Ouray, Colorado – Switzerland of America

The 1886 Beaumont Hotel in Ouray, Colorado by Carol Highsmith.

The 1886 Beaumont Hotel in Ouray, Colorado by Carol Highsmith.

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. It was built by Frank Carney on land donated by the Catholic Church with funds contributed by Ouray citizens. It remained open until 1964 and became the home of the Ouray County Historical Society and Museum in 1971. It is located at 420 Sixth Avenue.

Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in Ouray, Colorado by Russell Lee, 1940

Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in Ouray, Colorado by Russell Lee, 1940

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.

The 1888 Ouray County Courthouse by Carol Highsmith.

The 1888 Ouray County Courthouse by Carol Highsmith.

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 to be used 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.

Mill at the Camp Bird Mine, Ouray County, Colorado, by Russell Lee, 1940

Mill at the Camp Bird Mine, Ouray County, Colorado, by Russell Lee, 1940

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 as they were in Silverton and Telluride. At the same time, people were using automobiles instead of the railroad, and passenger service on the Denver & Rio Grande Railway was discontinued in September 1930.

Idarado Mine near Ouray, Colorado by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Idarado Mine near Ouray, Colorado by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

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 the line from Ridgway 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 the period 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.

Main Street in Ouray, Colorado by Carol Highsmith.

Main Street in Ouray, Colorado by Carol Highsmith.

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, September 2018.

Also See:

Colorado Ghost Towns & Mining Camps

Million Dollar Highway

Ouray Photo Gallery

Red Mountain Mining District

A Victorian Home in Ouray, Colorado by Carol Highsmith.

A Victorian Home in Ouray, Colorado by Carol Highsmith.

Ute Chief Ouray

Sources:

Narrow Gauge

Ouray, Colorado

Ouray Historic District Nomination

Wikipedia

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