A story of Western grit: new book chronicles Grand County’s 150-year history
Images of America: Grand County celebrates the county's founding
Grand County is full of living history. Nineteenth century stagecoach stops that provided respite for travelers have been transformed into museums, such as Cozens Ranch in Fraser. By Winter Park Resort, trains rumble through the Moffat Tunnel, which connected the county to the world via railroad in 1928. Author Penny Rafferty Hamilton, Ph.D., chronicles these historical landmarks and many more in her book “Images of America: Grand County.”
The book, which celebrates 150 years of Grand County’s history, was published on Feb. 20. Grand County will celebrate its 150th anniversary in February 2024. This makes the county older than Colorado itself, which was a territory at the time.
“Over the past 150 years, the story of Grand County has been one of perseverance and determination,” writes Hamilton in her book’s preface. “Blessed with majestic, snowy mountains, fish-filled lakes, and clear streams, tourists come to Grand County to enjoy every sport the great outdoors offers. But survival on this Island in the Rockies has not been easy. Grand County’s unique story makes a great and heartwarming saga of true Western grit.”
This is Hamilton’s fourth book about Grand County, and her most comprehensive, going all the way back to even when dinosaurs roamed the area. On Feb. 9, Hamilton spoke about her book with Gaylene Ore on the 970 Grand County Podcast, produced by the Grand County Tourism Board.
“We decided to (publish) it in 2023 so that we could have events leading up toward … the 150th anniversary of the founding,” Hamilton told Ore on the podcast. “We love Grand County and we want others to understand how many important people devoted their energy (and) time to building Grand County.”
A picture tells a thousand words
The book includes 219 archival photos, including some never seen by the public before.
“The picture propels the history and the reading, so it’s a great book for all ages of the family,” Hamilton said.
The book’s photos are diverse as Grand’s history. They span from indigenous people, such as Chief Ouray, whose name is remembered on several Colorado landmarks, to the women who homesteaded what is now Devil’s Thumb Ranch, a top U.S. resort destination. Each photo had to compliment the previous one, as well as stand alone as a unique artifact.
“It was a lot like a jigsaw puzzle,” Hamilton said of mapping the book out. “What you need to do is get the photo and let the photo tell the story.”
It took Hamilton 18 months to write the book, including research and compiling the photos. Hamilton explained that countless organizations contributed photographs to make the book possible. These included: Devil’s Thumb Ranch, Flying Heels Rodeo, Northern Water, Denver Water and more. Individuals and families also shared photos.
“When we wrote the acknowledgements, I had to write thank you to all these people; I wanted everyone to know who helped,” Hamilton said. “My editor kept saying you have to have it in one page but there’s so many people to thank!”
Hamilton begins her book by taking readers back millions of years to the age of dinosaurs. The allosaurus, a formidable carnivore, once dominated the land. In 1869, Ferdinand Hayden discovered the first allosaurus fossil in North America while surveying Grand County geology.
Hamilton also includes a section on the Native Americans who once called the area home, before conflicts with white settlers pushed them onto reservations. The Utes, who hunted and enjoyed the area’s natural hot springs, called themselves the “People of the Shining Mountains” after the majestic Rocky Mountains. The Arapahoe and Cheyenne tribes also lived in the area.
Hamilton explained that in the late 1800s, the Homestead Act drew many people from around the country and Europe to own their own land. They braved harsh winters, relying on themselves for survival in the remote Rocky Mountains.
“Grand county was a mix early on of people who wanted to take the opportunity. These were gritty people,” she said on the podcast. “I mean, there was no Mountain Parks Electric and there was no hot water, they had to build things … I’m hopeful that when our listeners read this book, they will say, ‘Grand County, we owe so much to those pioneers.’”
Stagecoach travel was lifeline for Grand County from the late 1800s to early 1900s. An important stage (or route between stops) ran from Georgetown near Denver to Hot Sulphur Springs. Once weary travelers crested Berthoud Pass on their way west, they could stop in Grand.
“We have Cozens Ranch that started out as one of our first stagecoach stops and they offered hot meals and a night,” she said. “The 4 Bar 4 Ranch that’s still here on County Road 5.”
A little-known fact is that many homesteaders were women. In the late 1800s, the Harbison sisters homesteaded in Grand Lake, running a dairy farm together. At this time, women’s rights were heavily restricted – they couldn’t vote, have their own bank account, serve in the military, or own property if they were married.
“It was amazing that they could have their own land!” Hamilton said. “Their patents (title to the land) were signed by Teddy Roosevelt.”
In Tabernash, Margarite Ratcliff built a homestead that started as a dairy farm in the 1930s. It is now the luxury destination, Devil’s Thumb Ranch.
Hamilton also includes photos of the Union Pacific railroad, known as the Moffat Road where it connected the Front Range to Grand.
“That connected us to the world,” she said. “What the Moffat Road did is not only create communities, but it gave us reliable transportation.”
The Moffat Tunnel was an engineering marvel, cutting through the Continental Divide. The Tunnel was completed in 1928, after 800 railroad workers moved 3 billion pounds of rock at over 9,000 feet. The tunnel offered a direct path from Denver to Salt Lake City, traveling through the heart of Grand County.
“We of course have all of our communities today that benefitted from the railroad,” she said. “They built the town of Granby, Parshall, Hot Sulphur, Kremmling – all of those towns grew because of the reliable railhead where they could take their produce, they could take their cows, they could get canned goods.”
History lives on
Hamilton explained the book is a guide for both locals to discover parts of Grand County they might have missed, as well as tourists exploring for the first time.
“A lot of the history we have in this book, our listeners could go there today and at least see some of the remnants,” she said.
The chapter, “Visit Grand History Today” chronicles places hearkening to Grand’s early years. Skiers swooping down Mary Jane at Winter Park Resort can learn the land was once owned by an early madam. Visitors can stay or dine at the historic Grand Lake Lodge, just as people did in the 1920s. In Granby, visitors to the Moffat Road Railroad Museum can peer inside the last remaining 1906 Moffat Road caboose.
Gee whiz facts of Grand County
Hamilton’s last chapter, “Who Knew?” includes all the interesting tidbits and quirky facts about Grand County.
For example, Grand is famous for more than its ski slopes – the county was once the “Lettuce Capital of Colorado” during the lettuce farming boom in the 1920s. (The term iceberg lettuce was coined here.) It has also been known as the “Dude Ranch Capital of the World.”
Grand County’s mountainous landscape and winding rivers made it the perfect spot for dude ranches, which still thrive today. Guests can visit centuries-old ranches like C Lazy U Ranch and Drowsy Water Ranch in Granby. The Bar Lazy J Ranch in Parshall and the Latigo Ranch in Kremmling, among others, attract people from around the world for a Western experience.
“People are not aware of guest ranches early on, right after World War I,” Hamilton said.
Ed McDonnell, who lived in the long-lost town of Arrow (near Winter Park) operated a trout fishing ranch along Monarch Railroad. Like Arrow, Monarch Railroad is a relic of the past – it once ran from the town of Granby to Monarch Lake.
“He was so enterprising that he even used the rail lines with an old Cadillac that he put wheels on,” Hamilton said. “Those are the kinds of innovative people that were and still are Grand County. Grand county is full of can-do spirit.”
Hamilton’s first book launch will be held at the Emily Warner Field Aviation Museum in Granby on Feb. 25, from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. The second launch will be at Mountain Shire Books & Gifts in Winter Park on March 4, from 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
The book is available for purchase at local retail locations at mountainshirebooks.com, arcadiapublishing.com, and amazon.com.
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