The Ute Indians were attracted to the Wet Mountain Valley by the plentiful water and abundant game. In the mid 1500’s Spanish explorers entered the western edge of Custer County in search of gold, silver and the fountain of youth. Over three hundred years later Europeans finally found the precious metals they sought – we are still looking for the fountain of youth.
The Zebulon Pike expedition was ordered to explore the Rocky Mountain area. In 1807 Pike and his men followed the Grape Creek tributary of the Arkansas River and discovered the Wet Mountain Valley at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The expedition camped for a time in the valley, and then headed south where they were captured by the Mexican Army. Hunters and trappers, such as Kit Carson and George Fremont, followed Pike to the valley in search of the wild game the valley is still known for today.
Silver and gold are what really put Custer County and the Wet Mountain Valley on the map. The first discoveries in the Hardscrabble area in 1863 were followed by rich finds in Rosita, Querida and Silver Cliff. The mine in Rosita attracted over 1500 residents by 1870 only to be played out by 1875. Notorious swindler Walter C. Sheridan stole all the money from the Rosita Bank that year and the miners left to work in the nearby Querida mine. Searching for new sources of silver, the miners moved on to the Silver Cliff area when the Querida mine began to fail. In Silver Cliff three very prosperous mines (the Guyser, the Bassick and the Bull Domingo) continued to produce into the early 1900’s. At its height in 1880, Silver Cliff joined Denver and Leadville as one of the three fastest growing cities of the time boasting a population of over 5,000.
With the discovery of gold and silver, the railroad was not far behind. In 1881The Denver & Rio Grand Railroad completed a line to the area, following the same Grape Creek path which Zebulon Pike had followed seventy-five years earlier. The line ended at a station in Westcliffe, just west of Silver Cliff. By 1890, however, much of the ore had played out even in Silver Cliff, and the town dwindled. Westcliffe, because it had the railroad, continued to prosper and was eventually named the County Seat.
The rest of the story of Custer County began in 1870 with the arrival of a large group of German immigrants who had originally settled in Chicago, but were convinced to leave their factory jobs there to settle the Wet Mountain Valley as farmers. Lack of experience and farming skills caused many of the farms to fail, but in the same year Edwin Beckwith purchased land and brought over 1500 head of cattle from Texas. The fine grazing land, and the ability to raise high quality hay, began an agricultural business which continues to flourish in the valley to this day. By 1880, Beckwith had over 13,000 head of cattle on his property, and was elected a State Senator.
Custer County, which was formed in 1877, is presently the 10th smallest of the 64 counties in Colorado. Its tranquil valley, spectacular mountains and thousands of acres of National Forest make the county a magnet for hikers, climbers, and nature enthusiasts of all kinds. The San Isabel area and the Wet mountain Valley remind visitors of what Colorado once was, and what Custer County still is.