By John Leach
Gunnison is a tourism, college and ranching town in the center of Colorado, where residents and visitors enjoy the outdoors through fishing, hunting, skiing, hiking, mountain biking and water sports.
Gunnison also consistently records temperatures among the lowest in Colorado during the winter because cold air from three surrounding mountain ranges tends to settle into the Gunnison Valley overnight. By contrast, the Crested Butte ski area sits at a higher elevation but has higher temperatures.
Gunnison was incorporated in 1880 and named for Capt. John W. Gunnison, who explored the area as the leader of a government expedition seeking a route for the transcontinental railroad. He stayed in the Gunnison area briefly in 1853 and then followed the Gunnison River to Grand Junction, discovering the Black Canyon along the way. He was killed by a band of Ute Indians in Utah on Oct. 26, 1853.
The town of Gunnison boomed in the 1870s as mines were dug in nearby mountains. The arrival of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in 1881 and the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad a year later reinforced the town’s position as a transportation hub for the area’s mines and ranches. The cattle industry was established in the area by 1880, but the growing season proved too short for most crops.
Among the area’s residents was Wyatt Earp, who lived outside Gunnison in 1882 and 1883, after the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz. Earp ran a faro game at a Gunnison saloon.
Half the town’s residents were gone by 1883 because ore veins proved to be shallow and quickly ran dry. But the coal fields in the Crested Butte area brought stability to the Gunnison Valley.
Gunnison drew attention during the 1918 flu epidemic by isolating itself from the outside world, blockading roads and refusing to let anyone disembark from trains. As a result, no one in Gunnison died from the Spanish flu that killed 50 million to 100 million people worldwide.
The Colorado State Normal School was founded in Gunnison in 1901 and opened for classes in 1911 as the first college on Colorado’s Western Slope. The name was changed to Western State College in 1923 as the school expanded from teacher education into the liberal arts, and to Western State Colorado University in 2012.
Gunnison’s development as a tourism center was aided by the establishment of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument in 1933, the opening of the Crested Butte ski area in 1961 and the completion of the Blue Mesa Dam to create the Curecanti National Recreation area in 1965. The area also has long been recognized as one of the state’s top spots for fishing and hunting.
Population: 5,854 (2010 Census).
Land area: 3.2 square miles.
County: Gunnison (Gunnison is county seat).
Altitude: 7,700 feet above sea level.
Climate: Cool summers, very cold winters and low humidity, with abundant sunshine year-round. Annual precipitation of 11 inches, including average snowfall of 50 inches a year. January averages: 26 high and -4 low. July averages: 81 high and 43 low. More information