Drive north on scenic Colorado Highway 145 past legacy ranches on the Dolores River, and you’ll find a new destination in the mountain town of Rico – a restored mining and railroad museum that records a piece of Southwestern history, and the men and women who made it.
The two-story Rico Historical Museum sits on the highway in the town’s historical firehouse. It was restored seven years ago by the Rico Historical Society with a $200,000 grant from the Colorado Historical Society.
A nicely curated collection of Rico’s lively history dating to the 19th century entertains and informs visitors with displays of hand-drawn hose trucks and photos of the burly men who pulled it to fires.
“There was no time to hook up the horses,” says Mike Curran, of the Rico Historical Society.
In 1879, miners discovered rich, oxidized, silver ore along the shoulders of Telescope and Dolores mountains, and the mining town of Rico emerged with gusto.
When the railroad arrived in 1892, Rico had a population of 2,500 with 23 saloons, two newspapers and a theater. The red-light district, dubbed “The Houses of Ill Fame,” encompassed three town blocks where the town park is now.
Rio Grande Southern freight trains and locomotives arrived in 1891, and hauled millions of dollars worth of ore, and then passengers, for 50 years.
Another display explains “The Acid Plant Incident” of 1964. The plant produced sulfuric acid shipped to process uranium in Uravan and Naturita mills. But giant plumes of the acid regularly discharged into the air, killing trees and fish. The problem triggered an armed revolt by two employees, and the plant was shut down.
Another display features rancher Olive Truelsen, who ran 350 head of cattle up and down the Dolores River Valley for decades. Her son, Val Truelsen, owns a restaurant and lumber mill and is member of the town board in Dolores, about 35 miles downstream.
A plaque honors Rico native Howard Ramsey, who was one of last surviving veterans of World War I. He died at age 109 in 2007.
A large photo shows a sheriff posse who helped fight local crime in classic Western style.
“The old ranchers and cowboys around here really like this section because they knew a lot of these people,” Curran says.
In 1935, the posse helped track down and capture two men who killed Sheriff Dunlap. It was one of the largest manhunts in Colorado at the time.
Another wall features the life of Betty Pellet, a Broadway star who gave up acting and became a Rico mine owner. She also secured a mail contract to keep the Galloping Goose running for another 10 years. In 1940, she was elected to the Colorado Legislature and was the first female House speaker. This year, she was inducted into the Colorado Women Hall of Fame.
The museum has impressive dioramas of mining and railroad life in Rico. Restored relics such as stoves, carbide mining lamps, railroad antiques, and historic photographs – many of them donated – keep visitors interested.
“Over the years, people have donated historic items they want preserved,” Curran said. “They have confidence that our museum will protect them.”
The museum is mostly funded from Rico Center grants, which range from $8,000 to $20,000 per year. The Rico Center collects a small percentage of a Dolores County mill levy and distributes the funds to various Rico nonprofits that apply each year for grants.
The museum’s gift shop sells local history books. It’s open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday. Visit the museum online at http://www.ricocolorado.org