroad to Silverton and Durango, then over La Veta Pass back to Pueblo.
More magnificent buildings were erected in 1888, including Wright’s Opera House at 472 Main Street. It was built by Edward and Letitia Wright, who owned the Wheel of Fortune Mine. The Ouray County Courthouse was built the same year and today remains much the same as when constructed. It is located at 541 Fourth Street.
In 1890, Ouray reached its peak population of 2,534. At the height of the mining, the Ouray area boasted more than 30 active mines.
In 1891 a new city hall building was erected. The one-story building held city offices, a jail, and a fire department. Soon after the new building was in use, Thomas Walsh funded a second story for a library, gymnasium, and a free public hall. The exterior of-of the red-brick building, topped by a clock tower and a bell tower was designed to resemble Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Now called the Ouray City Hall and Walsh Library, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is located at 320 Sixth Avenue.
The three-story Western Hotel was built the same year and opened in 1892. Situated near the Denver & Rio Grande Railway, it was immediately successful. Today the 28 room hotel continues to serve guests and includes a frontier-style bar and dining room. It is located at 210 Seventh Avenue.
The silver crash of 1893 proved a temporary disaster to Ouray and the entire San Juan region, which had primarily been a silver mining area. After a brief depression, Ouray continued to grow and thrive because of rich gold mines which had been developed on Gold Hill, just north of Ouray in the Paquin Mining District, the continuing major production of the Virginius-Revenue Mine at Sneffles, and the recently discovered Camp Bird Mine between Ouray and Telluride.
In 1897, Thomas Walsh opened the Camp Bird Mine, adding a 20-stamp mill in 1898 and a 40-stamp mill in 1899. The mine produced almost 200,000 ounces of gold by 1902 when Walsh sold out to Camp Bird, Ltd. By 1916; the Camp Bird Mine produced over one million ounces of gold.
Shortly after the turn-of-the-century, work began on the Joker Tunnel, which drained the rich silver mines of the Red Mountain District. In 1900, Ouray’s population was 2,196.
In 1927, the Ouray Hot Springs Pool opened. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places today, the pool features hot mineral water from seven natural springs. Amazingly, the pool has not changed much since construction. The 750,000-gallon sulfur-free mineral pool is open year-round. It is located at 1200 Main Street.
In the early decades of the 20th century, mining decreased, resulting in the fall of population. Ouray was called home to just 707 people by 1930, but large portions of the city were never abandoned in Silverton and Telluride. Simultaneously, people were using automobiles instead of the railroad, and passenger service on the Denver & Rio Grande Railway was discontinued in September 1930.
In 1939, the Idarado Mining Company was founded, which consolidated many of the existing mining claims in the area, including the Black Bear, Treasure Tunnel, Barstow, and Imogene Mines. During World War II, the Idarado Mine became a major producer of needed war metals. Eventually, the company’s operations almost reached Telluride. Idarado’s mining operations continued until 1978.
The Denver & Rio Grande Railway to and from Ouray was abandoned in 1953. In 1972, Ridgway’s line to Montrose was also abandoned, ending 85 years of railroad operations in Ouray County.
Ouray reached its all-time population low in 1990 with just 644 people. However, in recent decades, more people have been drawn to the area, which now boasts a population of over 1,000 people. Its economy is based on tourism.
The town’s history is very evident in its many well-preserved historic structures. Unlike many other mining towns, Ouray never experienced a fire that consumed a large portion of the town, resulting in a significant number of 19th-century commercial buildings remaining. The Ouray Historic District encompasses nearly the entire town. The vast majority of buildings span from 1886 to 1915, the height of Ouray’s importance as a supply center for nearby mining regions. The Historic District includes 331 buildings. In the commercial district are many brick structures ornately finished with cast-iron facades or Italianate or Romanesque brickwork. Numerous predominantly Queen Anne style homes can be found in the southeast section of town. A historical walking tour begins and ends at the Ouray County Museum at 420 6th Avenue.
In addition to Ouray’s rich history, visitors enjoy numerous recreational activities, including horseback riding, four-wheel drives, rafting, and hiking or climbing in the mountains. Also located in Ouray are the Box Canyon Waterfall, the Ouray Ice Park, and the Ouray Hot Springs Pool.
Ouray is situated at the north end of the Million Dollar Highway and on the San Juan Skyway. These drives providing visitors with numerous scenic views and opportunities to visit the area’s many ghost towns. The Alpine Loop Backcountry Byway is also located nearby and can be accessed with 4-wheel drive vehicles.
© Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated May 2021.
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