This mountainous realm is drained by the Uncompahgre River and its tributaries, which water ranches and farms in the relatively flat northern half of the county. The mountainous southern half, consisting of the lofty Sneffels and Courthouse ranges, lies largely within the Uncompahgre National Forest.
Ouray, the peacemaking Ute chief, is commemorated by the name the county took when formed in 1877. Gold discoveries had lured prospectors after the Utes were dispossessed in 1873. Silver had become more important by the 1880s, but, with the crash of 1893, fortune seekers refocused on gold. The county's last two great mines, the Idarado and the Camp Bird, both closed by the 1980s.
David Day, the founding editor of Ouray's wonderfully witty newspaper, the Solid Muldoon, maintained as early as the 1880s that tourism was a resource to be mined. Despite Day's prodding, the county did not seriously begin to court tourists until the 1920s, when the town of Ouray built the municipal hot springs pool and bathhouse ( OR03). By then the county had more ghost towns than live ones. Today, of twenty-four post office towns, only Ouray and Ridgway are still active.
The county population peaked at 7,000 by the early 1890s with about half that number in Ouray. Since the 1893 silver crash, populations in both the town and the county have shrunk; Ouray town stabilized at around 700 residents and the county at about 3,000. Recent growth has been largely centered in Ridgway, where fashion clothier Ralph Lauren, actor Dennis Weaver, and other celebrities have taken to gentleman ranching. Lauren, who can sometimes be seen driving around the area in designer jeans and an old pickup truck, was lauded by Vanity Fairas “a real godsend to Ouray County. He set the tone for the new look of it.” Weaver promotes environmentalism and operates the Big Barn Dance Hall in Ridgway.
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