Over millions of years, volcanic eruptions, followed by periods of intense glaciations, created the rugged and scenic peaks of the San Juan Mountains. These same geologic forces laid down rich mineral deposits. Over the millennia, erosion and uplift brought these deposits to the surface and created the network of basins and gulches that characterize the mountains today.
Some of the first human inhabitants of this region were the Tabequache band of the Ute people who came here during the summer months to hunt in the game-rich forests and soak in the “Sacred Mineral Waters” or hot springs that permeated the area. Beginning in the early eighteenth century the Utes helped guide the early Spanish explorers who named these mountains the San Juans.
European settlers began arriving in earnest in the late 1800’s, drawn by the discovery of abundant mineral riches, especially gold and silver. By 1873, tensions between the Utes and the European settlers were at a peak. The great Ute chief, Chief Ouray, was responsible for the peaceful transition from Ute control to European control. He reluctantly signed a government treaty transferring the land to the new settlers. In honor of his efforts, the town of Ouray was named for him when it was incorporated in 1876.
The town continued to grow, fueled by the explosion of mining claims. By 1880, Ouray had a population of 2,600 with churches, a school, a lively entertainment district, and a thriving commercial street. However, the price of silver collapsed by 1885 and many of the miners left the area. Tom Walsh’s Camp Bird gold mine, one of the richest mines every found, kept mining alive in Ouray. Today, ghost towns like Sneffles, Red Mountain Town, and Animas Forks are all that remain of the extraordinary mining activity that exploded during this time.
Much of Ouray’s Victorian architecture, structures built between 1880 and 1900, are still standing. The town is both a Colorado and a National Historic district, and most of the Victorian era homes and businesses have been beautifully restored. Some of the most notable buildings include the Beaumont Hotel (1886), Miners Hospital (1887) and the Walsh Library (1899). These and others are included in the Walking Tour of Ouray developed by the Ouray Historical Society. The Ouray County Historical Museum has been called one of the best small museums in the west by the Smithsonian.