By John Leach
The East River Valley where Crested Butte stands today was used as a summer camp by the Ute tribe, just as Telluride and Aspen were. The Ute, or Nuchu tribe, were nomadic hunter-gatherers who roamed the Western Slope starting in 1000 A.D.
The first white explorers in the area included beaver trappers and Capt. John Gunnison, whose expedition passed through the area in 1853. Prospectors arrived in the 1860s.
Brothers John and David Jennings discovered silver deposits in the shadow of Gothic Mountain north of Crested Butte in 1879, and other prospectors and miners moved in.
Crested Butte served as a supply hub for the silver mines, as well as nearby ranches, but it lacked the large silver and gold deposits that drove other early boomtowns that became ski resorts, such as Aspen, Telluride and Breckenridge.
But Crested Butte also had coal deposits, and Leadville smelter owner Howard F. Smith bought up coal land along Coal Creek and laid out the town in 1878 with coal in mind.
Crested Butte was incorporated in 1880, taking its name from geologist Ferdinand Hayden, who referred to Crested Butte Mountain and Gothic Mountain as “the crested buttes” in the distance during an 1873 expedition to survey the Elk Mountains. He thought the two mountains resembled crests on a helmet.
Crested Butte had 400 residents in 1880, but 1,000 miners were working nearby, positioning the new town as the “Gateway to the Elk Mountains.” Gold was added to the mix in the early 1880s with the discovery of $350,000 worth of gold nuggets in Washington Gulch.
But silver and gold mining began to decline, and Crested Butte’s future lay in its rich bituminous and anthracite coal deposits. The town’s position as a coal capital and supply hub was guaranteed with the arrival of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in 1881 to provide cheap transport for coal to the Colorado Coal and Iron Co.’s steel mill in Pueblo. Both companies were owned by industrialist William J. Palmer.
By 1882, Crested Butte was the home of Colorado’s leading mountain coal operation. The town had about 1,000 residents, five hotels, a bank, several saloons and restaurants, three livery stables and a few churches and was served by a 2 million gallon reservoir above town and a telephone line to Gunnison.
Colorado Coal and Iron merged with another company in 1892 to form the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co., which was the state’s largest employer for decades, and Crested Butte was a company town, with CF&I owning coal mines and coke ovens, plus company homes where miners lived and a company store where they bought most of their goods.
The miners worked long hours for low wages, and that led to unionization. A cut in wages led to a major strike in 1891. A second major strike in 1913 lasted for 18 months, causing the mines to close until 1915. A third major strike occurred in 1927 over another pay cut, and it ended with the miners losing out to the company.
Crested Butte experienced one of the West’s worst mining disasters in 1894, when a methane explosion in the Jokerville coal mine killed 60 miners. Fifty-six of the miners were buried in a common grave at the Crested Butte Cemetery. The mine never reopened.
Later that year, Colorado Fuel and Iron opened the nearby Big Mine, which dominated the Crested Butte economy. The mine employed 400 men and produced 2 million tons of coal and 500,000 tons of coke between 1894 and 1910. The British immigrants who dominated the mines before 1895 gradually were supplanted by immigrants from Italy and Slavic nations, who were a majority of the miners by 1900.
CF&I was acquired by the Rockefeller family and Gould interests in 1902, and 10 percent of Colorado residents depended on the company for employment by 1906.
CF&I closed the Big Mine in 1952, sending Crested Butte into decline. The town suffered another economic blow in 1955 when the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad removed its tracks. By 1960, Crested Butte had just 259 residents.
Crested Butte’s economy got a shot in the arm in 1961, when Kansans Dick Eflin and Fred Rick opened a ski area on Crested Butte Mountain with two lifts. A year later, they added the first gondola in Colorado. But there were growing pains. Rice bought out Eflin about 1965 but was forced to put the company into bankruptcy later in the decade.
Georgia businessman Howard “Bo” Callaway and his brother-in-law Ralph Walton bought the ski area out of bankruptcy in 1970 and ran the Crested Butte Mountain Resort until 2004. The family invested $100 million in the mountain and earned recognition for opening up extreme terrain with a double-diamond rating and a pitch exceeding 50 degrees and helping to create freeskiing and teleskiing by sponsoring early competitions. It also pioneered programs that brought out-of-state skiers into Gunnison on direct flights instead of having to go through Denver, starting in 1985.
However, Crested Butte’s skier-visits plunged from a high of 550,000 in 1997-98 to 342,000 in 2002-2003 as corporate-run ski areas along Interstate 70 engaged in a price war over season passes. Crested Butte was sold in 2004 to Vermont resort developers Tim and Diane Mueller, who sold it to a real-estate investment trust in 2008 but leased it back for 40 years. The Muellers committed to spend $200 million on improvements.
Crested Butte residents have been battling against plans to open a molybdenum mine on nearby Mount Emmons, known locally as the “Red Lady.”
In 1977, Mayor W Mitchell led the fight against Amax Inc.’s $1 billion plan for the mine, bringing together Crested Butte residents and national environmentalists. Amax shelved the plans in 1981, citing a decline in molybdenum prices, and the Phelps Dodge Corp., which acquired Amax, dropped those plans in 2003 and surrendered rights to the property to U.S. Energy Corp. in 2005. U.S. Energy lined up another partner, Thomson Creek Metals Co., in 2008, but Thompson Creek withdrew in 2011. U.S. Energy announced that it would seek a new partner for the project.