Copyright © 1997 Henrietta W. Hay
Alligators in Ouray
November 28, 1997
Alligators in Ouray? Ridiculous. There is no way those tropical critters could get into a little mountain town in western Colorado. Well, actually, there was a way. This summer I wrote about seeing two alligators in a little pool in front of the swimming pool in Ouray, back when I was a teenager. Most of my readers thought I washallucinating. Some of the those who believed me, however, wondered how they got there.
I received letters from two believers, historians Marilyn Cox of Montrose and Roger Henn of Ouray, who assured me that the alligators were really there and were not a product of my overactive creative memory.
It was on a trip in the old Hudson that I took with my parents when I was in High School. In those days it was quite a jaunt from Englewood to Durango, but apparently that part of the trip was uneventful, since I don't remember it. I do, however, remember the alligator day. We were on our way from Durango to Cebolla, that wonderful little fishing camp on the Gunnison River, now lying on the bottom of the Blue Mesa Reservoir.
That was the day I rode over the Million Dollar Highway for the first time. It had not been changed very much from the original road Otto Mears had hacked out of the mountain for mule drawn wagons. The dirt road was occasionally two lanes wide and required a good deal of negotiating with oncoming drivers. Going north, we were on the inside, much to the relief of my flatlander mother.
I can remember only one thing about Ouray. In a little pool in front of the hot springs swimming pool were a couple of alligators -- live, ferocious looking alligators --alligators that one would expect to see in a southern swamp, not in the Rocky Mountains.
In the early part of the century one of the most respected business men in Ouray was Ed Washington, who operated the saloon and gambling house. Ed was a black man, and Ouray did not discriminate against blacks. Many of the inhabitants had migrated from the north after the Civil War. Schools and churches were integrated, and Ed Washington was very popular in the community.
As he got older he took extended winter vacations in his home state of Louisiana . One winter in the twenties the Railroad Express brought a box shipped by him to the city of Ouray. When they opened the box two live baby alligators stuck their heads out. Ed had sent this gift because he wanted to express his appreciation to the town where he had so many friends.
The town fathers did not, of course, have the vaguest idea what to do with two live alligators. Lacking anywhere else to stash them while they figured it out, they did what they did with gun carrying drunks on a temporary basis. They put them in a jail cell. The babies were a major sensation. School was let out so the kids could to go City Hall
and see real live alligators. When things calmed down a little they sprung the babies to a special pen they built near the hot springs pools. The little alligators thrived in the warm water with plenty of horse meat to eat, and by the time I saw them they had grown to a really frightening size.
Some time after that, one of them died or got defeated in battle. And then came the flood.
In 1929 Ouray suffered a major flood. The resident alligator was able to swim over the ornamental iron fence that had been built around the pool, and headed downstream, probably thinking it was in the Mississippi. The townspeople, who had gotten fond of their scaly friend, scanned the newspapers to see whether there were any ads reading, "Found. One alligator swimming in the Uncompahgre River. Please come and get it before it eats my dog." Nothing ever appeared, and they assumed it had been killed along the way or was on its way to the Pacific Ocean.
But then, who really knows where it ended up?
I find myself fantasizing that one very old Louisiana alligator might still be swimming around out by the 5th Street Bridge here in Grand Junction.
I wonder. Do you suppose? Nah.