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A Quick History of Steamboat Springs, Colorado

Steamboat Springs, Colorado, was a favorite among travelers for its hot springs long before it ever developed a reputation for skiing.

Families traveling to Steamboat will find a town with a history tied closely to the land. Whether it is the lush Yampa River Valley, perfect for cattle ranching, or the deep winter snows that turned even poineer toddlers into skiers, the natural world plays a big part in Steamboat Springs history.

Photo: Howelsen Hill, in the heart of downtown Steamboat Springs, Colorado, is the oldest continuously operating ski area in Colorado. The ski jumps behind the lodge have been a training ground for many an Olympian.

Photo: A snowboarder and his girl
cross the street in downtown Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The runs of the Steamboat Ski Area catch the evening light in the background.

Photo: The history of Steamboat Springs, Colorado is housed in the Tread of Pioneers Museum. The 1908 Victorian Home shelters exhibits with displays about prehistoric hunters, the Ute people of Colorado, the settlers to the Steamboat Springs area, railroads, and the infancy of skiing in Steamboat Springs.

Evidence of people in the Yampa River Valley stretches back to the shadowy beginnings of humans in the Americas.  As early as 10,700 years ago, prehistoric people lived and hunted in the area around Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Folsom points have been discovered in the nearby Medicine Bow Mountains.

Longest Residents

Historians widely agree that the longest continuous residents of Colorado, and especially of the Colorado mountains, are the Ute people. There is some evidence to suggest that they may be descended from the prehistoric Fremont people.

The Fremont, who farmed corn, hunted, and made distinctive pottery, lived farther south and west, in what is now eastern Utah. However, the Fremont people did build structures and create rock art in northwestern Colorado. At least one of those sites can be dated to as late as 1585.

The Ute people’s country eventually extended from the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains west into Utah as far as Salt Lake City. Steamboat Springs is near the northern edge of the Ute territory, which stretched from what is now northern New Mexico up to the Green River area of Wyoming.

The Yampah Utes

The Utes hunted and food-gathered in small groups for most of the year. The band that worked the Yampa River valley were called the “Yamparika” Utes. (Variously spelled “Yamparica”, “Yampatika” and “Yamparka”)

(The Yampah is a plant, native to Colorado, and a member of the carrot family. The Yamparika Utes, reportedly, were called that since they commonly ate the Yampah plants.)

Sacred Waters

The numerous hot springs in the Steamboat Springs area were well known to the American Indians. The waters were (and are) sacred and still visited by Ute people.

Horse Culture

In the late 1500s, the Spanish colonized into northern New Mexico, and the Utes were in touch with the Spanish by the 1640s. Ute people very quickly saw the value of horses and developed strong equestrian skills. This brought on a change in lifestyle throughout the Ute range, as they could travel farther and hunt more effectively with horses.

Europeans Arrive in Northwestern Colorado

In 1776, two Spanish explorers, Fathers Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante, explored into northwestern Colorado. They camped on the White River about 65 miles southwest of Steamboat Springs. Also late in the 1700s, French and English fur trappers began to make their way into the lush drainages of the Yampa River.

Exploring Steamboat Springs

Explorers, too, worked their way through the mountains into the Steamboat Springs area. The Thomas Jefferson Farnham expedition passed through in 1839, and the sulfur cave at Steamboat Springs was described in his 1893 journal.

In 1843 and again in 1845, the John C. Fremont expeditions traveled through what is now Routt County. Ten years later, in 1855, Sir George Gore forged a wagon road over Gore Pass and ventured around the edges of the Steamboat Springs area.

There’s Gold . . . 

After the gold discoveries in Denver and the mountains just to the west of Denver, prospectors swarmed through the Colorado Rockies. In 1862, gold was discovered at Hahns Peak, just north of Steamboat Springs, and the first settlement was established there in 1866.

However, the remote location and distance from transportation, plus the absence of rich gold veins made it difficult to make a profit at gold mining near Hahns Peak. Although several mines did open, a gold rush to the area never materialized.

Settlers and Indians

In 1875, James Harvey Crawford ventured over the wagon road at Gore Pass and took a liking to the Steamboat Springs valley. He brought his family in and established the first claim in Steamboat Springs. Shortly other families joined them, however the deep snows of winter discouraged much settlement.

Although Crawford is reported to have had a good relationship with the Ute people in the area, the general atmosphere was stormy between American Indians and the Euro-American immigrants to Colorado.

Through various conflicts and treaties, the land that the Utes once occupied had been whittled down dramatically. In September of 1879 Utes, angered by decisions of a government-appointed Indian agent, killed eleven men at the White River Indian Agency. The Ute War that resulted ended with the removal in 1881 of all the Ute people in northwestern Colorado to a reservation in Utah.

With the Indians gone, settlers were more inclined to head into the area. In 1884, there was talk of raising money and establishing a town site at Steamboat Springs. By 1885, a man with a printing press arrived and the Steamboat Pilot printed first edition on July 31st of that year. Other businesses set up shop along Lincoln Avenue and the place took on the feeling of a rural ranching community. However, the official incorporation of Steamboat Springs as a town didn’t occur until 1900.

Who’s it Gonna Be?

In 1877, one year after Colorado received its statehood, Governor Routt signed the bill establishing Routt County. A big fight ensued over what town would get to be the county seat. It wasn’t resolved until 1912, when Steamboat Springs won the honor. In 1915, the county bought the property at 928 Lincoln Avenue for $7,000 to be the county offices and jail building.

Cattle Drive

Just around the time that Crawford was homesteading in the Steamboat Springs area, cattle ranching rose as a major part of the local economy. Large cattle outfits raised beef in the lush valleys and drove the beasts up the Muddy Trail to railroad heads in Wyoming.

When Crawford was setting up his town, he reportedly made the main street extra wide to accommodate the cattle drives through town. Cowboys still herd cattle through town, to the rodeo grounds, every 4th of July.

Railroad wars

Railroad tycoons recognized the value of building railroad access in Routt County. Rich coal fields to the south of Steamboat Springs plus the cattle operations in the Yampa Valley attracted the attention of David Moffat.

Moffat had made his money in the Cripple Creek gold fields and was a prominent Denver businessman concerned that his city was being skipped over by the railroads. The Union Pacific Railroad traversed the continent from east to west, but passed north of Colorado through Wyoming. On the other hand, the Denver and Rio Grande originated in Denver, but traveled far to the south before it turned west at Pueblo to head into the mountains.

Moffat determined to build a railroad straight west from Denver into the Rockies. He organized the Denver Northwestern and Pacific and planned to lay track from Denver to Salt Lake City, passing through the Routt County coalfields on the way.

It was an audacious goal, and it caught the attention of some pretty heavy hitters.

A 1903 article in the New York Times reported that E. H. Harriman of the Union Pacific intended to thwart Moffat’s plans and beat him into Steamboat Springs. Harriman wanted to divert the area’s business from Denver. The Union Pacific’s main line ran across the country and just north of Steamboat Springs through Wyoming. All Harriman had to do was run a line south from Larimie, Wyoming.

Nonetheless, David Moffat and the Denver Northwestern & Pacific pushed on through. From a December, 1902 start date, the railroad headed into the mountains west of Boulder, Colorado. With 33 tunnels and a route over Rollins Pass at 11, 683 feet above sea level, it was the highest railroad in North America. The railroad reached Steamboat Springs in 1908, to the pleasure of Yampa Valley residents.

Early Skis

While Steamboat Springs had always attracted summer visitors with its scenery and hot springs, winters were another story. The deep snows made mobility a trick, and locals carved long wooden skis to use in getting around.

Yah, Sure! It’s Fun!

Then, in 1912, a Norwegian named Carl Howelsen arrived on the scene. He saw skiing as a sport as much as transportation, and started showing folks in the Yampa Valley how much fun it is to play on skis.

He built a ski jump and organized cross country ski competitions, and by the following year, Steamboat Springs held its first Winter Carnival on Woodchuck Hill.

Everybody’s Skiing

Organized ski instruction, a ski club (now the oldest ski club west of the Mississippi), bigger ski jumps and more involved Winter Carnivals followed in quick succession. By 1932 Steamboat Springs was sending its first skier to the Olympics. To date, more Olympic athletes have come from Steamboat Springs than from any other town in America.

By 1947 the Associated Press was calling Steamboat Springs “Ski Town, USA”. It declared that of the 1700 residents, 1685 were skiers.

Big Plans

In the mid-1950’s plans were started for a major ski area on Storm Mountain. It opened in 1961. Renamed Mt. Werner after the tragic death of Steamboat Olympian Buddy Werner, the ski area started a major expansion in 1969.

Growth and Changes

A complex of condominium developments, the Mountain Village, at the base of the ski area was annexed to the town in 1973, doubling the size of Steamboat Springs. This heralded a change in the demographics of the area.

A tourist economy dominates, with property prices elevated by second homes and vacation homes. Workers must live farther away from their jobs and even well-educated municipal workers accept that they will never be able to afford to buy a home in Steamboat Springs, and must travel from outlying areas to work.

Authentic All Gone?

Of all the mountain towns in Colorado, Steamboat Springs may be the most authentic ski town. The sport is more deeply rooted in its history than just about anywhere else in the state. Those roots have served it well.

Yet it is succumbing to the lure of transforming itself into a Western-Town-Ski-Resort-Theme-Park as surely as Aspen and Telluride have done.

It isn’t completely there yet, but the danger is that Steamboat Springs will slowly become as plastic as the rest of them.

Related Links:

Steamboat Springs, Colorado - Overview
Best Activities for Families in Steamboat Springs
Colorado Destinations

Skiing with the Family in Colorado
Round-up of Colorado Ski Areas
Hiking with Kids
Camping in Colorado