HISTORY OF THE COLORADO RIVER RANCH
North American rights © Susie Kincade, 2010
High in the Never Summer Mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park a humble trickle forms the beginnings of the mighty Colorado River. Flowing ever downward, the Colorado picks up steam from numerous springs, creeks and rivers before plunging chaotically through the granite Gore Canyon. It then begins a peaceable stretch, meandering through the rich, fertile cattle lands of northern Eagle County.
Braiding its way along a southwesterly course, the Colorado weaves together the lives and livelihoods of people living in many small valleys on its course. In one such valley ten miles above the confluence of the Colorado and Eagle Rivers, is the Colorado River Ranch, one of the older historic working ranches in Eagle County.
The breathtaking 1040 acre ranch is embraced on the west by pastel sandstone mountains of purple and rose hues; backed by the Flattops Wilderness. Pinion and juniper covered red sandstone mountains mark the northern boundary, while the east and south sides feature low hills covered in sage.
Three thoroughfares bisect the ranch's lush hay meadows. Running for two and a half miles through the heart of the ranch is the Colorado River, paralleled to the east by the tracks of the Denver & Rio Grande railroad and then the Colorado River Road. Each bespeaks a part of the ranch's rich history.
Sixty million years ago a huge uplift in the earth's crust gave the Rocky Mountains a bit of the look they have today. Then three million years ago, volcanic action was followed by ice forming glaciers that further cut and carved the mountains. All the while, the great rivers did their part, crashing through drainages, scouring the valleys with glacial debris. One of those great rivers was the one we today call the Colorado. While it helped carve the mountains, it also supported the evolving flora and fauna of the river basin.
The first evidence of human activity in Eagle County dates to 11,000 years ago. Spear points found suggest that people came here, if not to live, then at least to hunt big game.
About 7000 years ago a small band of people probably passed through lands of the Colorado River Ranch as they followed the winding Colorado River in search of a summer home. About 30 miles farther up-river they set up camp on a sagebrush and juniper bench near the base of Yarmony Mountain. This became the regular summer home for the small clan and its descendants for close to 600 years. They migrated from winter homes in the deserts of western Colorado and Utah, drawn by the bounty of food the river supplied and the plentiful game that came to drink along the banks.
Eventually, one band built a sturdy pit house dug into the ground and roofed with sticks and mud, and decided to spend the winter. Thus they became the first known year- round residents of Eagle County.
These people knew the cycles of mountain life and weather. They survived off the abundant resources the land provided, no doubt roaming as far as the Colorado River Ranch to hunt. When deer, elk and bison moved down from the high country in the fall, the men skillfully hunted them with spears and atlatls, or spear throwers. Smaller mammals like porcupine and marmots made a good meal in the summer months and jackrabbits could be snared throughout the year.
Women gathered prickly pear cactus, one of their staples, and taught their children how to burn off the spines or scrape them off with rocks. They pounded juice from the leaves and used it for making medicinal teas and for fixing the colors on painted hides. They ate the fruit and seeds, raw or roasted.
The children picked lamb's quarter, chewed the leaves and harvested the thousands of tiny black seeds. In late summer they gathered pinion nuts and picked chokecherries and currants that their mothers added to animal fat for making pemmican. Along the river's banks, they found good patches of wild parsnip, onions and yampa and returned when the plants were in seed to carefully sow the area, ensuring next year's crop. This was likely the first form of agriculture on the lands of the Colorado River Ranch.
This band gave up its year-round mountain home when a fire destroyed the pit house and stores. Another clan arrived and built a new, grand pit-house in the same location 300 years later. However, the trials of cold, starvation and deprivation during the rugged winters defeated them too, and within a few years they abandoned their home by the river.
For the next several thousand years, the lands along the Colorado River in Eagle County were used mainly as the summer hunting grounds for small bands of people who resided elsewhere.
Around 700 years ago the Ute Indians began concentrating in the high plateaus of eastern Utah and Colorado. They came to the Colorado River and her tributaries each summer to camp, hunt, and gather stores for the winters, much as their ancestors had at Yarmony Mountain. However, with the bow and arrow at their disposal, and later the horse, they mastered the mountains.
Natural horsemen, the Utes used their horses to their fullest advantage, for hunting, trading, racing, and working. Within a few generations the Utes bred a fine stock of strong, pinto ponies, fattened by the protein-rich mountain grasses.
By the time the first white trappers wound their way into the highest Rocky Mountain valleys, the Utes were in command of this terrain. Their buckskin and buffalo hide economy was strong; their culture was solid, and they lived well by their own standards. A peaceful people, they shared the mountains with the strange looking white men, little knowing that their world was soon to change irrevocably.
When gold was discovered in Colorado in 1859, the territory's future was cast. During the heady days of the mining boom, Leadville attracted every kind of fortune seeker imaginable. Along with miners came hucksters, con artists, gamblers, and women to satiate them all. Such excitement also attracted young adventurers who simply wanted to join the frenzy.
One such eighteen-year-old was Sam Doll. With nothing but a horse and what goods he could purchase with his US Army severance pay, Doll lit out for the great mining camps of the west. An adventurer, gambler, and entrepreneur, he followed his instinct to his fortune.
Doll arrived in Leadville in the late-1870's and quickly made a name for himself as a professional gambler. It wasn't long, however, before his more adventurous nature took hold and he began to wander from the chaotic mining camp.
Following the Eagle River, he rode his horse north, then west eventually arriving at Gypsum. There he met another adventurer, James Borah, who knew the terrain and loved to hunt. Borah and Doll partnered up on many forays into the surrounding mountains. They guided hunting trips and often set out together to track a troublesome bear or cougar. From Minturn to the Flattops, the two knew the mountains of Eagle County as well as any man.
Doll's younger brother, Frank, joined him in 1885 and together they set out to secure their future prosperity in the land and growing communities of Colorado’s central mountains. The Doll brothers set up business in Gypsum, homesteading 160 acres along Gypsum Creek. Combining Frank's practical sensibilities with Sam's entrepreneurial spirit, they opened the first flour mill and general store in town. Over the next few years they acquired a store in Parachute, a machinery shop in Eagle and a livery in Leadville as well. However, their land holdings were even more extensive.
Using his knowledge of the surrounding mountain valleys from his hunting days with James Borah, Sam purchased prime land throughout three counties. He and Frank raised cattle, sheep, horses and hogs on tens of thousands of acres. Often they picked up large acreages by watching for homesteaders, sick and tired of being sick and tired, who would move out of the area. That was how, in 1923, Sam Doll bought the Colorado River Ranch at a sheriff's sale. They called it the Grand River Ranch, after the former name of the Colorado.
The Dolls knew well the fertile acres of their new ranch. They had passed through many times, driving cattle to and from their other lands. Now they used it for their own herds. They built onto a one-room shack put up by an early homesteader, making a decent bunkhouse for a cowhand or two, but no one lived on the ranch full time.
Around the same time a young couple, Herman and Alice Schultz, were eking out a meager existence on two nearby properties. The jaunty German married his young bride in 1912 and homesteaded 160 acres, living in a one-room dug out cabin up Red Dirt Creek, eight miles north of the Grand River Ranch. At the dug out, Alice gave birth to ten children in sixteen years. A pair of twins died in infancy.
Herman supported the family with a lumber mill he built on Sugarloaf Mountain, a few miles above the Grand River Ranch. The family spent summers at Sugarloaf, cutting, milling and hauling lumber down into the Eagle River valley.
In 1916, Herman donated lumber from the mill to build the schoolhouse that still stands on the Colorado River Ranch. In winter, the children rode their horses sixteen miles round-trip to school, leaving well before dawn and returning in the frozen night. When the littlest boy, Elbert, arrived home nearly frozen on more than one occasion, Alice Schultz finally put her foot down and insisted that the family move forty miles west to the town of Silt where the children could easily go to school. Herman reluctantly agreed and the Schultzes pulled up stakes on Red Dirt in 1928.
Three years later, while tending his mill on Sugarloaf Mountain, Schultz learned that Sam and Frank Doll were selling the western section of their Grand River ranch. Without a second thought, he snatched it up and returned his family to the Colorado River area that he loved.
Elbert recalled the excitement of the trip to the Grand River Ranch from Silt when he was thirteen years old.
"We had a herd of about thirty cattle and ten horses and we took three days to move them those forty miles. We camped one night near Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon and a young girl, Garnet Ping, driving her daddy's new car, came around the corner and hit one of our cows and killed it," remembered Elbert with a chuckle.
The Schultz family settled into a one-room cabin under the cottonwood trees where Willow Creek met the Colorado. Life on Willow Creek Ranch, as they called it, was never easy, but it was good. The place seemed to come alive with the first sounds of children's voices and laughter since the Ute Indian days. However, even with nine children now to share the work, the Schultzes barely got by.
"Life was rough, mighty rough. Nothing but work all the time," said Elbert.
His younger sister, Ruth Schultz Jacox, echoed his sentiment.
"We worked hard and never played until all the chores were done, which was almost never. One of my jobs was to make sure there was always kindling for the stove. One day I forgot, and boy, did I hear a lot of German from my dad!"
The older boys worked with Herman at the mill while the girls and younger children tended the horses, cattle, sheep and hogs, did the gardening, gathered wood, cleaned house, and hauled water from the river. To make that chore easier, they rigged a goat cart for dragging heavy milk cans of water from the river to the house.
When the chores were finished, the children found many adventurous ways to entertain themselves. In the summer they rode broncs or calves, swam, and fished in the river. In winter they ice skated or went sledding. Elbert recalled that they'd trek to the top of a steep hill with a homemade toboggan and see "who had the guts to ride it down. Getting bruised or skinned up was a part of life on the ranch."
In winter, Herman augmented the family income by hunting bear and mountain lion. With his hound dogs, Schultz guided lion hunters and was well-known as a keen and successful guide. The $50 bounty he received for each lion hide was a boon to the family.
The then-undammed Colorado River often surged over its banks with the spring snow melt. The older boys watched for rising water and the huge logs and debris it often carried. In particularly high water years, logs would jam against the swinging foot bridge that spanned the river, breaking it apart. Then the family would be stranded at the ranch until the water retreated and they rebuilt the bridge.
Trips to Gypsum, 15 miles away, for supplies were infrequent and arduous. The road over Trail Gulch was narrow, steep and treacherous. In several places, if two wagons met, one would have to be disassembled, carried past the other and reassembled. Frank Doll's grandson, Frank, carried a distaste for the old road throughout his life.
"I've been over that road many times and never did like it one dime. It's rough, steep, narrow, dusty, and miserable," he said.
To Alice's delight, the schoolhouse built in 1916 directly across the river from Willow Creek Ranch was put back into service with the arrival of the Schultz clan. Chloe Jackson taught first through eighth grades to as many as a dozen children in the tiny, one-room building. The children were taught together, with the older ones helping the younger students. From September until May, the Schultz children crossed the river on the footbridge and walked across the fields to the little schoolhouse. They stoked the wood stove in winter and skied on the sage hills behind the schoolhouse at recess, using barrel staves and homemade skis.
Ruth recalled trudging through deep snow that came up to her waist. "We just don't get snow like that anymore," she reflected, during her last years where she still lived a few miles upstream from her childhood home.
Elbert joked that he celebrated his school reunion every year with just himself, as he was the sole graduate of eighth grade in 1934. The school stayed in use until 1945, and also served as a community center. Neighbors from all around gathered to dance to Herman Schultz's accordion, share news, and trade the hardships of ranch life for an evening of fun and laughter.
The Schultzes' good neighbor, Burr Fuller, lived across the river and to the south. Fuller leased an old homesteader cabin from the Dolls and raised sheep during the 1930's. Ruth Schultz Jacox recollected that later several other people lived in that log house at the south end of the Colorado River ranch. Sometimes the school teacher used the house. For a while a man named Jim Ross lived there and grew potatoes. He constructed the potato cellar that remains today.
To the north and east, where the current ranch house and buildings sit, the Dolls rented out another portion of their Grand River Ranch to the Stout family. The Stouts had ten children and scratched out a living similar to the Schultz family.
They raised stock and farmed wheat, oats, alfalfa and potatoes. Eighty-year-old Myrtle Stout Price called to mind that, as the oldest girl, she did all the housework and that the boys hunted coyote for bounty to help support the family.
"We worked almost all the time," she said. "For fun we played ball, hide 'n seek, climbed the hills, fished in the river, and had all the Schultzes to play with. We and the Schultz kids just about filled up the schoolhouse."
The Stouts lived in an old log house with two bedrooms and the boys slept in the bunkhouse. When the house burned down, the whole family crowded into the bunkhouse. Shortly thereafter, dispirited and broke, they moved to Gypsum to start a new life.
In 1934 a big change came to the peaceful river valley. The Denver & Rio Grande railroad completed a line from the Moffat Tunnel to Dotsero, cutting straight through the hay meadows to the east of the river through the Colorado River Ranch. The D&RG built a siding directly across the river from Willow Creek Ranch and named it Range. A pump-house filled two giant water tanks that replenished the big steam engines. Bunkhouses were erected to accommodate rotating crews.
The older Schultz boys found good paying jobs, and their horizons expanded when they occasionally hopped a freight train headed for Denver. Overnight, transporting the family's lumber, cattle and sheep became far easier. Within a year of its completion, the Dotsero Cut Off, as it was known, saw heavy freight and high-speed passenger train traffic. Range siding closed and was completely disassembled in the mid-1950's but the freight and passenger trains continue to run to this day.
In the mid-1940's, the Colorado River Road between Sweetwater and Dotsero was finally completed, making the rugged Trail Gulch road to Gypsum obsolete. While building the new road, crews realigned and straightened existing segments, including the section along the River Ranch that curved around on the river side of the old schoolhouse.
The winding Colorado River Road has been a delight for leisurely travelers and local residents since its completion. However, when the beautiful passageway was nominated for "Scenic Byway" designation in the late 1980's, local folk strongly objected. Opposed to the improvements necessary for the Scenic Byway status and the potential increase in traffic on the road, the locals won their fight to keep the Colorado River Road a quiet, ambling, country road.
The opening of the Vail Ski Area in 1962, nearly 50 miles from the ranch would eventually have a profound impact on the entire county. But when a Denver philanthropist named William F. Stevens purchased the Willow Creek Ranch from Herman Schultz's son, Bill, in 1964, that part of the county remained fully based in ranching and agriculture. Stevens also bought adjacent lands where Burr Fuller and the Stouts had lived, consolidating the parcels that today make up the Colorado River Ranch. He built a small home across the river from the old Schultz cabins and spent as much time there as possible, taking part in community affairs and being a good neighbor to all until his death a few years later.
Bill and Neva Nottingham bought the ranch in 1985. Neva recalls that it was very rundown and neglected when they first moved there. The grandson of one of the first homesteaders in Eagle County, Nottingham set about making it into a profitable working ranch.
He drilled new wells; tilled and re-seeded hay fields; rebuilt fences and corrals; replaced irrigation pipe, repaired ditches, and brought in diesel pumps to irrigate. He added on to existing buildings and built new ones at the north end of the property. Though he bulldozed the old Schultz cabin and bunkhouse, he made use of the schoolhouse as a hog shelter.
Nottingham ran a successful cattle operation for many years before deciding to reduce his land holdings. In 1998, he sold the ranch to Cordillera, a land development company that had seen great success in Edwards, buying up old ranches and developing them into high end estate communities with golf courses. The mushrooming popularity of Vail and Beaver Creek, of skiing and summer recreation had changed the character of the entire county. It had slowly turned from a rural agricultural economic base to one almost completely dependent on the resort industry and accompanying businesses like real estate and construction. The Nottingham family had owned land throughout the county and had witnessed and benefitted from the transformation. Yet they held tight to a reverence of the land; Bill’s wife, Neva, explained that they sold the land to Cordillera "because we knew they'd do a good job taking care of it."
To its credit, Cordillera kept the ranch as a working ranch, hiring a manager, raising rich, nourishing hay and running a substantial cow and calf operation. Development plans for the ranch never materialized, however, and Cordillera sold it to a sole owner in 2003 who let the ranch lay fallow for several years. In 2008, it was purchased by River Ranch LLC, a partnership based in Jackson and Cape Girardo, Missouri. Since then, River Ranch LLC has returned the ranch to working status while focusing on protecting it as a natural resource and preserving its agricultural heritage.
Today, the river, tamed by multiple dams upstream, runs peacefully in its course. Passenger and freight trains lumber through daily while cattle placidly graze the fertile bottom lands that await the next chapter in the ranch’s history. Colorado River Ranch remains spectacularly bucolic tucked into its high mountain valley, a place that speaks of heritage and history and the continual promise of river and earth.