Explorer John C. Frémont gave his name to one of Colorado's pioneer counties, although he failed to negotiate its awesome Royal Gorge of the Arkansas River. In the Arkansas River valley, a few pre–gold rush settlements, including Hard-scrabble, an 1844 adobe plaza town, have disappeared. Cañon City, the county seat, was platted in 1859 and served as a supply center for mountain mining towns. Oil and coal, both discovered in the Cañon City–Florence area in the early 1860s, ultimately proved to be the richest natural resources.
Cañon City sandstone quarries, the Wellsville granite quarry near Howard, the Cotopaxi quarries, known for blue, red, gray, and pink granite, and the Cowan Brothers Travertine Quarries, 2 miles northwest of Cañon City, are among a dozen prominent county stone suppliers. The Ideal Cement plant at Portland has fed construction projects across the state since the 1890s. Abundant clay deposits supplied brickyards that manufactured brick for both Fremont County and the nearby Cripple Creek gold district.
The Denver & Rio Grande reached Cañon City in 1874. This railroad, by a marvelous feat of engineering, squeezed through the bottom of the Royal Gorge and on to Leadville. Along with the Arkansas River and U.S. 50, the D&RG still serves as the urban corridor of Fremont County. Cañon City has been the site of the state penitentiary since 1871. The largest of all federal prison complexes, opened in 1993 in Florence, has pumped new life and dollars into the economy. In the United States, with more than a million citizens behind bars, prisons have become a big business.
Voluntary visitors come to see the 8-mile-long, 1,000-foot-deep Royal Gorge and its suspension bridge, the biggest spectacle of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, which stretches from Leadville to Pueblo. Three roadways from Fremont County to the historic Cripple Creek Mining and Gaming District—the High Park Road, the Shelf Road, and the Phantom Canyon Road (the old Florence & Cripple Creek roadbed), form the Historic Highways and Byways “Gold Belt Tour.”
Apple orchards, which once blanketed the valley, have largely disappeared, but other agriculture, along with mining, prisons, and tourism, has given Fremont County steady, if unspectacular, population growth to 32,273 residents in 1990, roughly a third of whom live in Cañon City.
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