Garfield County, Colorado. A Short History and Description
by Judy Crook and supplemented by Vikki Gray
Garfield County is located in the scenic plateau and canyon country of western Colorado. Covering 3000 square miles, it is 110 miles long and extends to the Utah border. It was carved out of Summit County on February 10, 1883. In historical times, the earliest inhabitants were the Ute Indians, and the land was theirs by treaty until April 12, 1880, when they were removed to reservations after the "Meeker Massacre" of 1879. Although explorers, missionaries, miners, and a few settlers had already visited the area of Garfield County, the main influx of settlers began to arrive and towns were founded beginning in 1880.
The towns in Garfield County are located along the Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers in the eastern end of the county, while much of the western portion has only a few roads and fewer inhabitants.
Carbonate, a town founded high on the Flattops, was the first county seat. It is now a ghost town.
The town of Defiance was founded in 1831 by Isaac Cooper who hoped to develop the natural hot springs into a resort. Unfortunately he died before his dream could be realized. It became the county seat in 1883 and was incorporated and renamed in 1885 as Glenwood Springs, which remains the county seat and largest city today. In 1887 a coal tycoon, Walter Devereaux purchased the hot springs and vapor caves for $125,000 and began to build the famous pool and spa resort. This was the same year that the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad extended it's tracks through the difficult Glenwood Canyon and into Glenwood Springs, Aspen and beyond. 1887 was also the year that the notorious gambler, gunslinger and dentist, Doc Holliday, died of tuberculosis in Glenwood Springs. He died in bed and is buried in Linwood Cemetery although the exact burial location in the cemetery is unknown.
Carbondale was incorporated in 1888, and has been both an agricultural center and a transportation center for the marble mined at Marble and the coal mined at Redstone. Carbondale's October festival is "Potato Days" which celebrates the agricultural heritage of the area.
The Colorado Fuel and Iron Company built a series of coke ovens at Cardiff, a town formerly located near Glenwood Springs, to produce coke from coal for smelters. A few of these coke ovens survive.
New Castle, incorporated in 1888, was originally a coal mining town. In the 1890s a series of methane gas explosions over several years killed dozens of miners. The part of the Grand Hogback where the explosions took place is still burning today, and we call it Burning Mountain.
Silt, 7 miles west of New Castle, was historically a farming/ranching community. It is named after a major byproduct of the Colorado River, a river which flows from the county line east of Glenwood Springs along the interstate into Mesa County (and into Utah and Arizona). Silt was first settled in 1885 and was incorporated in 1915.
Rifle, 7 miles west of Silt, is another community that was historically a farming/ranching community. It was founded in 1882 and incorporated in 1905. Rifle lies in a valley surrounded by mesas and mountains. Teddy Roosevelt came hunting here in 1901 for bears. The bears are gone, but wildlife, especially mule deer and elk, abounds. Rifle Falls State Park is located 14 miles north of Rifle. The falls spill over a limestone cliff. In 1910 the town of Rifle built the Rifle Hydroelectric Plant at the falls (the first one in Colorado) which changed the creek's natural flow from one wide waterfall into the three falls seen today. There are 3 theories on the town's unique name. One story relates that it was named so when an early explorer left his rifle leaning against a tree and later returned for it. The second story claims that it was named for the custom of firing one's rifle to signal others. The third story states that an 1880 group of soldiers were working on the road between Rifle and Meeker. One man left his rifle at camp along a stream bank. In returning for it he named the creek Rifle Creek and the town took it's name from the creek.
Parachute, was named for the parachute-like appearance of the feeder canyons that flowed into the main valley. It was settled in 1882 and renamed Grand Valley in 1904. In 1980 the town reverted to the name Parachute after continuing confusion with the Grand River Valley and Grand Junction. On June 7, 1905 Kid Curry (of Hole-in-the-Wall Gang fame), also known as Harvey Logan, stopped and robbed the westbound Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. After boarding the train at Parachute, the train was stopped on Streit Flats, 3 miles west of town, where he was joined by 2 accomplices. They blew the safe open with dynamite and then escaped on horseback. Historians differ on whether or not the safe contained money.
Battlement Mesa (which is unincorporated) lies west of Rifle. Rifle and Parachute are nestled at the base of a vast mountain complex which we call the Bookcliffs, but which are officially called the Roan Cliffs. The Bookcliffs are composed of oil shale, which is a shale which actually burns because of the high oil content. Battlement Mesa was founded by Exxon during the 1980s during the most recent oil shale boom that went bust. The area between Rifle and Parachute is dotted with natural gas wells. In the 1970s, the federal government set off two small underground nuclear explosions near the unincorporated community of Rulison. This was an experiment to see if the tight porespaces in the rock formations could be fractured so that oil and gas could migrate further distances into existing wellbores. This would reduce the necessity of drilling more wells and lessen the impact on the enviroment. Although the experiment was a technical success, no further use of this technology has been utilized due to public concern.
While the county retains part of its ranching and farming heritage, and tourism is important, every town from Carbondale to Parachute has become a bedroom community to provide workers to the ever-booming and ever-expanding Aspen skiing economy. People commute to Aspen, 86 miles from Battlement Mesa, as well as to Grand Junction, 63 miles from Rifle.
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