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History of Crested Butte

Volunteer Firemen, Early 1880's
Volunteer Firemen, Early 1880's

 

The Town of Crested Butte, fondly referred to as 'The Gateway to the Elk Mountains', sits at an elevation of 8,885 feet and is located 28 miles north of the City of Gunnison in the County of Gunnison.  Crested Butte and the surrounding area was originally home to the Ute Indians.  Placer miners were present in the area as early as the 1860’s.  In 1873, geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden was on an expedition surveying the Elk Mountains.  From the top of what is today known as Teocalli Mountain, Hayden referred to present day Crested Butte Mountain and Gothic Mountain as the "crested buttes", which became the Town's namesake.  Howard F. Smith, the founding father of Crested Butte, laid out the Town by 1878.  While Smith was originally attracted to the area because of the extensive coal deposits, which would eventually become the Town's economic base, Crested Butte initially made it's mark as a supply town for hard rock mining.  Smith built a smelter and sawmill to service the mining camps located in the surrounding mountains.  

The Town of Crested Butte was incorporated July 3, 1880 with a population of about 400 people.  In addition, around 1000 miners resided in the surrounding areas.  Smith served as the first mayor of Crested Butte and sold half of his interest in the Town and 1000 acres of coal land to the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in an effort to persuade the extension of the railroad from Gunnison to Crested Butte.  Smith’s tactics proved successful and the railroad arrived in Crested Butte on November 21, 1881.  The arrival of the railroad ended Crested Butte’s isolation and facilitated the expansion of the coal industry and the

Elk Avenue (Main Street) Circa 1910, Photo Courtesy of Colorado Historical Society
Elk Avenue (Main Street) Circa 1910, Photo Courtesy of Colorado Historical Society
simultaneous expansion of the Town.  By 1882, Crested Butte was home to 1000 people and had five hotels, a bank, several saloons and restaurants, three livery stables, sawmills, doctors, lawyers, and the Union Congregational Church, which still stands today.  Residents got their water from a large reservoir located above the Town.  The telegraph arrived in concert with the railroad in 1881 and in the 1880's a telephone line connected Crested Butte and Gunnison.  

In the early 1880’s, Smith sold his coal mine together with 320 acres to Colorado Coal and Iron (CC&I), which later became Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I).  Smith continued his mining exploits opening Smith Hill anthracite mine 4 miles north of town. By 1886, he decided to put his mining interests behind him and headed east pursuing new business ventures.

 

Coal mining emerged in earnest during the 1880’s and 1890’s.  The early coal miners, and majority of Crested Butte residents, preceding 1895, were Anglo-Saxon from Wales, Scotland, Germany, Ireland and Cornwall.  These immigrants were followed by Greeks, Italians and Southern Europeans most from Slavic countries.  A community of immigrants, fraternal lodges including, Knights of Pythias, Rathbone Sisters, Odd Fellows, Masons, the Rebekah’s, and Slavic lodges, which included Society of St. Joseph and St. Mary’s Lodge to name a few, were important in the lives of Crested Butte residents.  These lodges provided support, charitable functions, social activities, and mutual benefits for their members.

CC&I

Coke Ovens Circa 1910, Photo Courtesy of Colorado Historical Society
Coke Ovens Circa 1910, Photo Courtesy of Colorado Historical Society
opened their most significant mine, the Jokerville Mine in 1881 that was located west of town.  Tragedy struck on the morning of January 24, 1884 with a huge explosion destroying the mine and killing 63 miners on that fateful day.  Roughly two thirds of the miners were buried in a mass or individual graves in the Crested Butte Cemetery.  

In 2017, a local blacksmith hand-forged a beautiful raw steel fence surrounding the site. A memorial stone carrying all of the names of those who perished was placed at the site and those men were remembered in a re-dedication ceremony on September 29, 2017.  More information can be found at the Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum located at 331 Elk Avenue and via the link below.

By 1893, the silver panic closed the surrounding silver mines in the mountains north and west of town.  While many other communities failed, Crested Butte’s abundant bituminous coal reserves ensured the town’s survival in mining and coking coal.  Crested Butte therefore became supply town turned company town, surrounded by ranching to the north and south of town.  The CF&I constructed a total of 154 beehive coke ovens by 1884, made of firebrick and encased in stone located in the vicinity of what is now Belleview Avenue and the Big Mine Park.  The high grade bituminous coal was burned slowly removing impurities to create a superior fuel used in the production of steel in the Pueblo steel mills. 

In 1894, the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company Big Mine (Big Mine) opened.  By 1902, it was the third largest coal mine in the state.  Four hundred miners produced 1,000 tons of coal

Train Depot Circa 1940, Photo Courtesy of Colorado Historical Society
Train Depot Circa 1940, Photo Courtesy of Colorado Historical Society
per day and with improved machinery and electrification, production increased after 1930.  The Big Mine operated for 58 years and not surprisingly, Crested Butte relied heavily on the Big Mine as a source of income.  Other mines operated on and off in the surrounding areas, including Buckley, Robinson, Pueblo, Horace, Pershing and Peanut.    

As is often the case in a company town, tension existed between the often-exploited miners and the town’s employer.  In 1891, the first major strike occurred over a cut in wages.  A second major strike began in 1913 and lasted for 18 months, causing the mines to close until 1915.  This strike finally ended, but with few concessions made to the miners.  The final major strike occurred in 1927 over a 20% pay reduction.  Again, this strike ended without the miners achieving their demands. 

With the closing of the Big Mine in 1952, the era of coal came to an end in Crested Butte.  One account of the Big Mine’s coal production between 1881 and 1952 is 10,248,600 tons. Three major factors contributed to the closing of the Big Mine: Railroads were converting to diesel fuel; the CF&I steel mills in Pueblo found a closer and thus less expensive source of coke; and coal began being replaced by gas and electricity. 

In 1955, the narrow gauge Denver & Rio Grande Railroad removed their tracks. Crested Butte experienced a local recession as employment opportunities dwindled and residents were forced to leave.  A core of residents found ways to hang on, and many breadwinners found jobs elsewhere in the state and sent money home.   A new mill at the Keystone Mine, located west of town, opened in 1953 employing 75 men.  

Circa 1930-1940, Abandoned Coke Ovens in Foreground with Crested Butte Mountain in Background, Photo Courtesy of Colorado Historical Society
Circa 1930-1940, Abandoned Coke Ovens in Foreground with Crested Butte Mountain in Background, Photo Courtesy of Colorado Historical Society
In 1958, an organization called the Law Science Academy was founded by Texan Hubert Winston Smith and established a scientific educational program for doctors, lawyers, and their families during the summers.  Smith purchased a number of buildings to serve as facilities for his operation.  It was the first of Crested Butte’s successes in attracting larger numbers of tourists.

 

Then in 1960, Dick Eflin and Fred Rice purchased what was known as the Malensek Ranch three miles northeast of town, and in the winter of 1962, their company, Crested Butte, Ltd opened a ski area.  By the winter of 1962-63, they opened a ski area on Crested Butte Mountain with Colorado’s first gondola.  This area grew into the present day resort Town of Mt. Crested Butte, home of Crested Butte Mountain Resort. 

With the days of coal mining long since passed, Crested Butte and the surrounding area is now a year-round vacation destination.  Know as “the wildflower capital of Colorado,” Crested Butte is not only a heritage tourism site, but a playground for people of all ages and interests, with endless opportunities ranging from snow sports to wildflower viewing, river running to rock climbing, hiking to biking, and festivals and events.   


Visit the Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum's website

View the Crested Butte Heritage Walking Tour