Download a short history of Ouray for a brief look at what put us on the map.
Millions of years ago, the mountains surrounding Ouray began their formation when immense volcanic eruptions resulted in deep lava-formed craters. Within the last two million years, ice followed the fire and glacial activity created the rugged mountain topography of the San Juans. Glacial erosion of these faulted and fractured zones created valleys and gave birth to high country basins and gulches. These rock alterations created an ideal environment for the deposit of ore. The San Juan range is one of the most highly mineralized sections in Colorado.
Centuries before the white man arrived, the Tabeguache Ute, a nomadic band, traveled to this idyllic setting in the summer months to hunt the abundant forest game and to soak in what they called “sacred miracle waters”. Even then, they knew the springs that simmer beneath much of Ouray were therapeutic. In fact, the town’s original name was “Uncompahgre”, the Ute word for “hot water springs”. The Ute’s served as guides for expeditions seeking passage through the southern Rockies in the 1700s. These Spanish explorers named this rugged range the San Juan Mountains. The Spaniards were not interested in settling such a harsh and unforgiving environment. It was the miners, flooding the region in the late 1800’s in search of silver and gold, who would forever change the face of the San Juans. In fact, many of the high-country roads recreationists enjoy today are access routes that the miners developed over a hundred years ago. The century-old ghost towns of Sneffels, Red Mountain Town, Animas Forks, and Mineral Point, as well as abandoned mines along the way, are undeniable evidence of this area’s roots.
The Greatest Ute Indian Chief
The legend of Chief Ouray envelops the town that bears his name. He once lived in a small cabin at the foothills of the Ampitheater (now a historic landmark), soaked in the "sacred hot springs," conducted native rituals and met with the Indian and white officials in Ouray. By and large, Chief Ouray garnered the respect of the Ute Indian Nation, the U.S. Government, and the Indian nations throughout North America because of his intelligence and diplomacy. The town of Ouray proudly aligns itself with his legacy, for there are few people in history who are held in such high regard. Ouray was raised in the Taos valley and was influenced by the Spanish way of life. Ouray joined his parents in Colorado at age 17, already speaking Spanish, Ute, Apache, and some English. At 35, he became the chief of the Uncompahgre Ute Tribe. Ouray believed peace was the best option for his people, otherwise, they would have to deal with the U.S. Government. Gold, silver, and land were at the heart of what the whites wanted, and the Ute Indians were in the way. Negotiations ensued for years, but with each treaty the Utes lost more and more of their land. Naturally, resentment began to arise and Ouray's life was often in danger. A massacre in the northern reaches of Colorado occurred and the entire Ute nation was threatened by whites. In 1879, a Harper's Weekly headline read, "The Utes Must Go." By 1880, the year of Chief Ouray's death, the Utes had lost their land and way of life in the San Juan Mountains. Ouray died in August in Ignacio, Colorado, of Bright's disease, with Chipeta, his wife of 21 years, by his side. The Denver Post said, "Ouray was a friend of the white man and protector to the Indians." Much more about Chief Ouray may be learned at the Ouray County Historical Museum and the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose.
The Silvery San Juans
The jagged peaks that zigzag around Ouray are intersected by highly mineralized veins rich in gold, silver, zinc and other metals. Naturally, these valuable metals attracted immigrant miners from all over the world. They poked around Ouray as early as the 1850s, but the serious "rush" started in the 1870s. Although the Brunot Treaty of 1873 stipulated the sale of the San Juan Mountains from the Ute Tribe they were not permanently forced out of the area until 1881 when the government began distributing promised funds and land in northeaster Utah. Word of the huge silver strikes increased the town's population from 400 in 1876, to over 2500 by 1890. Horses and carriages brought the first prospectors; the railroad would not make its mark in the valley until 1891. Otto Mears had a transportation business that not only made toll roads, but hauled freight by way of mules and burros between the booming mining towns. It's been written that this Russian immigrant made more of an impact on the San Juans than anyone else. His transportation contributions enabled Ouray's mining industry to swell remarkably by hauling in much-needed equipment and provisions. Ouray's mining heyday peaked between 1883 and 1893 with most mines closing by 1923. The town evolved from a miners' camp to the Grand Madam of the San Juans with the construction of incredibly beautiful buildings. The town's architectural vernacular was Queen Anne Victorian and quickly became a preferred destination on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad's narrow gauge "Around the Circle Tours." By 1936 the train closed, but Ouray's beauty, ambiance and abundance of recreational activities continues to attract travelers from all over the world. Learn more about the historic railroads in Ouray County at the Ridgway Railroad Museum.
Visit the Ouray County Historical Museum, originally St. Joseph’s Miners’ Hospital built in 1886, and experience the incredible history of this intimate mountain community. This museum offers an impressive mineral collection, Ute Indian artifacts, mine exhibits, an operating suite and patient room, Victorian era displays, historical exhibits of all kinds, photographs, and books— just for starters! The museum is child-friendly with an activity finder book and exhibits for little visitors. In addition, while you’re out on foot, be sure to make time for the Historical Walking Tour. Amazingly, almost all of Ouray’s permanent buildings built between 1880 –1900 are still standing and have been skillfully restored. Visitors can experience the same spectacular beauty of towering snow capped peaks, rushing rivers, healing springs, ravenous canyons, and majestic waterfalls that once inspired so many of the valley’s earliest inhabitants. Learn even more about Ouray's history at the Ouray County Ranch History Museum.