Studded with 14,000-foot mountains and subjected to Colorado's coldest weather, this county is named for explorer John W. Gunnison, who also gave his name to the river. The Spanish had christened this tributary of the Colorado the Rio San Xavier before despairing of finding anything worthwhile in the rugged country through which it flows. Even Utes, and later mountain men, fled the Gunnison country during its fierce winters.
It took underground riches to lure settlers. Of the mining days little remains but prospect holes, log-ribbed mines, and more than sixty ghost towns. Gold and silver soon played out, but granite, marble, and coal sustained settlement a little longer. “White gold” in the form of plentiful snowfall has made winter sports as lucrative as summer tourism. Crested Butte, once a rich coal mining town, has been resurrected as a recreational haven with some 300 inches of snow a year. Elsewhere, quite a few ranchers survive by providing lodging for dudes, fishermen, and hunters. Gunnison, the county seat, is also a college town with a population frozen at around 5,000—half the county's residents.
Gunnison County builders wrestle with weather as well as with aesthetics. Sturdy log and granite structures with steep-pitched, snow-shedding metal roofs hunker down for the long winters. Colossal snowdrifts have made two-story outhouses and 20-foot-high clotheslines legendary.
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