“Museum” is not quite the right word to describe this attraction, which in 2011 received honorable mention as one of True West Magazine’s Museums of the Year. Inside the 10,000 square-foot main building is an entire meticulously recreated historic town, consisting of a post office, doctor and dentist offices, drugstore, saloon, dry goods store and many more fascinating, historically accurate displays from the real Wild West.
But that’s not all. The grounds are also home to 25 authentic historic buildings including a 1913 German Lutheran church, an 1890 schoolhouse with a bell that still rings, an 1882 Denver & Rio Grande Railroad Section House, and a carriage house and blacksmith shop that once doubled as Jack Dempsey’s fighting hall, all of which have been rescued from other communities across the Western Slope and brought here to be restored and brought back to life.
Altogether, the Museum of the Mountain West contains over 500,000 original relics, artifacts, and items of historical significance – including Butch Cassidy’s riding chaps and saddle – all displayed in their natural environment instead of being tucked away in a display case. Museum founder and director Richard Fyke is a retired historical archeologist with a distinguished career, and is an expert in historical restoration. He began collecting western memorabilia when he was just 4 years old!
Because of its scale, the museum he has created must be toured with a trained docent who can explain and interpret what you are seeing, and help flesh out the picture of what life was like for the people who lived in these times.
“Forget about what you think you know,” said museum curator Robert DeQuinze, who scoffs at Hollywood’s version of the Wild West. “This was their world.”
It’s a world where whores wore brass knuckles and kept vials of laudanum around their necks in case their clients got out of hand. Where the town barber was more often than not the town dentist as well, and if you had a toothache, “would just get you drunk and pull it out.” It’s a world where there were no antiseptics, no antibiotics, no deodorant. And that’s what you get when you come here – an authentic, unsanitized whiff of what life was really like in the Wild West. You can see it, sense it, smell it. It alters how you feel inside.
The Museum of the Mountain West is open year-round, Mondays through Saturdays, from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. (970/240-3400, mountainwestmuseum.com)
Fort Uncompahgre, 205 Gunnison River Drive, Confluence Park, Delta
“Time is fluid in this place,” one visitor scrawled on a comment board inside la cocina, the kitchen, at Ft. Uncompahgre in the city of Delta’s Confluence Park. The comment is perceptive. Although the low-slung cottonwood log and adobe structures here were built in 1990, they have been so carefully and faithfully recreated that it is hard to believe they don’t date back to the 1830s and 1840s when the original Ft. Uncompahgre (located near here) was inhabited by a thriving community of fur trappers and their families, led by Antoine Robidoux.
The term “Fort Uncompahgre” is not exactly accurate; it was never used for any military purposes, and its pointy stockade was meant to keep domestic animals in, not to keep invaders out. It was in reality a trading post, where fur trappers or mountain men brought in their pelts and skins and exchanged them for money and goods imported from the U.S. and Mexico.
To get the full impact of this magical place, a guided tour is highly recommended. Costumed interpreters have taken on the historical characters of folk who may have once lived here. Tours conclude with a chance to try your hand at ax-throwing (harder than it looks) and a trip to “Wal-mart” – Ft. Uncompahgre’s company store that is stocked with (not for sale) items like lice combs, seed beads and rancid beaver tails.
The days of fur trapping are an often-overlooked part of this region’s past, but thanks to Ft. Uncompahgre, thousands of school children and visitors from around the world have had a chance to taste what it was like to live and work here during those colorful times. The attraction has been rated one of the top tours in “Best Places to Take Your Kids in Colorado.” Ft. Uncompahgre is open from mid-April through September. Access may be limited during the late summer or early fall of 2013 due to scheduled road construction. Guided tours are best set up in advance through the City of Delta’s Cultural Department. (970/874-7566, deltacolorado.org)
Ouray Alchemist, 533 Main Street, Ouray
On a shelf not far from an ornate leech urn and a porcelain model of the human head once used for the now-debunked study of phrenology, lies a large, shiny black bezoar – a stony concretion formed inside a goat’s stomach that was used in Victorian times as an antidote to poison. No, Harry Potter fans, it’s not the storeroom in Hogwarts Castle where Professor Severus Snape stashed his private supply of potions and potion ingredients. It’s the Ouray Alchemist, an intriguing new museum that faithfully reproduces the feeling of a 19th century frontier pharmacy in western Colorado. At that time, every little town had a drugstore, and 90 percent of the population was addicted to opium and cocaine – both of which were common ingredients in many over-the-counter remedies. Much of the museum collection has been acquired from local sources, including the historic mining towns of the San Juan Mountains, where collectors often go “prospecting” for treasure in old outhouse pits in people’s back yards. The oldest artifact on display, however, is a Greek stone medicinal vessel dating back to 350 BC. Museum Director Curtis Haggar, a retired pharmacist, has spent 40 years assembling this astonishing collection, which also includes the oldest known prescription in Colorado, dating back to 1867, the mortar and pestle from Ouray pharmacist and beloved town father Frank Massard, a real cigar-store Indian and a marble soda fountain with silver plated elephant trunks. “I may sound kind of crazy, but this is an art form for me,” Haggar said. Guided tours are offered three times a day throughout the summer season. (970/325-4003)
Silverton Mining Heritage Center, 1569 Greene Street, Silverton
When the Caledonian Boarding House up Minnie Gulch near Silverton started to collapse under the weight of a talus slope that was slowly sliding into it from behind, its owners gave the San Juan County Historical Society permission to dismantle the 125-year-old structure and bring it down to town. The hand-axed timber boarding house, now carefully rebuilt, forms the core of the Silverton Mining Heritage Center – hands-down one of the best places to learn about hardrock mining outside of a real hardrock mine.
“The museum is a monument to the people who went before us. They worked really hard, and we wanted to get that story out – that combination of hope and despair,” said SJCHS board member Scott Fetchenheir, one of the team of fanatics who saw this incredible museum through from dream to reality.
Connected to the SJCHS’s equally excellent Jailhouse Museum via an underground tunnel, the three-story Mining Heritage Center contains mining artifacts and interpretive displays from throughout the legendary historic Silverton mining district, including an authentic wooden aerial tram tower, complete with cables and ore buckets, from the Iowa Tiger Mine and Mill in Arrastra Gulch; an omnibus, or bottom-dump wagon, thought to have been used by Otto Mears during construction of the Silverton Railroad; and an authentic “potty car” in which miners once relieved themselves while they were putting in their shift underground. The museum also contains an authentic assay lab, a fully equipped blacksmith shop, and most impressive of all, a brilliantly recreated three-story stope showing the secret inner workings of a hardrock mine. (970/387-5838, silvertonhistoricsociety.org)
Ute Indian Museum, 17253 Chipeta Road, Montrose
Flanked by a row of tipis on the southern outskirts of Montrose near the Uncompahgre River, this museum is dedicated to preserving and honoring the culture of the three remaining tribes of Ute Indians. It sits in the heart of traditional Ute territory on lands once homesteaded by Chief Ouray and his wife Chipeta. The spacious and serene grounds include the Chief Ouray Memorial Park, Chipeta’s crypt, a native plants garden and a monument to the Spanish explorers Dominguez and Escalante, priests who traveled through the area in 1776. The museum offers a variety of programs for families. Museum director C.J. Brafford, a Lakota Oglala Sioux, had a vision at age nine that she would be the “carekeeper of belongings of the past.” She has a knack for capturing the essence of traditional Ute culture in a way that emphasizes our common humanity. “You come here to get the experience of Indian people,” she said, “but I like people to remember that you too have your own stories that are just as important; you too come from somewhere. It isn’t just about the Indians.” (970/249-3098; historycolorado.org/museums/)
Telluride Historical Museum, 201 W. Gregory Avenue, Telluride
Far more than artifacts under glass, this excellent museum housed inside an old mining hospital at the bottom of Tomboy Road offers fireside chats, walking tours, field trips to regional areas of interest, and a Hike Into History program exploring the high country in celebration of the region’s rich history. Kids love the interactive outdoor mining exhibit that simulates setting off an explosive round inside a heading in a hardrock mine. This summer, don’t miss a special exhibit celebrating the fascinating history of hydroelectricity in and around Telluride. (970/728-3344, telluridemuseum.org)
Ouray County Historical Museum , 420 6th Avenue, Ouray
A charismatic, award-winning museum located in the historic St. Joseph’s Miners’ Hospital in downtown Ouray. Kids especially love the mineral room in the basement with fluorescent specimens that glow with spectacular colors under ultraviolet light. Adults and kids alike are fascinated by a hospital room display with equipment and procedures from the past. Put a nickel in the museum’s mutoscope to view an old-fashioned moving picture show of a boxing match between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey. The Ouray County Historical Society also offers a summer’s worth of intriguing historical programming, including the popular Evenings in History lecture series on Tuesday evenings in June and July at the Ouray Community Center, and guided walking tours of historic downtown Ouray and the Cedar Hill Cemetery. (970/325-4576, ouraycountyhistoricalsociety.org)
Ouray County, Ranch History Museum, 208 County Road 1, Colona
Located in the historic Colona School a quarter mile west of Highway 550 on Ouray County Road 1, the museum’s diverse exhibits offer an intimate glimpse into the lives of Ouray County’s pioneer ranching families, many of whose descendants still live and work on the family ranch today. Kid-friendly interactive exhibits include a sand box with old-fashioned miniature ranch-themed toys, and a “Guess What This Was Used For?” display table covered with interesting ranch tools and gadgets. Open Sunday afternoons, May through September, and also by appointment. (970/626-5726, ocrhm.org)
Ridgway Railroad Museum, 150 Racecourse Road, Ridgway
Ridgway is the birthplace of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad, so it is only fitting that the town has a museum dedicated to the preservation of the history of railroading in Ouray County and surrounding areas. The museum is located at the junction of US Highway 550 and Colorado State Highway 62 in Ridgway. Its indoor display area includes artifacts, pictures, models, paper documents and tools. The museum also has an impressive collection of rolling stock native to the area, ranging from engines, cabooses and box cars to the famous Galloping Goose #4. Serious rail fans will also go gaga for the D&SNGRR Depot/Train Museum in Durango, and its counterpart at the railroad’s northern terminus in Silverton. (ridgwayrailroadmuseum.org, durangotrain.com)
Montrose County, Historical Museum, 21 North Rio Grande Avenue, Montrose
Located in the old Denver & Rio Grande Railroad Depot on the corner of Main Street and Rio Grande Avenue, the museum celebrates the many facets of the heritage of Montrose and its surrounding areas. Exhibits focus on early pioneer life, farming, ranching, mining, Native American artifacts, railroad Items and more. (970/249-2085, montrosehistory.org)
Pioneer Town Museum, 338 South Grand Mesa Drive, Cedaredge
Outstanding museum near Cedaredge featuring 24 buildings with displays most of which are actual artifacts from the era, represented from the historical period of the late 1800s and the early 1900s. All of the structures are either original restorations, or authentic replicas. A vivid reminder of how the early settlers to the Surface Creek Valley and Colorado lived. (970/856-4769, pioneertown.org)