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Visit the Ouray County Historical Museum to See Why It’s the “Best Little Museum in the West”

I will never underestimate a small town museum again after visiting the Ouray County Historical Musuem. When visiting small towns, I like to stop in their visitor center or museum because, more often than not, I learn some interesting nugget of history I didn’t know before. Usually these visits are less than 30 minutes. When I walked into Ouray County Historical Museum, mainly to take a break from the heat on a hot summer afternoon, I got lost in artifacts and exhibits on mining, railroad and even hospital life in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Ouray. The Smithsonian has dubbed it “the best little museum in the West.” The biggest surprise? Ouray’s connection to the Hope Diamond.

The museum is run by the Ouray County Historical Society. As I paid the $10 admission for adults, the lady behind the bookstore register, suggested I get the guide too. It was only a dollar or two and as I walked through each room I was glad I got it.

It was originally St. Joseph’s Miners Hospital and opened in 1887. It was run by the Sisters of Mercy from Denver, Durango and Omaha. The museum has three floors with over 30 rooms filled with exhibits from an operating room to simulated mine.

The first floor gives you that great introduction to the city and county of Ouray. Both are named after Ute Chief Ouray, who used to summer in the area. Chief Ouray lived to see the city and county named after him. I wandering through the Ouray Room and was fascinated by the Camera Room. Cameras have played an important role in Ouray since they’re used to share the stunning scenery of the San Juan Mountains.

Upstairs, I went into the Veterans Room first. This room is dedicated to the men and women of Ouray County who served our country from World War I through the Iran and Afghanistan conflicts. It’s filled with uniforms from the past including a World War II US Army airmen’s flight uniform and a uniform worn by Jean Bosworth, who joined the United States Navy WAVES in 1944 at the age of 20 and served for 13 months. There’s the U.S. flag that cover the casket of William Stratton, the first Ouray casualty of World War I. There’s a Women’s Army Corps (WAC) uniform owned by Elizabeth Sherbino the only known Ouray woman to have served in World War II.

In the bay window there’s a small red and beige flag with one star in the center. U.S. service flags were flown in the front windows of homes during World War II to indicate that a family member was serving in the US Armed Forces. The number of stars on the flag indicated the number of family members serving.

From there I went into the Dental Office. The chair in front of the window was the first dental chair in Ouray. The Railroad Room gives you a glimpse into a time when there were three railroad lines in Ouray County. The Native American Room was one of my favorite areas of the museum. It’s filled with clothing, jewelry, rugs, arrowheads, pottery and even a couple of ceremonial headpieces. The Ute tribes inhabited western Colorado until their force removal to a reservation in eastern Utah in 1881. I found a pair of beaded moccasins to be particularly stunning.

Since it was a hospital, there are several rooms dedicated to medicine. The Operating Room shows two different scenes. One is from the 1940s which had much more sterile techniques than the one from the 1890s where whiskey and ether were used as anesthetics. Next I went into Dr. Spangler‘s office, which was originally on the first floor, and then I went into a patient’s Hospital Room where the majority of furniture and equipment was used in this hospital.

On the top floor there’s also a Toy Room filled with vintage toys including model cars, books, dolls and tea sets. There’s a room dedicated to the history of climbing in the San Juan Mountains. The Domestic Room is filled with colorful handmade quilts. In the stairwell, there are a couple of “crazy quilts” dating back to the late 1800s and early 1920s. These patchwork quilts got their name because they were made of any and all pieces of scrap material.

I went down into the basement where the Hospital Kitchen is filled with all sorts of kitchenwares including china, a nearly 100 year old string mop ringer, a four piece gas stove toaster where the bread with lean against copper wire over a gas burner to toast it, two washing machines dating back to 1925 and 1940 and an old ironing board. The old wood cookstove dates back to when the hospital opened in 1887.

The Mineral Room is filled with minerals from Colorado some of the minerals such as gold and silver are ore minerals. Among the minerals is rhodochrosite, the official state mineral of Colorado. The crystal ranges in color from pink to red to pale brown. It’s interesting to see the minerals pulled from different mines in the San Juan Mountains. In the Mercy Mine you get a sense of what mining life was like as you walk through the mine replica including a Blacksmith Shop, which was important to mining operations as drill bits, picks and other equipment frequently needed to be sharpened. Silver deposits were discovered in the Red Mountain District, about 12 miles south of Ouray in 1881 to kick off the mining boom in the region. Another one of my favorite rooms was the Florescent Room. It’s interactive. You turn off the regular light and turn on a black light timer to see the rock specimens glow. It’s so neat I did it several times. The basement also has several offices common to mining operations including a replica of the Camp Bird Mine Office with an old switchboard from the Idarado Mining Company office and Assay Office.

Back up on the main floor, I learned about Ouray’s connection to the famous Hope Diamond and its fabled curse. It’s a story I didn’t know before. Evalyn Walsh McLean was the daughter of Tom Walsh, owner of Camp Bird Mine near Ouray. In 1905, he sold the mine for approximately five million dollars. He moved his family to Washington, D.C., where Evalyn became a socialite. In 1911, Evalyn Walsh McLean bought the 45.52 carat Hope Diamond from Cartier for $180,000 ($3 million today). Her life was filled with tragedy including her eldest son killed in car accident at age of nine, her husband running off with another woman and dying an alcoholic in a mental institution and daughter dying at 25 of drug overdose. Evalyn’s estate sold the diamond and other jewels to Harry Winston in 1947. He donated it to the Smithsonian Museum, where it remains today.

The last couple of rooms are the Ranch Room and Sun Porch/General Store. Most of the artifacts in General Store were from grocery, hardware and general merchandise stores in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Outside of the museum are a couple of historic cabins you can explore. You can walk into the McIntyre Cabin. It was built in 1878 on Oak Street moved to present location by the museum in 1979. The McIntyres were some of the first settlers in the county. In this two-story cabin, the kitchen, dining area and fireplace are downstairs with a loft bedroom upstairs. Next to it you can look into the Raab/Sly Cabin. The one room cabin was just off Main Street between Ninth Avenue and the Ouray Hot Springs pool.

As you can see, the museum dubbed by the Smithsonian as “the best little museum in the West” is worth a visit. From the Ouray County Historical Museum, I went on a self-guided walking tour to see some of the Victorian architecture of historical homes and buildings in Ouray.

Author Jennifer Broome has traveled extensively throughout Colorado and is considered an expert on travel and outdoors in the Centennial State. She’s visited Ouray multiple times. Check out blogs on Climbing the Ouray Via Ferrata and One Night in Ouray for more ideas of what to do in this charming historic mining town.

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