The Hayden Expedition in 1873 opened the Gunnison Country to the outside world. With the removal of the Utes in 1881, the country was opened up to settlement on a larger scale. Coal, gold and silver brought new populations of immigrant miners into the area. The first winter in the town of Gunnison was 1874, with a population of 20 hearty settlers. Otto Mears opened up the valley to increased travel with the Marshall Pass road in the late 1870’s. Two railroads reached Gunnison in the early 1880’s, the Denver & Rio Grande and the Denver & South Park. There were two separate routes chosen for the competition to serve the growing cattle and mineral markets in the area. The Denver & Rio Grande worked up Marshall Pass, just to the south of today’s Highway 50, reaching Gunnison in August 1881. The route over Marshall Pass required 16 miles of meander and 30 snow sheds to protect the line in the winter from heavy snows.
The Denver & South Park worked it’s way up from Colorado Springs into South Park and over Trout Creek Pass dropping into Buena Vista. From there the rail line ran up to St Elmo, in the narrow valley between Mount Antero, 14,269 feet and Mount Princeton, 14,197 feet. From St. Elmo the rail line moved up to the top of the divide at the Alpine Tunnel above Pitkin. The tunnel was built at 11,523 feet just below the Contintenental Divide and required the shoreing of 500,000 board feet of California redwood timber. A massive shelf was built on the western side of the Tunnel lasting 452 feet long and 33 feet high and two feet thick. Finally in September 1882 the South Park steamed into Gunnison over a year behind the Rio Grande, giving Gunnison it’s second railroad.
Rail traffic to Gunnison was short lived, the Denver & South Park was doomed by a cave-in at the Alpine Tunnel in 1910. With the opening of the Moffat Tunnel, rail traffic dropped of through to Gunnison in the late 1930’s.
Ferdinand Hayden roamed the Gunnison area in the 1873-74, wandering up the Gunnison River and East River basins. Whilst climbing Teocalli Peal, 13,320 feet, Hayden saw two mountain tops in the distance that resembled the crests of helmets. The “Crested Buttes” were Gothic Peak and Crested Butte. It was in 1878 that Howard F. Smith of Leadville wandered up the East River and found coal deposits in the Crested Butte area. His base of operations was the confluence of the Slate River and Coal Creek. Smith built a sawmill and smelter to service the mining camps in the area, and on July 3, 1880, Crested Butte was incorporated, with a population of about 400. The economic base in the beginning of Crested Butte was as a service center for the surrounding mining camps of Gothic, Irwin, Pittsburgh, Crystal, and Schofield. Smith quickly sold half his interest in the town to William Jackson Palmer of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. Palmer brought the line up from Gunnison in 1881, giving Crested Butte land transportation to assist in supplying goods and services for the local mining interests. Within a short time, Crested Butte’s population had mushroomed to 1,000, with five hotels, three livery stables, a dozen restaurants and saloons, sawmills, doctors, lawyers, and a church. With Smith’s sale of his coal land to the precursor of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company it was a short while and coal became king in the upper valley. Both the hard anthracite and soft coal were found in abundance in Crested Butte.
The Big Mine provided an economic base when silver collapsed in 1893, producing 1,000 tons of coal per day by 1902. The Big Mine became the third largest mine in Colorado, with the high grade anthracite of any mine here in Colorado. The Big Mine finally closed in 1952, when CF & I found less expensive coal in Fremont County near its steel mills in Pueblo.
Crested Butte today is known for it’s laid back attitude in town and a trendy ski resort up on Mount Crested Butte. Dick Eflin and Fred Rice purchased the Malensek Ranch north of Crested Butte in 1960. Their first season of 1962-63 Crested Butte Ski Area had the first Ski Gondola in Colorado with ski trails coming off the northern slope of Mount Crested Butte (12,162 feet). Their project was short lived and in bankruptcy by mid decade. In 1970, Howard Bo Calloway purchased the resort, pouring $20 million into his investment. With Calloway’s investment, Mount Crested Butte has not looked back to the days of Eflin and Rice. Later becoming an incorporated town, Mount Crested Butte has become one of the largest ski resorts here in Colorado.