Unaweep/Tabegauche Scenic Byway
The history of the area along the Unaweep/Tabeguache Scenic and Historic Byway was affected in large part by the mining booms it experienced over the years. In the 1870s gold was discovered in the gravels of the Dolores and San Miguel rivers. Small, sporadic placer mining operations continue today, however the majority closed down in the 1920s.
In 1875 one of the Hayden Survey geologists noted copper in the eastern part of Unaweep Canyon. Miners were quick to take advantage of these mineral deposits. In the 1890s Pearl and Copper City sprang up and the Pyramid Mining Company built the first roads in the canyon to its copper mines. By 1914 most mining had ceased and the cities were abandoned.
In 1881 the discovery of a soft, canary yellow substance at the head of Roc Creek signaled the next mining boom. The substance, known as carnotite, is a source mineral for radium, vanadium and uranium. From 1913 to 1922 miners concentrated on producing carnotite for its radium, used in the treatment of cancer. In the mid 1930s the mines were reopened and processing was begun to extract vanadium from the mineral for use in hardening steel. Mills and townsites were built at Uravan and Vancorum. A small mill was also located in Gateway.
As part of the Manhattan Project, the Army reprocessed the mill tailings during World War II to produce the uranium used in the first atomic bombs. In the early 1950s the incentives and bonuses offered by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission created a uranium boom and many new deposits were discovered. The government's need for uranium for atomic weapons declined in the early '60s and operations almost ceased until late in the 1970s when uranium was again needed as fuel for nuclear power plants. This boom ended in the early 1980s. Currently there are no mines operating in the area, the mills are closed and the towns of Uravan and Vancorum have been dismantled.
In addition to its mining history the area has a rich agricultural and ranching background. In 1881, following a treaty that removed the Utes from the area, a "land rush" of sorts occurred and ranches were settled up and down the canyons. Many of the original homestead cabins from patented cattle ranches were built as early as the 1880s in and around Gateway and are still standing today. With cattle came rustlers, horse thieves and outlaws who found it easy to hide out in the maze of canyons.
The Uncompahgre Plateau provided early ranchers with 677,000 forested acres of useable grazing land. In the beginning, each stockman chose his range on a "first-come, first-served" basis, building a camp and claiming as much of the adjacent range as he considered necessary to support his stock. That range was then considered his by right of usage. An informally organized stockman's association helped to maintain range policies such as these and also established a boundary below the forested areas known as the sheepline above which sheep were not allowed to graze. Disputes over this line often involved gun play and destruction of sheep.
During the glory days of ranching, the cattle were driven in from winter pasture to be branded and then would spend the summer grazing on the upper ranges. Each fall the beef cattle were separated from the herd and shipped by rail to Denver or Kansas City. The remainder of the herd would return to lower elevation winter pastures. Cattle ranching and farming continue today on a more limited basis.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication