Eagle County celebrates its 140th anniversary
Eagle County was carved out of Summit County in 1883
Colorado had been a state for seven years before Eagle County was created. The 140th anniversary of that event is Feb. 11, so it’s time to reflect and celebrate.
The Eagle County Board of Commissioners on Feb. 7 passed a resolution noting the anniversary, and a Thursday evening presentation at Colorado Mountain College added more detail.
All three current commissioners attended the event, and were joined by former commissioners Johnnette Phillips, James Johnson and Jon Stavney. All spoke for a few moments before the main presentation by Eagle resident Kathy Heicher, who has spent years studying and researching the county’s history.
1876: Colorado becomes a state
1883: The Colorado Legislature creates Eagle County
1890: A local newspaper decries the lack of housing for miners in Red Cliff
1920: After three previous elections, county voters approve moving the county seat from Red Cliff to Eagle
Phillips, a Republican, and Johnson, a Democrat, were both elected in 1992 and served two terms. The two at the time were known to spar frequently during meetings and in the office.
Now, with more than 20 years past since the two left office, that sparring has become good-natured ribbing. Phillips noted that Johnson spoke the most, with Johnson quickly replying that Phillips had the last word in the exchange.
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Heicher’s presentation covered a lot of ground, from mining to agriculture to tourism. Heicher also spent time on the treatment of members of the Ute tribe, who were eventually pushed out of most of the state.
Heicher also detailed why Colorado created more counties from the roughly two dozen that existed in 1876, the first year of statehood.
Summit County was huge
Summit and Lake counties were two of the largest in the state, with western boundaries all the way to the Utah border.
“The sheer size of those Western Slope counties made them impossible to govern,” Heicher said. Adding counties to the new state made governance easier, as well as education and law enforcement. After several attempts, a bill was passed in early 1883.
In addition to local governance — imagine trying to reach the Lake County Sheriff from Grand Junction — there were also big issues of taxation and political power.
Heicher noted that James Grant, the state’s third governor, was a Democrat. New county commissioners were appointed by the governor, so new counties presented an opportunity to put more Democrats into local government.
But counties could also levy taxes on mines and railroads. Heicher said rail lines are a big part of why Basalt and El Jebel are part of Eagle County. In addition, it’s a fairly short trip from Basalt to Eagle, if you use Cottonwood Pass.
But no matter the route, it’s a long way from Basalt to Red Cliff, the original county seat.
Despite the fact that Red Cliff for most of the county’s early history was Eagle County’s biggest town, a push to transfer the county seat to Eagle was launched in about 1899.
The problem, Heicher said, is that county seat elections must be decided by a two-thirds majority vote. That didn’t happen for more than 20 years, due to most communities voting for themselves as the new county seat. The move to Eagle came in 1920, thanks to some old-school collusion between Eagle and Gypsum. The deal was Eagle would be the county seat and Gypsum would be the home of the county’s high school. For years, kids from Avon would take the train to Gypsum for the school week, she said.
Even the final election was challenged, with the Colorado Supreme Court finally deciding the matter in favor of Eagle.
No, it wasn’t ‘stolen’
While the change in the county seat is well documented, some people in Red Cliff still claim Eagle “stole” the county seat.
The original divide in the county was between mining and agriculture. Battle Mountain, near Red Cliff, is a “treasure vault” of mineral wealth, Heicher said. While a number of different metals were pulled from the area around Red Cliff, the most mining was for molybdenum and zinc, both useful for strengthening steel.
The mines did well during the two world wars in the first half of the 20th century, but followed a familiar boom and bust cycle. Tired of the uncertainty, a number of miners used the federal Homestead Act to create farms and ranches in the Eagle River’s downstream areas. Farmers were known for growing potatoes. The Everkrisp variety of lettuce was grown around Minturn and was well known until the advent of refrigerated rail cars.
While the county has relatively few recognized historical structures, there’s plenty of history, particularly from the Utes.
Heicher noted that some Ute wikiups, stick shelter structures, are scattered around the county’s backcountry.
While Heicher said residents probably wouldn’t recognize a wikiup while on a hike, she noted that the U.S. Forest Service keeps a tight lid on information about the structures.
The Forest Service, which recently took control of the Sweetwater Lake property, has also curtailed access to the caves on the back side of that property until more study can be done about the drawings on the cave walls.
But Heicher said in addition to the Ute drawings, there’s some pioneer graffiti on the cave, from Henry Hernage and his wife.
Through its first 140 years, Eagle County has been resilient, surviving two world wars, two pandemics and any number of economic ups and downs.
More information is available through the Eagle County Historical Society’s website.