The Early Days
In the 1870’s during the economic depression following the Civil War, white miners and settlers in covered wagons, on horseback, and on foot, encouraged by the Homestead Act, and drawn by news of mineral wealth, again followed the long trails to gold in the Colorado mountains. By now the Union Pacific Railroad was completed and others were penetrating the Front Range of Colorado.
A flurry of activity around the Leadville region first led miners into the Red Cliff area in 1879. Rich finds of ore were discovered on the Battle and Horn Mountains and soon this was one of the largest camps in the area. Still, times were hard at first and the winters were long. One severe winter the local newspaper ran out of normal paper and they were forced to put out several issues printed on wallpaper.
But the townsfolk stuck it out and soon Red Cliff had five hotels, a post office and a school as well as numerous shops and saloons. Red Cliff soon became the Seat of Eagle County and was noted for its opera and brass band. The town was becoming a proper place indeed.
In fact, after setting up their new cemetery, the town planners were so careful they refused to accept the bodies of two men that killed each other in a shootout. The planners felt it would give their new cemetery a bad name to have murderers as their first customers. So, the bodies were buried along the side of the road to the graveyard instead.
The Denver and Rio Grande extended its railroad from Leadville to Redcliff in 1881. The town remained the railroad terminus until 1887 when the tracks were extended to Glenwood Springs.
Red Cliff was founded in 1879, its name derived from the red quartzite cliffs surrounding it. The town was tthe first white community in the Eagle Valley, and served temporarily as the first county seat of Eagle County (formed out of Summit County in 1883) until the relocation of the county seat to Eagle in 1921.
Two miners sleeping in the “civil war dog tent” in Red Cliff. At the turn of the last century Red Cliff may have had as many as 10,000 inhabitants. How was that possible? This picture tells the story ... there could have been row after row of everything from tents to make shift cabins.
The photo on the right was taken in 1879. It shows the townsfolk of Red Cliff fortified and ready for an Indian invasion, after hearing of the “Meeker Massacre.” The rock is now called Fort Arnett.
In March 1878, Nathan Meeker was appointed as Indian Agent of the White River Ute Reservation in Colorado. A follower of Charles Fourier, Meeker was a strong advocate of cooperative farming. In 1870 he helped form an agricultural colony in Colorado and it was hoped that Meeker would be able to pass on his knowledge on farming to the Utes.
Meeker upset the Utes by trying to force them to become farmers. In September, 1879, Meeker called in the army to deal with the troublemakers. On September 29, 1879, Chief Douglas and a group of warriors killed Meeker and seven other members of the agency. This became known as the Meeker Massacre.