Delta County: A Rich Past

In Discover by JMorganLeave a Comment

Delta County was created on February 11, 1883, from portions of central Gunnison County. The composition of the county is mostly rural with agriculture being it’s base. Delta, the county seat is located  in the south at the junction of the Gunnison and Uncompahgre Rivers. South and west of the city is rich agriculture land. Following the Gunnison River to the north one finds the North Fork of the Gunnison River and the North Fork Valley. The Valley is bordered by the West Elk Mountains on the east and the Grand Mesa to the west. This area has a rich past, with initial anglo settlement being in the form of fur trappers and traders.


By 1828 Antione Robidoux established Fort Uncompahgre near the confluence of the Gunnison and Uncompahgre Rivers. The Fort in Delta County was the home for trappers on the Western Slope, ranging into Western Utah and to the crest of the Continental Divide in Colorado. Antione also traded out of Fort Untah or Fort Winty (1832- 1844) in Utah. Fort Uncompahgre was a small mud structure with wooden supports on the interior.  Since Western Colorado was part of Mexico, Robidoux applied and received a license from the Mexican government to operate his establishments. Trade goods were stocked and exchanged for furs, mostly beaver, with a number of trappers being around twenty. Kit Carson (1809- 1868) trapped the Grand River, and was based out of Fort Uncompahgre. By 1840, changes in fashion doomed the fur trade with the popularity of the silk top hat. Disaster was accelerated with the Panic of 1837 and with over trapping of the native beaver, spelled the end of an era that brought adventurers onto the western rivers in search of pelts.  Finally Fort Uncompahgre was burned down in 1844 by the Ute Indians. Once the Utes were removed to Utah in 1880, settlement opened in the Delta area and North Fork Valley area.


By 1881, settlement activity had started with Enos Throop Hotchkiss who moved from Lake City into the North Fork Valley. Hotchkiss led a group of men into the Valley, including George and William Duke, David Platt, Samuel Wade, William Clark, Samuel Angevine, and a heard of 200 horses. Enos and the Duke brothers settled in the area that would become Hotchkiss. Going up the valley another ten miles, Clark, Angevine, and Wade homesteaded in the Paonia area.


In 1883 Ira Quimby Sanborn, a geologist, left the mining town of Crested Butte in his quest for coal. Traveling up the Coal Creek drainage from town, Sanborn made his way to the mining town of Irwin, then crossing over Kebler Pass down the Ruby Anthracite Creek watershead, he dropped into the North Fork Valley.  It was at the far reaches of the Valley that Sanborn discovered a rich seam of anthracite coal. This was the birth of Somerset, with mining by hand and packing the coal out by horse and muel, Sanborn supplied locals settling in the area. By 1903, when the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad reached Sommerset, the mine had become the largest underground mine in Colorado. The town was unique, there was no graded road in or out of the area. Supporting supplies arrived by train, as well as the coal destined for far markets.


Ranching, coalmining, then fruit orchards became the foundation for the North Fork Valley. The first fruit crops came out of the Valley in the 1890’s, and grew in popularity every year. By the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, North Fork Valley fruit was taking gold medals, no small accomplishment for an isolated community of growers on the vast Western Slope. Today, ranching, coal mining, and fruit orchards dot the serene landscape from Paonia down to the Rodgers Mesa area south of Hotchkiss.


Leave a Comment