Tom Ross: Steamboat and Ouray have hot springs in common |

Tom Ross: Steamboat and Ouray have hot springs in common

Tom Ross

— I've always urged that it's important to visit other mountain towns to gain new insights into the quirky, little burgh we happen to inhabit because chances are Jackson and Park City, Ketchum and Livingston and a host of others already have dealt with or are about to encounter the same challenges with which denizens of Steamboat Springs grapple.

We all struggle with boom-and-bust cycles, balancing our addiction to tourism with traditional land-use practices like ranching, protecting our water from the bigger cities and enduring weather patterns seemingly devised by the devil to make us flee for milder climes.

So when I stumble on a book that turns a mirror toward Steamboat Springs, I like to share it. A good pick is the volume "Old Fences, New Neighbors" by Peter R. Decker, who spent part of his young adulthood herding sheep north of Yellowstone Park in the Gallatin Range and ultimately migrated from Manhattan to Ridgway to give livestock wrangling another try in Ouray County.

If you live in Steamboat and you've ever attended the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, chances are you went through Ridgway, but it might not have made a big impression on you. The historic downtown of nearby Ouray gets more attention, and deservedly so. Ouray has a developed swimming pool heated by hot springs like Steamboat's Old Town Hot Springs.

The Uncompahgre River flows out of the San Juans through Ouray on its way to Ridgway and, ultimately, its confluence with the Gunnison River. And there still are some spectacular cattle ranches in the area, including one owned by that old cowboy Ralph Lauren.

"Old Fences, New Neighbors" first was published in 1992 by Fulcrum Publishing and reissued in 2006. You can find plenty of used copies if you look for them.

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Decker devotes much of the text to the increasing difficulty he encountered running a cow/calf operation amid the changes wrought by the growing tourism industry on the other side of Dallas Divide in Telluride.

However, the part of his book that I want to share with you is his retelling of the first wave of tourism to come to Ouray County in the 1890s.

Although I have visited the area, I had not previously heard of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad's Circle Route, which attracted thousands of tourists.

"Vacationers boarded the train in Denver, traveled south and west to Royal Gorge, on the Arkansas River, and after changing trains in Salida, proceeded south down the San Luis Valley to Alamosa west across the Continental Divide to Durango," Decker wrote.

In Durango, they spent a night in the famed Strater Hotel (you still can have dinner there) before taking the narrow gauge railroad up to Silverton, which is still one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state. From the little town of Ironton, Decker wrote, the travelers boarded stagecoaches for a sometimes-harrowing trip down the mountain into Ouray. There, they spent another night in the Beaumont Hotel and attended a concert before returning home via Montrose and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The Beaumont is beautifully restored, and we had a fine lunch there in August 2011 after descending Red Mountain Pass in the fog and rain.

One of my regrets is that I never had the opportunity to ride a railroad train from Steamboat Springs to Denver before passenger rail service ended here in 1968.

Maybe what this little ski town needs is a good old coal-burning steam locomotive to take cattle to market and return full of vacationers.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email

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