Gunnison lies in the center of the Colorado mountains, at the bottom of a wide river valley, about midway between Montrose and Salida. It holds a strategic position at the base of three mountain ranges that surround the Gunnison river valley. Home to Western State College, it is a hip and outdoor-oriented town, as well as a focal point for some of the finest recreation in Colorado. A seat of Gunnison County, Gunnison has a long history as a trade center for many smaller communities in the surrounding area. Though Gunnison was originally a ranching and mining town, it now depends greatly on tourism and education to sustain its economy. Tourism accounts for roughly $35 million annually, with education bringing in $26 million. Ranching accounts for about another $8 million.
Gunnison boasts that the sun shines almost every day, but due to its valley location, it gets extremely cold in the winter. In fact, Gunnison has occasionally recorded the coldest temperatures in the nation. The average temperatures in town are several degrees below nearby towns such as Crested Butte, which is at a higher elevation, but is nestled against the protective mountainside.
The Gunnison River was once the mightiest force within several thousand square miles of Colorado. This river has carved some of the most spectacular rock canyons in the world, on it's way west to the Colorado River. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison was considered impassible until the railroad was built. Of course, today, much of the Gunnison valley lies under the impounded waters of Blue Mesa Reservoir.
The name of Gunnison honors the life of John W. Gunnison who first explored the region. He first discovered the area as part of his government assigned quest to recommend the best route for a railroad across the Colorado Rockies. Gunnison country is today rich with mineral deposits and grazing lands. The city of Gunnison itself is becoming one of the important educational centers of the Centennial state, and the Gunnison River graciously pours it’s waters through the Gunnison tunnel, one of the greatest irrigation projects of modern times, bringing life and energy to this once barren wilderness.
Gunnison Country first began to boom in the 1870's along with the rise in mining in Colorado. The Ute Indians had been forced out of the area and many ranchers, traders and of course miners began to move in. Gunnison became the official seat of Gunnison County on May 22, 1877. In 1880 the railroad arrived, welcomed and embraced by not only miners but also by the ranchers and farmers of the Gunnison Valley.
Gunnison saw one of the quickest boom and bust cycles ever as the mines and railroads came to town in the 1880's along with all the normal boom business. But, by 1883 a bust had come to town and half of the population had left. It seems the precious ore mining in the area was a little over-hyped because the ore veins that were discovered turned out to be shallow and low producing. Nevertheless, Gunnison was always the hub of enterprise for the area.
In 1909 Gunnison’s Colorado State Normal School was founded, and in 1915 the name was changed to Western State College.
Throughout the 20th century, Gunnison has been a popular gateway to some of Colorado’s choice recreation areas. As early at the mid 1900s, the Taylor River and Tomichi and Celolla creeks were know as some of the best trout fishing spots in the Rockies. Crested Butte Ski Area opened in 1963, making Gunnison a destination for some of the best downhill skiers in the country. Today one can catch a direct flight from most major cities to Gunnison, offering easy access to the slopes.
The Gunnison historical museum complex displays a restored turn-of-the-century schoolhouse, the town’s first post office, and a railroad depot, complete with a steam engine and cars from the DG&RG Railroad. If you find yourself in Gunnison, the museum is well worth the time to visit.
Gunnison is surrounded by some of nature’s most gorgeous scenery. Rolling and churning trout streams, clear mountain lakes, thick, fir woodlands, striking granite peaks sitting high above the timberline, expansive valleys that in the springtime become awash with vibrant wildflowers and waves of green grasses rolling in unison to the breeze. There is enough recreation and beauty in Gunnison to keep the outdoor enthusiast happy all year long.
The town of Gunnison was once politically divided into two competing halves by the speculation of land owners and the railroads. Since two railroads, the D&RG and Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad (DSP&P), were battling over territory in the town, the town's businessmen and residents also started taking sides. City planners disagreed where the railroad yard facilities should be located and this led to "old" and "new" halves of Gunnison that created healthy rivalry in the town. Over time the sides grew together and were happy to have any railroad stay in town.
The D&RG railroad built into Gunnison during a fury of activity in 1881. When construction of the Marshall pass route to Gunnison began in Salida, a race was on with other railroads like the DSP&P to capture the best rights of way. The DSP&P had selected a route over the Sawatch mountain range that required them to build a costly tunnel at Alpine Pass. This decision would eventually mean that they would arrive at the Gunnison prize a couple years late. The D&RG beat everyone to Gunnison and quickly began to exploit profitable service to the Crested Butte and Lake City mines. Eventually the Marshall Pass railroad route would travel to Montrose, Grand Junction and then on to Salt Lake City and points west.
After the initial mining boom was over in the area, there were still large coal fields in the mountains to the north and shipping this black rock in its various forms kept a steady stream of money flowing through town. Cattle operations were also busy in the spring when cows were shipped to the grazing in the higher mountains and again in fall when the beef went to market. Lumber was also a good source of revenue for the railroad.
The railroad tracks in Gunnison were always narrow gauge as the Marshall Pass route never did use standard guage tracks. Since the D&RG moved most mainline through traffic to the lines across Tennessee Pass and Moffat Tunnel, the Marshall Pass route never grew much beyond the original construction in the 1880's.
In the early 1900's life was generally good in Gunnison Country. Although the area did not boom like some in Colorado, it continued to grow at first. Tourism became a source of income as sightseer passed through on the way to many destinations.
In the 1930's and beyond, Gunnison railroad activity was hurt by the usual suspects of the day. Mines in the area became played out and unprofitable. Trucking became more practical. Other routes traveling far around the Gunnison valley began to dominate Colorado shipping. Railroad lines in the area eventually began to close. The DSP&P was sold to the Colorado and Southern and eventually they just gave the Pitkin Branch line to the D&RG.
Railroad passenger service to Gunnison ended in 1940 and freight stopped in 1949. Finally, in 1952, the CF&I mine in Crested Butte closed and the railroad lost its best customer. Thus the last of the D&RG narrow gauge lines came to an end. Operations over the Marshall Pass line were ended in 1953 and the tracks started being torn up a few years later.
THE RAIL YARD
Gunnison was the largest town on the west side of Marshall Pass and acted as a pre-staging and storage site for the main line of the railroad. In addition, there was always a small trickle of shipments to be made on the local branch lines around Gunnison to support the coal, cattle and sheep industries. Lighter size locomotives were all that was needed to haul these trains and therefore Gunnison had smaller C-16 locomotives like the 268 and 278 in operation until the end.
A good variety of railroad facilities were in the yard including the Depot, Roundhouse, Coal Tipple, Water Tank, Ice House, Freight House and Car repair shop.
Originally the Roundhouse was covered with a stone veneer. Later the stone was replaced with the brick finish that the building wore most of its life. The Roundhouse had eleven stalls for the locomotives and there were wooden doors on each stall. A fifty foot turntable was originally built at Gunnison. Later a larger sixty-five foot air powered model was installed.
At first there was a large coaling trestle setup that was similar to the one at Sargent, CO. This was replaced with a tall bucket hoist tipple similar to those found in Chama and Durango. However, the Gunnison structure was unique because it had an additional outside stairway to the top.
OTHER RAILROAD STRUCTURES
Gunnison had a Car Shop that was a long wooden building with 2 stalls similar to the one in Durango. There was a standard D&RG 50,000 gallon Water Tank like the one in Chama, NM. The Sand House was similar to Chama's but did not have a storage tower. In 1940 the original Sand House was replaced with a concrete block structure.
THE LA VETA HOTEL
One of the proudest buildings in town in the early 1900's was the La Veta Hotel. It stood at the far northwest end of town. At one time the hotel hosted passenger depot facilities for the D&RG.
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