In the late 19th century, Gunnison was a progressive cattle and mining town establishing itself as a cultural leader of Colorado’s Western Slope. Placed on the leading edge of the American frontier, Gunnison sought to establish educational programs for the citizens of the area. A bill was introduced in 1885 to establish a college, but it would take until 1901 for a bill to be approved by the state legislature. The seed for Western Colorado University as we know it was planted, but all that existed was a designated swath of land that cattle could still graze on.
The cornerstone of North Hall (now Taylor Hall) was placed in October 1910. The following year, Colorado State Normal School, a two-year college, welcomed its first class of 13 students. The Normal School was the first college on Colorado’s Western Slope. Students and faculty in those early years were as tough as today’s mascot—the Mountaineer. Complaints about mountain weather were taboo, and getting over mountain passes and snowy roads was no excuse for not making it to class on time. Students handled most maintenance on campus and had fun by skiing off Cupola Hill and tobogganing by North Hall. The foundation of the Mountaineer spirit was laid in these pioneering years.
In 1923, Colorado Normal became a four-year college—Western State College, a liberal arts school designed to produce teachers for the Western Slope. In 1923, under the direction of Dr. John C. Johnson, a Biology professor, students constructed a big “W” on Tenderfoot Mountain just south of campus. It was then and is today, the largest university letter in the nation with rocks extending 450 feet up and down. In 1928, Dr. Johnson bought land at Gothic, a once-great silver mining camp 35 miles north of Gunnison and turned it into the famed Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory which today conducts pioneering research on climate change and attracts students and professors from all over the world. In the late 1940s, Mountaineer Bowl was carved out of solid rock on the side of Smelter Hill—then and today, the highest collegiate football stadium in the nation at 7,703 feet elevation.
After World War II, Western entered a period of unprecedented expansion, peaking with a student enrollment of 3,200 in the late 1970s. The college became known as one of the top outdoor education schools in the nation. Athletic Director Paul Wright became known as “the father of intercollegiate skiing” when he got the NCAA to adopt it as an official sport in 1953. Western Ski Coach Sven Wiik became known as the “father of Nordic skiing in the U.S.” and served as the U.S. Olympic coach, turning out more than 20 Olympic skiers. The men’s and women’s cross country teams won 12 NCAA titles and turned out four Olympians.
Today, Western has state-of-the-art facilities including the new Mountaineer Field House, University Center and residence halls. It gained university status in 2012 and is now regarded as one of America’s top universities by Forbes magazine. Elevation Outdoors magazine rates the school as the Top Adventure College in the Rocky Mountains. Academically, Western has renowned programs in Environment & Sustainability, Biology, Geology, Energy Management, Exercise & Sport Science, Business and Recreation & Outdoor Education—along with a host of graduate programs.
Western Colorado University carries much of the charm it did more than 100 years ago. It is a small university in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, a great outdoor laboratory with excellent and engaged professors, small classes and great attention given to students.
All photos courtesy of Western archives