Ouray (1875, 7,706 feet), the county seat and only sizable town, was started by prospectors from Silverton who found silver along the Uncompahgre River near its confluence with Oak and Canyon creeks. Francis Carney, owner of the Blake Placer at the north end of town, did not find gold or silver but did discover a good clay for brick. He opened a brickyard on the site that produced fine and inexpensive building material. Carney also developed considerable skill as a mason and contractor for such structures as the courthouse, the hospital, the St. Elmo Hotel, the Western Hotel, and the Wright Opera House.
Transportation enabled the county to ship out its products at a profit. The Red Mountain and Uncompahgre Canyon toll road, which later became U.S. 550, the so-called Million Dollar Highway ( OR26), reached Ouray from Silverton in 1886. The Denver & Rio Grande arrived from Montrose a year later. Although set back by the 1893 silver crash, the town shifted to gold, relying on the Camp Bird, Revenue, Virginius, and other auriferous treasure troves.
A National Register Historic District encompasses 331 structures and most of the town between Oak and 5th streets and 3rd and 8th avenues. The brothels, gambling joints, and theaters that once made up a formidable vice district are gone, as is the brewery, whose stone ruins now serve as a picnic ground.
Despite a raucous past, Ouray has become genteel. Quiet, tree-shaded dirt streets are lined by well-kept Victorian homes. The city and several motels have harnessed hot springs to heat their buildings. From the beginning, Ouray was not just another “git and get out” mining town. It strove for architectural prominence and permanence by building in brick and stone. “Ouray, though a mining town,” as Mae Lacy Baggs put it in Colorado: The Queen Jewel of the Rockies (1918), “takes its dignity very seriously.”
Ouray also takes its recreation seriously. Numerous hiking and jeep trails start in town, including paths to the Box Canyon and lower and upper Cascade Falls. Near the upper falls lie the metal-roofed remains of the Chief Ouray Mine boarding house and machine shop. On Main Street (U.S. 550), some old dwellings have been converted to bed and breakfast inns: Main Street House, 334 Main; 1898 House (1898), 322 Main; and the hewn log Miner's Cabin (1889), 318 Main.
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