A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE UNCOMPAHGRE VALLEY
By Liesl Greathouse
MONTROSE—(July 3, 2013) Before settlers came to the Uncompahgre River Valley, it was home to the Ute Indians. Chief Ouray was a Native American and chief of the Uncompahgre band of the Ute tribe. He and his wife, Chipeta, worked to achieve peace between the Ute Indians and white settlers. Today Chipeta is buried in Montrose on the grounds of the Ute Indian Museum, along with other famous Utes.
Expeditions from the Santa Fe region began in the 1760’s. Francisco Dominguez and Silvestre Escalante came to the area in 1776 and bestowed Spanish names on the mountains, rivers and creeks.
The area remained unsettled until 1858, when gold was discovered. After that, settlers came as fast as they could. Montrose began as a railroad town on the main line of the Denver & Rio Grande (D&RG). Joseph Selig and Oliver D. Loutsenhizer were the founders, laying out the town site in 1882.
The town was first named Pomona, in honor of the Roman goddess of fruit, because the original goal was for it to become an agricultural community. However, Selig renamed it Montrose after the figure from his favorite novel, Legend of Montrose, by Sir Walter Scott.
The town became the crossroads of important transportation routes. It provided supplies to the nearby mining communities, including the San Juan districts.
In 1882, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad Co. built its narrow gauge mainline railroad through Montrose on its way from Denver to Salt Lake City, Utah. Montrose enjoyed many years of being a city on a main east-west railroad with trains galore coming and going.
However, in 1906 the track from Grand Junction to Montrose was changed from narrow gauge to standard gauge, eliminating some through traffic from west of Montrose. The slowdown of mining and the increased use of automobiles and buses all added to the decline of the railroad. Finally, in 1953 the railroad depot was closed and passenger service to Montrose ceased. Today, the railroad is used infrequently, but is still remembered as a key part of Montrose’s history.
Once the mines declined, agriculture soon took over as the major economy.
The Uncompahgre River Valley filled with truck farms producing crops of potatoes, sweet corn, onions, pinto beans, lettuce, peppers and tomatoes. Sugar beets became a thriving crop, and by 1898 beets were taken by rail to a sugar beet plant in Grand Junction. A sugar mill opened in Delta in 1920, giving an important boost to the area economy as it employed locals as well as providing an outlet for their crop. When it closed in 1977, times were hard until Coors Brewery contracted with local farmers to grow Moravian barley to be used in their famous beer which is manufactured in Golden, Colorado.
Apple, peach, apricot and plum tree orchards were also important elements of Montrose. The Ashenfelter Orchard became the state’s largest apple orchard in the 1890s, employing 100 workers.
Cattle and sheep ranching quickly became an important industry as well. By 1898, sheep herds rivaled cattle for grazing land and water rights, a conflict that continued into the 1930s. Today sheep raising is still an important activity in the Montrose area.
Of course, water is important to agriculture. However settlers soon found that there was not enough water in the valley to support all the farms. So the Gunnison Tunnel was constructed between 1905 and 1909 to divert water from the Gunnison River in the Black Canyon to the surrounding communities. It is a 5.8 mile irrigation tunnel constructed by the Bureau of Reclamation. At the time of its completion, it was the longest irrigation tunnel in the world. The tunnel opened in 1909 to much fanfare and with a dedication ceremony attended by President William Howard Taft. In 1972, the tunnel was designated a National Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). It is still in use today and is a vital part of the agricultural community in the area.
Road improvements in the 1920s brought auto tourists through Montrose, and the city’s intersecting transportation routes became U.S. 50 and U.S. 550. The great gorge of the Black Canyon northeast of Montrose is a scenic attraction, and became a National Park in 1999.
The same strategic location that led to Montrose becoming a hub for transportation and commerce at its founding still serves as an asset today. It still fills its traditional role of being the gateway to Ouray and Telluride. Agriculture is still important, with a great farmer’s market all year long. Colorado Mesa University has a Campus in Montrose, allowing locals easy access to higher education. The city offers state-of-the-art medical facilities, cultural events at the Montrose Pavilion and Downtown, and other amenities desired by urban transplants, while still retaining its small town atmosphere.
Montrose has gone through many changes over the years, but it has still managed to survive and thrive. Hopefully it will still remain a key transportation and cultural destination in the years to come.