Dr. Duane W. Vandenbusche
Professor of History
Western State College, Gunnison, Colorado

Framed against a background of the towering Elk Mountains off in the distance lies a proud town, a great town -- a town named desire. Crested Butte, the historic gateway to the Elk Mountains, has always been a special and unique community. Located at nearly 9,000 feet in elevation, and annually subjected to numbing temperatures and prodigious snow falls which seem to come forever, the quaint little mountain community has fought the elements to a standstill throughout out years of its existence.

The Ute Indians and Spanish, early residents of the Gunnison country, were not fond of the Elk Mountains because of the high elevation and inclement weather. But not the placer miners. They realized that the high mountains and rushing streams added up to an ideal mining country. As early as 1860, and maybe before, hundreds of placer miners invaded the Elks near present-day Crested Butte. They placer mined every stream and prospected every gulch and ravine, but the cost was high. The Utes massacred twelve miners in nearby Washington Gulch, eleven in Deadmans Gulch, and burned or scared most of the others out.

"Rover Boy" geologist, Ferdinand Hayden, surveying the Elk Mountains in 1873, climbed 13,220 foot high Mount Teocalli to get a better look at the surrounding terrain. As his eyes moved toward the southwest, Hayden spotted two rugged mountain peaks which seemed to resemble crests of a helmet. The peaks were Gothic Mountain and Crested Butte Mountain.

The father of Crested Butte was Howard Smith, owner of one of the many smelting companies in Leadville in 1877. When he heard of coal discoveries across the Divide in the Elk Mountains, he bought up most of the coal land along Coal Creek and laid out Crested Butte near the juncture of the Slate River and Coal Creek.

Crested Butte boomed first as a major supply town for the great silver camps like Gothic, Irwin, Crystal, and Schofield which began to spring up in a wide arc in the Elk Mountains. By 1881, Crested Butte was known as "the Gateway to the Elks". However, when silver began to play out in the early 1880's, Crested Butte's destiny began to unfold. It became a great coal mining Town. Because of the rich bituminous and anthracite deposits nearby, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad arrived in November of 1881, insuring the future of the Town. From that time on, it was common to see long trains leaving Created Butte and winding their way through the East River Valley toward an eventual rendezvous with the Colorado Fuel and Iron steel mills in Pueblo, or some other buyer.

The price Crested Butte paid for its success was high. On January 24, 1894, an explosion rocked the Jokerville mine and killed sixty miners -- one of the worst mining disasters in the history of Colorado. The Jokerville mine never reopened. Instead, the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company opened the nearby "Big Mine" a decade later. This great mine became the heart and soul of the Crested Butte economy for the next half century. The "Big Mine" employed 400 men and produced 100,000 tons of coal a year.

The men who worked in the Crested Butte mines, aside from the very earliest years, came from southeastern Europe -- from Italy, Austria, and from Czechoslavakia and Yugoslavia, countries which didn't even exist until after World War I. They were a tough and courageous people who soon became synonymous with the rugged environment in which they lived. The hours they worked were long, the work dangerous, and the reward minimal. But the people had an enthusiasm for life. The rousing foot-stomping polkas, the early day skiing, the outdoor barbecues, and the quaffing of prodigious amounts of cold beer testified to that. Working hard was one thing; playing hard was another. And no one could work or play harder than these rugged people from Crested Butte.

Crested Butte's Age of Coal ended in 1952 with the closing of the "Big Mine" and the ensuing removal of the Rio Grande railroad tracks. The Town had been eyeball to eyeball with crisis before, but this one threatened its entire existence. As the spectre of hard times darkened the future of the historic old town, and many of the old time residents moved away, a ray of light appeared on the horizon. The Age of Snow began to dawn. In 1961, the Crested Butte Ski Area opened, taking advantage of the great mountain which towered over the Town and the fine light powdery snow which fell there. By 1975, the ski area had grown to such an extent that a new community, Mount Crested Butte, sprang up among the mountains.

Meanwhile, the old town of Crested Butte prospered with the ski area. New buildings were constructed, old buildings were renovated, streets were paved, and the town looked better than it had for a long time. One theme rings true today; the old mining town is in the midst of great change. Recreation has replaced mining as the chief economy and many of the immigrant peoples from southeastern Europe who were Crested Butte for so many years have passed, or are passing, from the scene. But one can hope that the old and treasured values of the past -- the work ethic, the zest for life, the courage, and the loyalty to the community -- which made Crested Butte unique indeed among all other communities, will be maintained by the Town's new residents.