OURAY – No phone, no Internet, no cable TV. What would you have done as a young wife or miner stuck high in the mountains in some snowbound mining camp to while away the long winter nights? There’s a good chance you spent a lot of time writing and reading letters, not to mention waiting eagerly for the crunch of the postman’s snowshoes on the trail into town.
An exhibit at the Ouray County Historical Museum will showcase the postal history of the county, one of two special exhibits that the museum offers each year along with regular exhibits on everything from mining and minerals to children’s toys and medical technology.
Ever wondered what raw uranium looks like, or how to tell real gold from the fool’s version? The museum’s extensive mineral collection has all three on display – behind lock and key, of course – not to mention numerous specimens of ores and minerals, including the beautiful rose-colored rhodochrosite and other colorful and spectacular crystalline creations. By the way, geologists deemed the uranium display safe after counting its activity with a meter – safe, that is, as long as you don’t do something silly like lick it!
While the mining displays are aptly located in the basement, the museum’s upper floors are dedicated to displays on such topics as ranching and railroads, the Victorian-era lifestyle, the Ute Indians, and natural history. The Walsh-Zanett room highlights the history of an important mining family led by Tom Walsh, former owner of the Camp Bird Mine, and his daughter Evalyn Walsh McLean, one-time owner of the supposedly cursed Hope Diamond.
The museum’s collection continues to grow and grow, said curator Don Paulson.
“Already this year, we’ve received donations of 38 sets of things,” he said. Recently, a man from Illinois called to say that he found some pictures in the house where he is living, and he thought they might be of Ouray.
“They turned out to be the only known pictures of the Ironton train depot,” Paulson said. “That happens almost monthly.”
The museum recently received the donation of Marie Scott’s horse-drawn Studebaker wagon from a man in Boulder. “We’ll use it for our Fourth of July float,” Paulson said.
The Ranch Room displays a saddle and several other items that also once belonged to Scott, who was one of Ouray County’s most beloved ranchers and the former owner of what is now known as the Double RL Ranch.
Upstairs, find displays on early 19th-century dentistry (yikes!), as well as a display of an 1890s operating room, replete with a bottle of whisky and a saw for amputations, side-by-side with a 1940s operating room. The doctor’s office even holds the stuffed remains of Jim, pet bear to one of Ouray’s early resident doctors.
The medical displays hearken back to the museum’s roots as the Miners’ Hospital. The building was built in 1887 with contributions from Ouray residents. It was used as a hospital and medical clinic until 1964 when the owners at that time, the Idarado Mining Company, were forced to close the hospital due to new regulations requiring the installation of an elevator.
The newly formed Ouray County Historical Museum leased the building in 1971 and bought it in 1976, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Ouray County Historical Society has a summer schedule full of walks and talks designed to get history buffs out and about, from walking tours of the cemetery with Ouray old-timer Roger Henn, to hikes of the Corkscrew railroad bed with Paulson. The society’s summer lecture series, Evenings of History, begins on June 17 with a talk by Ouray’s Kelvin Kent on hiking trails of the area.
The society will also host a juried photo exhibit entitled “San Juan Memories,” open to both amateur and professional photographers. The opening reception will be held May 26. Further details, as well as full schedule of events, is posted on the society’s website, www.ouraycountyhistoricalsociety.org.
Beginning this Thursday, May 15, the museum will be open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.