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Area History

Captain John Gunnison was one of the first explorers to enter this summer residence of the Ute tribe and later Gunnison County was named after him. The Utes were displaced by the European settlers and in the 1860s the first silver and coal mining operations started in the area. In 1874, Sylvester Richardson founded the Gunnison agricultural colony near the Gunnison River at 7,700 feet above sea level. Mr. Richardson had not taken into consideration the 70-day growing season at this altitude and his colony soon failed, an event recalled in the John Wayne Western "McLintock" when The Duke warns a Richardson-type farmer "God made that country for buffalo. Serves pretty well for cattle. But it hates the plow ... you can't farm 6,000 feet above sea level!" Only rancher survived and some families have been there ever since.

Aournd 1877, up to 40,000 people rushed to Gunnison County after silver was discover. They built smelters and mining camps as fast as they could. Howard Smith, the owner of a Leadville smelting company bought up most of the coal land along Coal Creek and established Crested Butte near the juncture of the Slate River and Coal Creek. The new town was quickly settled and surrounded by many silver camps like Irwin, Tin Cup, Gothic, White Pine, and Pitkin—each was home to upwards of 3,000 people.

The silver camps were decimated in The Panic of 1893, but fortunately Crested Butte had turned itself into a regional center that supplied the entire area, thus was able to survive the depression that wiped out much of the West's economy. To make matters worse, the Jokerville mine explosion killed sixty miners and closed the mine forever. A decade later another mining operation, the Big Mine, was opened and it formed the backbone of the economy along with ranching. Finally the Age of Coal ended when the Big Mine closed in 1952 and the Rio Grande railroad tracks were removed. For nine years, Crested Butte fought hard against ghost townhood and seemed to be losing as most residents were moving away. This unfortunate circumstance was not reversed until the Crested Butte Mountain Resort was built in 1961.

Crested Butte is the location that is claimed to be the birthplace of mountain biking, and appropriately, the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame is located right in town. After many years without a high school, the private Crested Butte Academy opened in 1993 and the public Crested Butte Community School in 1997.