Steamboat Springs History

The lovely and enthralling community now known as 'Ski City USA' had humble beginnings, much like most mountain towns here in Colorado. Read on to learn more about the history of the settlement of Steamboat Springs and how it has morphed into the city we know and love today.

The First Settlers of Yampa Valley

Historical Photo of Downtown Steamboat Springs Colorado

The Yampa Valley was the summer hunting grounds of the Ute Indians for hundreds of years. The region was lush with foliage, and flowing waters, game for hunting was readily available, as were the fertile lands that abundantly grew crops. These natural features attracted the Yampatika band of the Ute tribe, who enjoyed the bounty of the food supplies available in warmer months. For centuries, the Utes lived here, considering the spring waters to be sacred places of healing.

Most Ute people spent summertime gathering food, hunting game, and soaking in the curative mineral springs. Some stayed through winter, but most left the higher peaks to seek out available seasonal food sources in the lower elevations.

The Tread of Pioneers Museum is the premier place in town to further discover the rich heritage and history of the Utes and the Steamboat Springs area itself. It's an excellent way to spend the day learning more about the cultures of the Yampa Valley and how they still contribute to the town's vibe today.

Fur Trappers Discover Steamboat Springs

The first fur trappers passed through the area in the early 1800s. The name Steamboat Springs is said to have originated in the late 1820s when three French Trappers traveling along the Yampa River heard a "chug-chug" sound. Thinking they had reached a major river, one yelled, "a Steamboat, by gar!" Upon further investigation, they discovered the sound came from a natural mineral spring, to be named Steamboat Springs. The Steamboat Spring still sits at the far end of town; however, it ceased to "chug" when the railroad bed was laid above it in 1908.

Historical Photo of Mount Werner in Steamboat Springs Colorado

It wasn't until 1875 that the first permanent settler, James Harvey Crawford, brought his family to this area. Crawford lived peacefully among the Ute Indians, who annually visited the "medicine springs." James's arrival garnered the attention of other pioneers. He had settled in the Yampa Valley because of its mineral springs, lush grasses, river, and streams and was convinced the land's abundance would provide comfort and security for his family. He was not alone in that belief. Pioneers began gathering in the area by the end of the Crawfords' first year in the Yampa Valley. After the Utes were moved from Colorado in 1880 following the battle at Milk Creek, other settlers gradually joined the Crawfords. By 1885, five other families had settled in the area.

By the late 1870s, trappers, miners, and explorers were frequenting the region, and many would bring their families and stay for good. These settlers quickly noted the constant chugging noise of one of the local springs that resembled that of a river steamboat. Hence, they dubbed the community Steamboat Springs in honor of the trickling waters and the curious noise.

The Rapid Growth of Steamboat Springs Settlement

Crawford, who spent a few of his winters in Boulder, Colorado, persuaded several prominent businessmen to join him in organizing and raising funds to form the Steamboat Springs Townsite Company and a sawmill in 1884.

James Maxwell, the surveyor, laid out the town. In the Summer of 1885, these men got a newspaperman, James Hoyle, to bring a printing press to their new town, and so the Steamboat Pilot began publications on July 31, 1885, and has appeared weekly ever since. A newspaper was established along with a general store, hotel, and post office by 1888. The following year saw the installation of a church and the Yampa River bridge crossing.

By the 1900s, the population surged, and the first city charter was declared, and Steamboat Springs residents elected their first town council. The community's inhabitants began getting a taste of the modern era with the arrival of the railroad, which fostered outpost development and bolstered economic promise—especially in the cattle industry.

From the earliest times, the town's greatest attractions have been its natural mineral springs, located throughout the city and outlying areas. The Ute Indians came for the "medicine springs," while the miners traveled 30 miles from the gold mines at Hahn's Peak to bathe in the hot springs. Once the train "arrived" in 1909 and replaced the stage lines, health-conscious travelers from around the country visited to partake of the various hot baths and mineral springs.

Once electricity and automobiles arrived to ease the lives of locals, it ended Steamboat's frontier outpost era. Throughout these first hundred years of development, Steamboat Springs rose from a rough-hewn town to a place of promise with schools, entertainment venues, artistic efforts, and additional churches.

The History of Skiing in Steamboat

Historical Photo of Ski Jump on Howelsen Hill in Steamboat Springs

Skis (in early years referred to as snowshoes) were a means of travel until Carl Howelsen arrived in 1914 and changed the lives of the town's residents. Howelsen introduced ski jumping and launched a recreation industry. The annual Winter Carnival was established the same year. Howelsen Hill was eventually named after the famous "flying Norseman," a Barnum and Bailey Circus star.

Both cattle and sheep ranching have remained as major industries in the Yampa Valley, along with wheat and hay production and coal mining. Until the 1920s, cattle ranching was the largest single industry in the area. In 1912, strawberries were marketed throughout the country from the area just north of downtown, known as Strawberry Park.

Historical Photo of Steamboat Springs Ski Jump on Howelsen Hill

By the 1950s, the popularity of skiing fostered the development of another ski area south of town. Storm Mountain was transformed into a world-class ski area, opening in 1961. The ski area was renamed Mount Werner in 1964, after the death of local Olympic skier Buddy Werner.

Steamboat Springs has been the cultural center for northwest Colorado since 1914 when the Perry Mansfield Camp was established in Strawberry Park. In its 85th year, continuing as the oldest performing arts center in the nation, the historic camp has served as the impetus for cultural activities and organizations such as the Steamboat Springs Arts Council, Community Players, and Strings in the Mountains.

The historic buildings and site of Steamboat Springs trace the evolution from a self-sufficient wilderness frontier village and cow-town to a farming-ranching-mining community, source of educational & cultural opportunities, ski-jumping and recreation center, and resort town.

Click on the images below for bios on a few of our Olympians!

Today, the city is vibrant with locals but still retains its early historic charm, much to the delight of those who call Steamboat home and those who visit to enjoy the beautiful scenery and excitements it beholds.