History Of Steamboat Springs
Published on 02/24/2020 by Brad Luth
A hidden gem in Northwest Colorado, Steamboat Springs is a modern mountain paradise—though it hasn’t always been this way.
Prior to the 1940s, Routt County as a whole was more or less off the radar from a tourism perspective. It wasn’t until the Howelsen Hill ski area was developed that winter sports enthusiasts began to flock from across the nation to hit the slopes—and the rest is history (quite literally).
Since then, Steamboat Springs has grown into a year-round mountain destination with a booming local economy and a robust array of activities for any interest or budget.
Are you curious about how Steamboat Springs grew into the bustling destination it is today? Enjoy this quick blast from the past as we explore the rich history of Steamboat Springs.
The now-famous Yampa Valley was home to indigenous Ute Indian tribes for hundreds of years before the first pioneers stepped foot on the mountain. In the early 1800s, that changed as French explorers expanded their footprint westward.
According to legend, Steamboat Springs actually got its formal name when three French trappers were traveling parallel to the Yampa River. They heard a “chug chug” sound in the distance and thought that meant they had finally reached a major river, and one yelled, “a Steamboat, by gar!”. What they found was actually a bustling natural mineral spring, which was later named Steamboat Springs. This same spring still sits on the far end of town, though it no longer makes the same “chugging” sound from the 1800s (probably because the railroad system has been complete for quite some time).
First Steamboat Springs Settlers
It wasn’t until later in the century, 1875 to be precise, that Steamboat Springs found its first permanent settlers. James Harvey Crawford brought his family to live among the Ute Indians until tribes were removed from Colorado in 1880 following the Battle of Milk Creek. Crawford discovered the area during a hunting expedition and had heard rumors of the mysterious ‘Steamboat Springs’. He built his first home along the banks of Soda Creek. Other settlers eventually joined the Crawfords, and by 1885 five other families had settled in the area.
Crawford eventually persuaded several prominent businessmen from the neighboring town of Boulder to join him in organizing the Steamboat Springs Townsite Company. James Maxwell served as the town surveyor and laid out the original town. H.H. Suttle brought a sawmill, which landed in Steamboat Springs in 1883. This was another milestone that fueled growth by allowing settlers to produce logs for homes, stores, schools, and more. In the fall of 1883, Lulie Crawford opened a school for 13 area students in a small log cabin.
James Hoyle, a journalist, brought a printing press to Steamboat and established the first town newspaper in 1885. The ‘Steamboat Pilot’ was the first formal business in Steamboat Springs, and this same paper is still in circulation to this day! By 1886, Steamboat Spring had a general store, a post office, a doctor, and even a hotel.
On an interesting note, Steamboat Springs is most well known for its natural mineral springs, which were once thought of as “medicine springs” that could cure common ailments. Once the railway was established, health-conscious travelers from across the country began to flock to the mountain to enjoy the plentiful mineral baths and hot springs. Strawberry Park, which is still open today, was one of the first natural springs discovered and used by early settlers.
Steamboat Explodes into a Bustling Mountain Town
Steamboat Springs remained an isolated town through the late 1800s. Despite an uptick in the general population, the closest railroad was 160 miles north at Rawlins, Wyoming. Even when the Denver and Rio Grande railroad opened later, it was still 75 miles south.
The turn of the century, however, marked a period of growth for the San Juan mountain region. In August 1900, Steamboat Springs officially incorporated and elected James Crawford as the town’s first mayor. The Western Telephone Company brought a telephone line to the town, and not long after the town built an electric power plant.
Railroad Revolution and Westward Expansion
The biggest change happened in 1908 when the Denver, Salt Lake and Pacific Railroad finished laying rails through the town. This marked an important milestone is accommodating travelers, and the town responded quickly by building out Main Street and the historic Cabin Hotel, which offered 100 guest rooms, on-site dining, and central heating—which was a big deal in those days. This expansion eventually led to the development of what is now known as “downtown Steamboat Springs”—which remains the heart of town with tons of restaurants, shops, and more.
Ski Town USA is Born
Carl Howelsen, whose name probably sounds familiar if you’ve ever heard of ‘Howelsen Hill’, is credited with introducing the sport of skiing to Steamboat Springs in 1912. He launched the official Winter Carnival in 1914, which quickly evolved into a booming industry for the town—so much so that Steamboat Springs was labeled ‘Ski Town USA’ in the 1940s.
The now-famous Howelsen Hill is located on the south side of the Yampa River. It was first used for ski jumping in 1915. Slalom and downhill courses were later added in the 1930s to accommodate the growing sport. The first ‘tow’ was built in 1934 followed by the first lift in 1947.
During the 1950s, the town built a 90-meter jump named for Douglas Graham, a well-known local businessman who contributed a great deal of time and money to preserve the hill. This jump attracted and hosted Olympic training ski camps and became the site of several historic jumps, including that of Asten Samuelson, who’s 316-foot jump in 1951 held the record for almost 10 years. The Graham Jump burned in 1972, though fundraising efforts supported the expansion of a formal jumping facility, which was completed in 1978.
Skiing put Steamboat Springs on the map as a winter sports destination, and this sport remains a top draw for area visitors.
In the 1960s, Storm Mountain was developed as the area’s first formal ski mountain. The mountain was dubbed Mount Werner after local skier and Olympian Buddy Werner who was tragically killed in an avalanche.
Steamboat Ski Resort was built in 1963, which was the area’s first dedicated lodging option for winter sports travelers—though many more options exist today.
The town of Steamboat Springs has a rich history that was driven by the abundant natural resources and mountain landscape.
Today, Steamboat is a thriving year-round destination for visitors of all ages and backgrounds. The town hosts several exciting events each year, including the Hot Air Balloon Rodeo, the Steamboat Marathon, and a huge Fourth of July celebration. There’s truly something for everyone in this quaint mountain town.
If you want to learn more about Steamboat Springs history, pencil in a visit to the Tread of Pioneers Museum, which highlights the area’s history with interactive displays, engaging exhibits, and so much more.