|For thousands of years, the Wet Mountain Valley was home to nomadic tribes and mastodon. Later came the Utes. Four-hundred years ago, Spanish explorers circumnavigated this lush mountain valley. Finally, Zebulon Pike’s expedition came through here, and for the first time, word of this special place reached the eastern seaboard. (Though Pike and his band nearly froze to death here during the winter of 1806-07 so his accounts were less than salubrious.)
The Valley remained on the fringe of the Pikes Peak or Bust gold rush of 1859, but soon thereafter there was a convergence: In 1870, several hundred Chicago Germans traveled by wagons to the Valley with the hopes of establishing a Teutonic agrarian commune. (That political aspiration failed, though many descendants of those settlers remain today.) About the same time, silver was discovered, leading to rapid growth and the development of countless mines and towns around them. (The county’s population in 1880 was more than 8,000, double its present number.)
Following the silver crash of the late 19th century, thousands exited, and a few hundred hardliners – including some of those German descendants – stayed and worked the sprawling hay and cattle ranches. (By 1970, a mere 1,120 people lived within Custer County’s 734 square miles, resulting in the federal government declaring us one of the last “frontiers” in the lower 48, with fewer than two residents per square mile.)
Things boomed again in the early ‘70s when the Conquistador Ski Area opened, bringing land developers and assorted ski-bum groupies. The ski resort went bust in the ‘90s, but in the meantime, the once-hidden Valley became known for its scenic beauty, its outdoor recreation, and as a destination for artists and the intelligentsia who mingled willingly with local cowpokes.
Today, the Wet Mountain Valley remains a very special place, among plenty of special places in Colorado.
This weekend’s Western Pilgrimage pays homage to this fascinating legacy. The Tribune is proud to have been a part of all this since 1883. We’re even more excited about our collective future.