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Historic Ouray: Love at First Sight

I remember the first time I saw the town of Ouray. It was a summer morning in 1981 as we were winding our way down Red Mountain Pass, pulling our trailer behind our Datsun 810 station wagon. We had been camping a few nights along the Animas River in Silverton with our two sons, aged ten and six, and were on our way to visit good friends who had moved to Montrose a few years before.

When Don stopped at the overlook just south of town, I felt my first thrill. Here was a mountain town nestled in a steep canyon with lines of neat streets and multi-colored roofs glistening in the sun. "Why," I asked my husband "didn't we plan to stay here?"

We did stop on Main Street that day long enough for the boys to buy snacks, and when we got back in the car to continue north, I kept turning my head from side to side, soaking up the sights of storefronts and side streets. Then I announced to everyone, "Next year we're staying in Ouray for a week!"

Ever since that first view of Ouray, I have tried to name just what features made me so sure I wanted to come back here to visit that next year and each of several more years until we settled ourselves here in 1999. These must be the same features that continue to attract tourists and new residents to Ouray today.

First must be Ouray's amazing natural setting of red sandstone and granite cliffs and the heart-stopping grandeur of the Amphitheater peaks. Then there are the waterfalls, creeks, and the Uncompahgre River right in the midst of town. Add to this the steep slopes covered with firs and aspens, nearby meadows of wildflowers, and the plentiful deer that daily frequent the valley.

Besides Ouray's natural beauty, the next most notable feature that attracted me is its great number of Victorian buildings, especially along Main Street. There is the impressive red brick Elks building with its unique, eclectic architectural style. And across the street from it sits the St. Elmo Hotel, continuously operating since 1898 with its popular Bon Ton Restaurant. And in the same block is the delightfully ornate Wright Opera Building, built in 1888, the site of performing arts events ever since.

Next one sees the impressive French-style Beaumont Hotel towering over the street which tourists and townspeople alike are now able to enjoy in its fully restored resplendence. And, continuing down Main Street are colorful, historic storefronts owned and operated by local people. I love the details, the paint colors, the new-old faces these buildings present to us. They say, "Look at me. I'm over a hundred years old (or look like I am!) and still going strong."

When I first followed the town walk in the Ouray Visitor Guide, I saw even more of the town's historic buildings: City Hall, the Courthouse, the Historical Museum (old hospital), and churches, which date from the 1800's. I especially loved looking at the homes, old and new Victorians, and thinking that this must be a town where people really appreciate their heritage.

Ouray's chief architectural inheritance stems from the town's existence as a gold and silver mining center from the l870's when it began to the latter part of that century when it peaked. This visual legacy that Ouray enjoys as an historical mountain town in an incredible natural setting is what brought my family and me back for visits and eventually to make a home in this county.

Recent town discussions have shown Ouray citizens are split on how far to go to preserve and promote the town's Victorian character. Whether guidelines should be enacted to encourage everyone to maintain their property's integrity as befitting a largely Victorian town is still undecided. Most people who have bought or own property in Ouray seem to care about preserving their historic buildings. However, a fairly recent change in the character of the town has been the construction of condominiums on its west and north sides.

We in Ouray are inheritors of all that early pioneers and later residents have built and achieved here. I lived for half a year in a house, which had originally been an early log cabin. It still retained the log walls, doorway and window frame in three rooms. I loved its coziness and the friendly ghosts of 125 years ago who shared their stories with me.

Five miles from town where I live now was at one time an even smaller town called Portland, and I have been learning some things about it. It had a post office, a store, and its own school. Though most of its buildings are gone now, a few still stand.

Recently a neighbor informed me that the two large lilac bushes on either side of our driveway used to frame the doorway of a dance pavilion that was situated there. I had long wondered who planted those lilacs which were the most prevalent plants brought west by settlers. On early summer nights when I smell their fragrance, I imagine laughter, a fiddler or two, miners' boots on the wooden floor, and the swish of summer dresses.