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Ahead Of Colorado Day, New State Historian Reflects On Colorado's Past

Ashley Jefcoat

Saturday, Aug. 1 is Colorado Day, the anniversary of Colorado becoming a state in 1876. And it's also the day that Duane Vandenbusche becomes Colorado’s new state historian.

Vandenbusche, a professor of history at Western Colorado University in Gunnison, is the first state historian based outside of the Front Range, according to History Colorado. He joined Colorado Edition to talk about the legacy of Colorado's Western Slope, and to outline his plans for the coming year.

Interview Highlights

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Erin O'Toole: What does it mean to you, to be the first Colorado state historian who isn't based in Denver or somewhere along the Front Range?

Vandenbusche: Well, I've thought about that a lot, and — you know, it's a great honor to be from western Colorado, the first one in I guess 95 or 96 years. What it means is that I'm going to be able to represent the Western Slope or western Colorado a lot more than it's been represented before. And it's always been a really key, integral part of the state. A lot of the mineral wealth, 70% or more of the water, some of the great ski areas and recreation spots are all in western Colorado, and I think that maybe I can bring that to light for a lot of people around the state.

You have a lot of research interests, including some key pieces of the Western Slope economy: mining, ranching, skiing… How did these industries contribute to the growth not only of the Western Slope, but of Colorado in general?

Well, you go to mining first — a lot of the great gold mines and silver mines came out of places like Telluride, Silverton and Ouray, all on the Western Slope. The mineral wealth provided a lot of wealth for the state of Colorado to use.

One of the most important things, of course, is water — and 70% of the water that comes out of Colorado comes from the Western Slope. We've always had a big problem in that "the water is where the people ain't, and the people ain't where the water is." And historically there have been a number of transmountain water diversions to take water from the Western Slope and bring it over to the Front Range and the Eastern Slope. In fact, there are 38 of them and it takes about 500,000 acre-feet of water every year.

In recreation, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, which ran on to the Western Slope, always had a sign on the side of its cars, called "Scenic Line of the West." And people loved to see the Black Canyon, go through the Alpine tunnel, see the mountains, and come in for a great amount of hunting and fishing.

So, what's happened in western Colorado has had a big impact on the rest of the state because we provided a lot of the water and the mineral wealth that the state has used.

How did the Western Slope contribute to the status of Colorado as a recreation destination?

It contributed primarily early, because of railroads which went out to the Western Slope. And then, of course, after the railroads, we began to build highways. For a lot of years on the Western Slope, the only way in and out of here for six months out of the year was by rail, because the passes — even if you had roads over the passes — they were closed in the winter because there was too much snow and no snow removal.

So as that began to happen, more and more people began to come in. And a lot of this came after World War II, when Jeeps came in, four-wheel drives came in, roads were improved; people had more money to travel than they did before. So, western Colorado's always been a real asset to the state, in fact maybe the asset of the state.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic shut down Colorado's ski slopes and national parks. Given Colorado's status as a haven for outdoor recreation, what has been the impact of these closures?

The closures have been very important, and very significant. I did an article on the Spanish flu of 1918 and 1919 for our local Crested Butte paper. Of course, the pandemic killed a lot of people around the world, and Gunnison kind of became famous — the Gunnison County area became famous — because of a very strict quarantine, which prevented anybody from coming in or going out of here. And we lost practically no one until the quarantine was taken off in 1919, in February, when they thought this pandemic was over. And then, eight people died immediately.

So, the coronavirus has been very important and significant in western Colorado because it closed every ski area by March 14; and just like the rest of the state, it's pretty much closed down a lot of other things. There's a finite amount of difference between economics and safety of the public, and of course we're hearing a lot about that nationwide today.

What are your plans for your year as Colorado's state historian?

Well, what I'm going to do for History Colorado, to start with, are 10 podcasts. I'm going to do them at the Crested Butte Museum, but they are going to be used by History Colorado. The podcasts are going to be about 35 minutes each, and we're going to talk about significant topics, I think, dealing with Colorado — such as water, ranching, railroads, mining, women, Western Slope, skiing, immigrants, Black Canyon (of the Gunnison) and so on.

Then I plan to write one article for the Colorado Heritage Magazine which is published by History Colorado, and if the coronavirus allows this, I would love to go to each one of the corners of the state and give a talk, one in the northeast, one in the southeast, one in the northwest, and one in the southwest — but of course that's contingent on the coronavirus.

This conversation is from KUNC's Colorado Edition from July 30. You can find the full show here.

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