The Ridgway Railroad Museum and the Ouray County Ranch History Museum

Ridgway Railroad Museum
The Ridgway Railroad Museum has attracted railroad enthusiasts from across America and around the world. The Museum’s home has been in the historic Ridgway Railroad Depot which served the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad (D&RGWR) from 1891 until the early 1960s. The Ridgway Railroad Museum and the Ouray County Ranch History Museum (OCRHM) have shared the same home for several years. Established in 2006,OCRHM bought the Ridgway Depot in 2016 and plans to build a new museum on an adjoining 10-acre site. The combination of ranching and railroad heritage in the same location makes great historical sense. The colocation mimics the way those two industries supported each other historically in the region. The region’s economy relied on ranching which in turn relied on trains to ship cattle and agricultural products in and out of the area. Likewise, railroads needed ranchers to feed their workers and riders.
Ridgway Museum

Both museums have ambitious plans for the next phase of their development and growth. Moving from the Colona Grange, also known as the Colona Schoolhouse, in northern Ouray County, the OCRHM reopened at the depot in Ridgway in June 2017. Now the Railroad Museum is building a half-mile loop track and moving its outdoor displays to the property north of the Ridgway Railroad Depot building. The good news for visitors interested in the region’s railroad history is that they can visit and combine the experiences gained from both museums in the same vicinity. The ranch history museum is increasing and diversifying its outdoor displays to reflect the area’s relationship with railroads. The future OCRHM will include many more displays that show the workings of local ranches throughout the year back to the 1880s. Ranching families in the area have been interviewed to make sure that the OCRHM authentically reflects and showcases the area’s ranching heritage.

Once based in Ridgway, the Rio Grande Southern Railroad (RGS) was built in 1890 and 1891 by Otto Mears. The RGS connected Ridgway with mining and lumber industries in and around the towns of Telluride, Rico, Dolores and Durango. A narrow gauge steam line, for many reasons the RGS has captivated railroad enthusiasts around the world, including its high trestles and bridges and the history of its “rail buses” that carried U.S. mail and a few passengers. These rail buses, developed to save transportation costs when mining industries slowed, became known as “Galloping Geese.” The Railroad Museum restored the “Ouray Caboose” and “Galloping Goose No. 4.” Lesser known but almost equally fascinating, the museum is working on restoration of an 1882 Denver and Rio Grande (D&RG) business car. This railroad line ran from Montrose to Ouray as well as throughout the West. Among its innovations at the time, this car had an onboard kitchen for the train’s passengers and cooking staff. The Museum displays models and photos of these historic trains, hosts special tours, maintains a research library and even publishes books on railroad history.

Railroad Museum
Together the OCRHM and the Railroad Museum bring visitors back to the early history of the San Juan Mountains in ways that would otherwise not be possible. The U.S. Army opened the first Indian Agency in Conejos, New Mexico in 1869 called Los Pinos. This agency was established to bring together Ute Indians and westward pioneers. Six years later, the agency moved into the Uncompahgre Valley, north of what would eventually have become Colona, Colorado. Ute Indians camped and hunted in the area beside the Uncompahgre River, but as soon as settlers arrived and farming came into practice, their game started to dwindle.

Businesses in Ouray County started to boom with the arrival of the railroad in the late 1880s to support silver mines above Ouray and Telluride. What initially started as mining camps blossomed into thriving towns. Soon afterwards the land was open to legal homesteading. More ranchers came to settle in the area. Ranching became a core part of the region’s economic history. Ranch families formed close-knit communities. The Railroad Museum and the OCRHM together reveal a fascinating story of how southwestern Colorado and the San Juans grew towns from mining camps, how agriculture and ranching became increasingly important in the alluvial valleys of the Uncompahgre River, the Gunnison River and elsewhere in the 19th and 20th centuries. As the complex regional story unfolds in the 20th century, these museums also provide invaluable insights into the ways in which, to a large extent, the intertwined histories of ranching, agriculture and railroads in southwestern Colorado were determined by the federal government’s creation of forest reserves, imposition of public domain regulation, and promotion of numerous reclamation projects.