Out West student blog

How Time and Tourism Have Transformed Colorado Mountain Towns

Remnants of a different way of life in Colorado. (photo credit: Sarah Ondak)

By Sarah Ondak '21
Hometown: Edmond, OK
Summer Research Assistant, Bill Lane Center for the American West

In the 1950s, my great-grandfather bought a fishing shack in the mountain town of Ouray, Colorado. As my family expanded, so did the hut. Over the years the structure grew into a two-story, three-bedroom cabin, that now includes a deck with vistas of a pristine lake and marshy meadow. As a child, the cabin was my Narnia. Like in a dream, I would stand out on the deck and watch deer, brown bears, and other alpine fauna saunter into view. The cabin is now my grandparent's summer home, hosting aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings for holidays and vacations all year round. If there’s one thing that holds my family together, it might be that cabin.

My summer with the Bill Lane Center for the American West wouldn’t have been possible without the cabin. In the winter of my sophomore year, I took a film photography class where we studied works featuring Colorado mining towns. The photos displayed in my class were from the early 1900s, but the imagery was familiar: mine chutes, railroads, pioneer homes. I’d never seen them before, but these images could have been snapshots taken from my memories of Ouray.

Analyzing the photographs sparked a series of questions. Many mining towns died after the gold rush, but what about the ones that lived and flourished, how has their economy changed? Why have some towns survived while others have vanished? My research will primarily focus on the ways in which the economic shift from mining to tourism has affected the trails and landmarks in Ouray and other towns in the area like Silverton, Durango, and Telluride. 

These dilapadated cart tracks serve as reminders of the mining operations that once filled the Colorado mountains. (photo credit: Sarah Ondak)

In my quest to understand the area and answer my questions I have photographed multiple hikes, abandoned mines, and landmarks in the town of Ouray itself. On top of this, I will use national photography archives, which will be a window into the past and provide context for how these places have been affected by tourism over time. I will continue to conduct interviews with townspeople, tourists, and members of local governments. In this way, I will be using personal experiences to create a better understanding of the tangible impact that tourism has had on this part of the American West. I will also be taking my own photos of the towns, hiking trails, and people. This will be a form of modern day research in that it is both a documentation method and a display of the actual American West. The hopes of this effort is that people who can't visit the region can get a taste of life in Ouray and towns like it.

A rusted, antique stove sits in an abandoned home. (photo credit: Sarah Ondak)


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