Rio Grande County Museum opens in time to celebrate 150 years of history

RIO GRANDE COUNTY — The Rio Grande County Museum announced last week that it will be open and ready for patrons in time for Memorial Day weekend in the San Luis Valley. For the past five months, the museum was closed for maintenance and cleaning but is now ready to welcome history buffs back for the summer.

The museum will have new exhibits and is working to bring back the historical integrity of the organization. The museum serves Rio Grande County; this includes South Fork, Del Norte Monte Vista and towns that no longer exist like Loma, West Del Norte, Rock Creek, Whiskeyville and Baxterville. New exhibits are being constructed and the overall feeling is one of optimism.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the town of Del Norte which was established in 1872. On Oct. 21, 2021, Del Norte was officially named by J. Cary French 150 years ago in 1871. French was one of five men who came to this location in the fall of 1871 for one purpose; to lay out a townsite and begin the adventure of creating a new and wonderful place to live. 

After a rigorous journey across the eastern United States to the South Fork of the Rio Grande, French and his team of prospectors platted and laid the first stakes of what would soon become the town of Del Norte. After countless hours of conversation, French wrote in his diary on Oct. 21, 1871, that, “Went to town site — laying out lots and blocks, with Scottie, Fred, Phillips and Lovett. Quit at 2 p.m. Had a meeting in my room after supper. Named the new town Del Norte.”

The original plat and map of Del Norte is housed in the Rio Grande Cunty Museum with French’s diary that talks about their struggles and observations while journeying to the site of Del Norte. The journal speaks of the first findings of gold and other ore in the Summitville Mining District and the glorious expanse of the Rio Grande that was untouched and unsettled except for the Pi-Utes who still resided in the area.

In 1872, the Conejos County Commissioners’ proceeding show they granted the corporation of the Town of Del Norte to the first Del Norte Town Trustees, French being one of them. Two years after, Rio Grande County was formed and designated in 1874, breaking off from Conejos County with four other communities, including Hinsdale County and Lake City.

Once the corporation of Del Norte was complete, the sale of land began and the first Del Norte citizens traveled to the new town in hopes of a life of riches and prosperity. Del Norte was quickly recognized as the “Gateway to the San Juans” and was the beginning of the gold and silver rush that came to the area and created communities like South Fork, Monte Vista and Creede. 

Del Norte was a lively area, home to many who came here for outfitting, staging, freighting and served as a business center for places like Summit, Lake City, Silverton, Ouray and Telluride. Del Norte was also designated the county seat once Rio Grande County was formed two years after the corporation approval. 

According to records at the Rio Grande County Museum by 1872, Del Norte was up and running with promotion of the area in full swing. Thomas Pollock wrote to the Pueblo Chieftain, “People are crowding in there at a rapid rate. The miners expect to return to the mines earlier this spring and advise that outfitting should be successful. Farms are being taken up in the Rio Grande Valley and by next season there will be sufficient produce raised for home consumption. Taking everything into consideration, Del Norte, and the country tributary to it, has a brilliant future in store.”

The next few months will be a celebration of the past and the future as Del Norte and Rio Grande County celebrates. Several events and exhibits are being planned for Rio Grande County and details will be announced by the Rio Grande County Museum as they are formalized.