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The Colorado

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Here was the glint of the blossom rock,
Here Colorado dug the gold
For a sealskin vest and a rope of pearl
And a garter jewel from Amsterdam
And a house of stone with a jig-saw porch....
Here's where they cut the conifers and ribbed
The mines with conifers that sang no more,
And here they dug the gold and went away,
Here are the empty houses, hollow mountains,
Even the rats, the beetles and the cattle
That used these houses after they were gone
Are gone; the gold is gone,
There's nothing here,
Only the deep mines crying to be filled.

—Thomas Hornsby Ferril, “Ghost Town”

The Colorado River has its source in Rocky Mountain National Park, on whose southwestern border lie the first of many manmade diversions in its course. With its tributaries the river drains all of Colorado west of the Continental Divide. For 1,500 miles it flows through the driest part of the United States, watering not only Colorado's Western Slope but also Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and southern California. Dams and diversions keep the muddy red waters, which gave both the river and the state their name, from reaching the blue Pacific.

The mighty Colorado carved out the Grand Canyon and conquered the great deserts of the Southwest, but it is now threatened by diversions and salinity, by the silting and evaporation that diminish its many dammed reservoirs. Even in the moisture-rich high Rockies, the Colorado flows through a hydraulic landscape of dams and ditches, of headgates and tunnels, of measuring stations and holding basins. Much of its water is directed under the Continental Divide to Denver, the Eastern Slope of Colorado, and, ultimately, the Atlantic Ocean.

On its course through Colorado, the river runs through rocky and forested terrain which provided material for the houses of stone and jigsaw lumber observed by Colorado poet Thomas Hornsby Ferril. Such buildings can be found in the towns along the upper Colorado and its major tributaries, the Fraser, Blue, Eagle, Roaring Fork, and Gunnison rivers. These old stone and wood dwellings may seem worlds apart from the slick new resorts of western Colorado. But since countercultural shabbiness became architecturally fashionable in the 1960s with developments such as California's Sea Ranch, newer resorts have been borrowing elements from older farms, ranches, and mining towns. From the pioneer generation of Euro-American architecture, Mineshaft Modernists borrow shed roofs, raw lumber, native stone, and straight-forward design.

Sometimes builders look back even farther, to Native American tipis. For thousands of years Ute Indians have endured the drastic climatic variations and stony, vertical landscape they called the Shining Mountains. Unlike the Anasazi and Fremont peoples, who may have been their ancestors, the Utes did not stay in one place long enough to develop extensive agriculture or architecture. They borrowed tipis from Plains Indians, who derided the mountain tribe as “bad lodge makers.” By using tipis for winter and wickiups for summer the Utes responded to the extremes of subzero winter blizzards and blazing hot summer days.

Today much of western Colorado's ordinary built environment is lumber and plywood from local aspen and pine, or sheetrock made from local gypsum. Sand and gravel, now Colorado's most profitable mining products, are used to make cinderblock, concrete, and cast stone. With most nineteenth-century quarries now closed, brick and cement plants supply materials for much of the masonry construction.

Mining, which originally led to development of the Western Slope and long dominated its economy, has collapsed. High elevations generally limit farming to cold-weather crops such as carrots, lettuce, peas, potatoes, spinach, and turnips, although the lower Colorado River valley does sustain some fruit orchards. Hay is now the main crop, and cattle and sheep raising are also important.

Many mines and mills, ranches and farms have succumbed to the new bonanza: tourism. Western Colorado's great condominium market opened with the development of Vail in the 1960s. The condominium and time-share revolution in housing, which required the rewriting of Colorado statutes to clarify ownership and responsibility, has helped make the winter sports industry western Colorado's leading source of income. “A whole new group of persons, not necessarily looking for a tax write-off,” observed The Denver Postin July 1964, “find that they can own a condominium in the Rockies as a second home … and make money from it when they're away. It's a new concept in Colorado tourism and the cash registers are ringing.”

Contemporary visitors were not the first to prospect western Colorado for scenery and recreation. Visitors have long been attracted by the awesome mountains, mesas, and canyons as well as precious metals. America's second national forest, White River (1891), embraced old mining areas in Eagle, Lake, and Pitkin counties as lands to be preserved and used for recreation. This conservation thrust, reinforced by subsequent creation of many more national forests and wilderness areas, has made western Colorado a playground for sightseeing, hunting, hiking, fishing, and camping, as well as winter sports.

Mines and ranches are being displaced by the recreational landscape. Now skiers, mountain bikers, four-wheelers, snowmobilers, and condominium developers are leaving their marks on a fragile land. No one has dared to call ski areas environmental eyesores, although they are now the most prominent and largest scars on the mountain-sides. The federal government owns all the ski area leases and about three-fourths of the Western Slope, but has permitted mining, logging, skiing, and other uses that sometimes clash with preservation goals.

Although most counties along the Colorado River are now thriving on tourism and recreation, many fringe areas have never recovered from the mining busts. In southwestern Colorado near the Utah border, towns such as Uravan and Vancorum sprang up in the 1950s on a diet of radium, uranium, and vanadium. Now they are radioactive, starving ghost towns awaiting Environmental Protection Agency Superfund cleanups. In northwestern Colorado decaying towns and scarred landscapes reflect the coming and going of oil and coal booms. The oil shale bust of the 1980s left modern ghosts of pre-fabricated metal and plywood, littered with old cars rather than old wagons. A few residents hang on, not in shacks and cabins, but in mobile homes.

Mobile homes tucked into mountain valleys and desert canyons are an architectural reminder that the recreational boom on the Western Slope has created a vast new service economy. Transient communities house carpenters and maids, ski lift operators and waitresses, nannies and gardeners who work in resort areas with multi-million-dollar homes. While the resort homes are empty most of the time, these mobile home clusters teem with workers. They have an even slimmer chance of striking it rich than the miners who first settled the Western Slope in equally transient and underpaid hordes. Like the Utes, they live in cheap, functional, mobile dwellings that few consider architecture.







Writing Credits

Thomas J. Noel

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