A ski town founded with Agricultural roots

Have you ever wondered why Steamboat seems to have so much Western flare compared to other Colorado ski towns? Believe it or not, these modern-day characteristics have their roots in the mid nineteenth century, a decade before Colorado was even a state. The unique geographic features of the area and the ambitions of those who first chose to settle here gave birth to a ranching culture that permeates all things Steamboat to this very day. Read on for a brief history of ranching in Routt County, and learn how the Yampa Valley became the home of cowboys who ski.

The First Transplants

According to Charles Leckenby’s 1944 history of Routt County, The Tread of the Pioneers, the first non-native year-round residents of this area were not prospectors, but a family called the Crawfords. After the Civil War, James Crawford, along with his wife Margaret and their three children, decided to leave Missouri and seek their dream home out West. They travelled across the plains with five teams to carry their belongings and four other families for companionship and safety. They made it to Denver in just 35 days and then pushed further into Grand County where their party largely dispersed. The Crawfords pushed north and west and began to build a house in Hot Sulphur after a man named William Byers talked up the imminent town he was going to found there.

Then one day, a French Canadian trapper and prospector travelling from Breckenridge to Hahn’s Peak told Crawford that the area near the Steamboat Spring, the one that the trappers named for its chug chug chugging sound, was the place he would stake his claim if he were trying to settle down. Crawford went to explore the area and found that he agreed wholeheartedly. Not only was the place beautiful, but he felt it was superb land for grazing. After persevering through some trials and tribulations, the Crawfords staked their claim and brought with them some livestock, including cattle. Early population growth was slow since the sagebrush strewn land was assumed to be poor for cultivation, but Leckenby cites an 1879 “Indian removal” following a massacre in Meeker as a turning point. Demand for ranch land was on the rise and families looking for places to settle down and graze their herds started to flock to the recently vacated Yampa Valley.

Boom, No Bust

Through the 1880’s and 90’s, Steamboat Springs developed into a bustling little town. Shopkeepers, ministers, lawyers, doctors, and others moved in to service the expanding community of ranchers settled nearby. The number of families moving in resulted in the building of schools and other public places where people could socialize and feel a sense of community. One of the early major cultural events designed to bring these cattle rearing residents together was, unsurprisingly, a rodeo. First held in 1898, the Steamboat rodeo included an orchestra, literary events, foot races, a dance, and bronco riding. Like the prospectors who built mining camps in the high peaks to the south, Steamboat’s new arrivals were dreamers, but unlike those prospectors, they had come to call this place their forever home.

Indeed, Steamboat’s homey, small-town feel in contrast with other resort towns can be traced in part to this very distinction. Many towns like Breckenridge were originally built to serve prospectors who were drawn into the high country during the Pike’s Peak gold rush. Most residents were single men looking to strike it rich and then move on. The early buildings erected in such towns served not the needs of a budding community of families so much as the interests of transient young bucks. Saloons were plentiful, schools were not. When mining prospects dried up in these places, populations usually did too. The advent of ski culture saved many settlements, notably Aspen, from near total abandonment. By contrast, Steamboat was already flourishing when Carl Howelsen first introduced its residents to snowsports in 1913. The thriving community built up around ranching did not need skiing to save it, only to make it more fun.

A Cow Town First and Always

Even after the ski resort at Mount Werner opened in 1963, Steamboat still saw itself as a ranching town first, a ski town second. Before helmets became an all but mandatory component of any ski outfit, the preference of locals to ride the slopes in cowboy hats served as a nod to this fact. It may seem surprising at first that a strong cowboy culture would make a town stand out in Colorado of all places, but while many ski towns look back on a rough and tumble heritage of mining, Steamboat owes its lineage to families seeking their forever home on a ranch out West. Downtown’s Lincoln Street is still wide enough for the cattle drives that used to pass through town and the Pro Rodeo Series is a Steamboat staple that continues to take place today. From the cowboy hats worn by ambassadors at the ski resort to the horseback skijoring events at the Winter Carnival, from the collections of fine Western art in our galleries to the F.M. Light & Sons ads for Western wear lining the roads to town to the heel spur in our logo, the influence of these pioneer settlers is very much alive and an enduring part of what makes this town so unique.