Educational Programs & Activities:
Fort Uncompahgre, Living History Museum
These stories are part of an ongoing educational series written by staff and guest writers. This article by Karen Prather.
[Delta, Colo. | January 2020 | San Juan Silver Stage]
In 1828, Antoine Robidoux, trapper and trader, discovered an Indian trail along the Uncompahgre Plateau while forging a route through the Colorado Mountains. Where the well-trodden path met the confluence of two rivers, the Gunnison and Uncompahgre, Robidoux—who was an excellent businessman but a bit of a scoundrel—built a trading post: Fort Uncompahgre. His operation flourished until the fur trade, which supported it, diminished around 1840. In 1843, the fort was attacked by the Utes, who apparently disliked the Mexicans who staffed it. His employees slaughtered, Robidoux never returned, and two years later, the Utes destroyed the fort.
In the 1990s, the City of Delta reconstructed the old trading post, turning it into a public museum. Portraying a way of life in the early 1800s, the Fort was complete with trade goods and a menagerie of animals, which typically sustained the traders and people who traded with them. It flourished until a failing economy, poor maintenance, and dwindling attendance caused the city to close it.
Then along came Chris Miller, Executive Director of the Interpretive Association of Western Colorado (IAWC), founded in 1988 to maintain, preserve, and protect historic projects in the region. Miller recognized the Fort’s unusual historic significance because of its connection with the Old Spanish Trail. “Robidoux’s was the only trading post on the trail between Santa Fe and Los Angeles,” she stated. Wanting to preserve that history, Miller lobbied the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management to designate the Fort as an interpretive center. Her perseverance paid off, and in 2017, Fort Uncompahgre received a certificate, signed by the Secretary of the Interior, designating it as the first non-federal interpretive center on the Old Spanish Trail. “And that’s how we got the new brown sign that you see out there today,” she explained with a satisfied grin.
According to the Old Spanish Trail Association, the route was popular with “fur and livestock traders, soldiers, merchants, Indians, slave traders, and horse thieves.” Today, that route is a piece of history populated by supportive Coloradans and their visitors. “This is a community asset,” Miller reminded the IAWC board, “and it belongs to the public.” Miller and her team began to identify ways to capitalize on the historic site. “We wanted to reach out to a new audience, get people coming back to the Fort,” she said. “We wanted them to learn that the Fort is now established as an interpretive center, part of the Old Spanish National Historic Trail (traversing Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California), and is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, with the collaborative efforts of the IAWC and Old Spanish Trail Association.
As a result, new programs are continually being added, bridging youth and community projects. Future plans call for building a permanent road and bridge to an island behind the building, part of the original property. Students from the Delta schools will participate in rebuilding the orchard that once flourished there.
The Fort is staffed by volunteers and is always looking for people to help. Please stop by or visit their website for more information.
Fort Uncompahgre is located at 440 Palmer Street, Delta, Colorado, just off Confluence Drive adjacent to the Bill Heddles Recreation Center. It’s open from June to October, 9 A.M. to 5 P.M., Tuesday through Saturday. School tours may be arranged for the months of April, May, September, and October by calling 970-874-8319.