Beaver trappers moved into the Wet Mountain Valley in 1870, clearing all the dam builders from the area in a few short years. Without beaver dams, snowmelt flowed freely through the valley allowing cottonwood trees to flourish and the landscape to change.
Prospectors soon discovered silver and gold, drawing 8,000 people into the valley by the 1880s. Many cleared trees for housing and crops. Cattlemen brought several large herds into the newly opened land, igniting the valley’s chief industry.
The Wet Mountain Valley’s largest herds began to arrive in 1879 with Edwin Beckwith, who settled a half-dozen miles north of Silver Cliff. Other cattlemen and their herds settled in parts of the valley where runoff-irrigated land was prime for growing hay and raising livestock. An estimated 13,000 head of cattle roamed Custer County by 1880.
Custer County ranching continues, with active grazing, hay and calving operations. The community celebrates its ranching heritage at several annual events, and conservation easements help maintain the county’s open space and beauty. The Wet Mountain Valley might offer your truest glimpse of how western ranches looked 100 years ago.