A Brief History of Crested Butte Colorado
A former coal mining town now called The Last Great Colorado Ski Town, Crested Butte was named because in 1873 a geologist named Ferdinand Hayden was on expedition surveying the Elk Mountains and from the top of what is today known as Teocalli Peak referred to present day Crested Butte Mountain and Gothic Mountain as “the crested buttes.” Howard F. Smith, considered 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, he first built a smelter and saw mill to service the hard rock mining camps located in the surrounding areas. This established Crested Butte as a major supply center prior to becoming a long-term coal producer. Crested Butte sits at an elevation of 8,885 feet and is located 28 miles north of the City of Gunnison in the County of Gunnison.
The East River Valley where Crested Butte is located was once used as a summer residence by Ute Native Americans. However, they were quickly displaced when white explorers first entered the area. The first people to explore the valley were beaver trappers, followed by surveyors. Captain John Gunnison, after whom Gunnison County is named, was one of the early explorers to enter the area.
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 owner of 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 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 and is Crested Butte’s oldest building. Residents got their water from a two-million gallon reservoir located above the Town and in 1882 a telephone line connected Crested Butte and Gunnison. In the early 1880’s Smith sold 320 acres of his coal land to Colorado Coal and Iron, which later became Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I), and by the mid-1880’s he departed.
Coal mining emerged in earnest in Crested Butte during the 1880’s and 1890’s. The early coal miners, and the 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 from Slavic countries. By 1893 all of the silver mines in the area closed and while many other communities failed, Crested Butte survived because of coal mining and coke production. CF&I owned the Town’s coke ovens, where coal was burned to remove impurities producing a product called coke. The coke was shipped to Pueblo, Colorado where it was used in steel production. Crested Butte was a company town through and through, with CF&I as the Town’s largest employer and providing company housing.
The most significant mine in the 1880’s was called the Jokerville Mine. The CF&I owned Jokerville mine contained bituminous coal and directly below the mine lay coke ovens. On January 24, 1884 an explosion at the Jokerville mine occurred and the mine never re-opened. Some accounts say that 59 miners were killed in the Jokerville Mine disaster, while others say that 69 miners were killed. Later that same year, CF&I opened the Big Mine and by 1902 it was the third largest coal mine in Colorado and produced the highest quality coal in the state. Four hundred miners produced 1000 tons of coal daily. 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 finely 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. 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 Denver & Rio Grande Railroad removed their tracks and Crested Butte’s population and economy declined.
Then, in 1960 Dick Eflin and Fred Rick from Kansas purchased a ranch northeast of the Town of Crested Butte and by the winter of 1962-63 had 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 to the Crested Butte Mountain Resort.