Grand Junction history

Serpents Trail in Colorado National Monument
The Serpents Trail was the first motorized route into the Colorado National Monument, built by Grand Junction residents between 1912 and 1921. | Undated photo by Clayton B. Fraser from Library of Congress collection

By John Leach

The Grand Junction area has grown up through cycles of boom and bust, first with agriculture in the 1880s, then with uranium in the 1950s and more recently with oil shale in the 1970s. Two of those proved to be busts – uranium and oil shale – but agriculture has been a steady economic building block, along with trade and tourism.

The Grand Junction area was first settled by Native Americans about 14,000 years ago. The Ute tribe arrived around 1000 A.D. and ranged across the Western Slope.

Spanish explorers visited the region in the 1500s, and their expeditions of the 1700s led to the creation of the Old Spanish Trail. The trail’s north branch ran from Santa Fe through Colorado’s San Luis Valley and across Cochetopa Pass and then followed the Gunnison and Colorado rivers to Grand Junction and then to Green River, where it met the trail’s southern branch. It continued west from there to Los Angeles.

The Grand Junction area became part of Spain in the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819 and part of Mexico after the Mexican War of Independence in 1821. Mexico ceded Grand Junction and the rest of the Western Slope to the United States after the Mexican-American War under the 1849 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Colorado became part of the Kansas Territory and then a territory of its own before winning statehood in 1876.

The Homestead Act of 1862, which gave free land in the West to settlers, brought many farmers to Colorado, but an influx of white settlers also brought tensions with the Ute tribe. The Meeker Massacre in 1879, in which a band of Utes killed 10 employees of the White River Indian Agency, led to a treaty that removed the Ute tribe from the northern two-thirds of the Western Slope and cleared the way for additional white settlers.

The Grand Valley’s two rivers and long growing season made it ideal spot for farming, and irrigation using Colorado River water began near Palisade in 1882 using inexpensive gravity canals. Apple and peach trees were planted east of Grand Junction in 1883, and the success of those and other crops thanks to the area’s high desert climate spurred the demand for irrigation. The demand for water also increased once the state’s first sugar beet plant opened in 1899 on a parcel of land along the Colorado River.

Grand Junction was incorporated in 1882 by a company led by Kansas politician George A. Crawford, and the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad reached town the same year, giving it a boost as a trade center and jobs in repair and maintenance shops. Mesa County was established with Grand Junction as the county seat by 1883.

William Edgar Pabor was the first settler to see the potential for fruit production in the Grand Valley, according to the Western Colorado Research Center at Colorado State University. Pabor planted apples, pears, peaches, cherries, plums and grapes near Fruita in 1883. About the same time, Charles W. Steele and Elam Blain set out apple and peach trees about three miles east of Grand Junction, the center reports.

The settlers, however, quickly discovered the dangers of frost at high altitude during the spring months when peach and other trees were heavy with vulnerable blossoms. Palisade became the leading center for growing peaches and other fruit because early-morning breezes coming out of DeBeque Canyon protected the trees and their blossoms from freezes in the spring. Orchard Mesa also proved to be relatively frost-free.

The production of apples and pears declined at the start of the 20th Century because the codling moth proved resistant to pesticides. As a result, more than a half million trees were pulled up and destroyed in the areas around Grand Junction, Fruit and Clifton, according to the research center. The rise of new pesticides in the 1920s, however, brought back apples and pears and protected the peach orchards from oriental fruit moth. Palisade took the lead with peaches, followed by Orchard Mesa, while Clifton focused on pears and the Redlands emerged with peaches and apricots.

Grand Junction matured as a center for farming, commerce and trade, and town’s population grew from 2,030 in 1890 to 8,665 by 1920 and 12,479 by 1940. In September 1895, a peach festival drew an estimated 10,000 people to the Grand Valley to taste the fruit, with William Jennings Bryan was the guest speaker. At a 1909 Peach Day, President Taft was the guest speaker and talked favorably of the local produce.

The Colorado National Monument outside Grand Junction was created by President Taft in 1911 to preserve the sandstone monoliths, and Grand Junction residents built the first motorized road there, the Serpents Trail, between 1912 and 1921 to open the monument to tourism. The Civilian Conservation Corps built the Rimrock Drive over the monument in 1933.

The beginnings of a new industry for Grand Junction came during World War II. The War Department in 1943 acquired 54 acres along the Gunnison River south of town for the top-secret Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb. A refinery was built there to concentrate uranium oxide from ores mined near Uravan, and it produced 2.36 million pounds of uranium oxide and a comparable amount of vanadium oxide, which were shipped to another site for further processing. The federal Atomic Energy Commission acquired the property after the war and operated a uranium concentrate sampling plant and assay laboratory until 1974 and a uranium mill from 1953 to 1958.

In 1950, the city’s sugar beet plant, which had closed, was transformed into the Climax Uranium Mill, which processed more than 2 million tons of uranium and vanadium ore from 1950 until it closed in 1970. The ore went first to the federal Atomic Energy Commission and then was sold commercially. About 300,000 tons of tailings from the ore processing were removed from the mill site and used as fill and concrete mix for more than 4,000 homes, schools and commercial buildings in the Grand Junction area. Radon gas was discovered in a third of the buildings, which spurred health concerns because it breaks down into highly radioactive “radon daughters,” that cause genetic defects and cancer. Both properties were cleaned up and the radioactive fill and concrete were removed by a federally funded project that ran from the mid-1980s to 1994.

Interstate 70 was completed to Grand Junction in the 1960s, opening the area to tourism.

Grand Junction experienced another boom in the 1970s as the embargoes and high gas prices spurred renewed efforts to extract oil from oil shale deposits in the Piceance Basin east of Grand Junction that rank among the world’s thickest and richest. Exxon purchased rights to the oil shale lands and used Grand Junction as its headquarters for the project, in which the company invested more than $5 billion.

The oil shale initiative, however, came to an end on May 2, 1982, as Exxon decided to cut its losses on the oil shale recovery project by closing the Colony Oil Shale Plant and laying off 2,500 workers. The company retained ownership of the property in case the removal of oil from shale became economically feasible in the future. The economic shock to Colorado has been compared to that of the silver crash of 1893.

Grand Junction’s economy would slowly bounce back from that shock, based on a mix of tourism, health care, agriculture and energy. The area also began to replace peach and apple farms with wineries starting in 1978 and to develop into a mountain biking destination and draw retirees in the 1980s.