Cortez City

Montezuma County, Colorado

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Cortez City Hall is located at 201 East Main Street, Cortez, CO 81321.
Phone: 970‑565‑3402.

Beginnings [1]

Cortez is a unique community and has survived despite obvious challenges. It has never been accessed by a railroad, is not located on a major river, and it did not sit on any major travel arteries until the 1930s. In fact, dependable water supplies for the city were not secured until recently.

Cortez is located in a geographic crossroads that has attracted people from prehistoric times to the present. The Ancient Pueblo (Anasazi), Ute, and Navajo history in the area has been well documented. The early Spanish explorations of the area followed by trade with the local tribes are also well known. Increasing hostilities between the Spanish and the tribes ended trade to the area in the early 1800s. After Mexican independence in 1821, fur traders entered the area, and in 1848, the region became an American territory. The discovery of gold in California brought numerous federal expeditions to the West, which prompted the United States Geological Survey to open the Colorado Plateau to settlement with the Hayden Survey (1873-1876). The Treaty of 1895 set the Ute Reservation boundaries in Colorado and New Mexico.

The first pioneer settlement in the area was Mitchell Springs, located one and one-half miles south of the present location of Cortez. The natural springs on the stage road halfway between Mancos, Colorado and Aneth, Utah were an ideal stop for travelers. The Mitchell Brothers founded the town in 1882 with six adobe buildings, but the town was short-lived. It was poorly located in the flood plain of McElmo Creek, which led to the demise of the town within five years.

In 1885, the Montezuma Valley Water Supply Company developed a plan to cut a canal from the Dolores River to Montezuma Valley. The company sold stock in the plan to eastern investors to finance the project with the promise that bringing water to the fertile valley would create a land rush. By 1887, tunnels, ditches, and laterals were under construction. J.W. Hanna, the company president, and his family patented large tracts of land. In 1888, M.J. Mack, the company engineer, platted the town of Cortez on Hanna's donated land, which was at the time located in La Plata County. In 1887, the citizens of Cortez petitioned the state legislature to form Montezuma County, and name Cortez as the county seat. Although the land rush did not occur, and the Montezuma Valley Water Supply Company failed, Cortez managed to survive.

Ranching was the early agribusiness and primary source to sustain life in the region. With irrigation water, local farmers noted the success of the fruit farmers in Montrose and Delta. They planted apple orchards north of Cortez and peaches to the southwest in McElmo Canyon. The higher altitude made fruit farming risky. Soon, fruit farming was supplemented with hay production, grain and potato farming, and later, dryland pinto bean farming. All farming was limited by high freight costs, making markets mostly local.

The first businesses in Cortez were livery stables, blacksmith shops, and restaurants. The Thompsons built such a restaurant and sold a few retail goods. In 1890, the Guillets bought the business and turned it into a mercantile. The Lambs opened a drugstore that also contained general merchandise. The first Montezuma County Courthouse was built in 1888, and the Montezuma Journal began to publish newspapers that same year. Local sandstone was quarried for early Cortez buildings, giving the community a permanent appearance.

At the turn of the century, mining and agriculture were in decline, allowing tourism to have increasing significance. In 1906, Mesa Verde National Park was established. The automobile became increasingly available and popular, which led to the establishment of The State Highway Commission in 1910. The federal government passed a "Good Road Bill" in 1916 that provided matching funds for the construction of a national highway system. Cortez benefited from the highway system because it was located on a national road from Kansas to Salt Lake City (U.S. Highway 160). The addition of Hovenweep National Monument in 1923 cemented tourism associated with archaeology as a profitable industry for Cortez, and the community prospered from improved roads and proximity to Mesa Verde and Hovenweep.

The increasing importance of trucking and shipping also contributed to the prosperity of Cortez. The City became a regional hub of automobile-oriented businesses. Cortez grew as a municipality, with new schools, churches, hospitals, and a new county courthouse. The cleaner lines of Art Deco designs replaced Victorian gingerbread, and storefronts were renovated to reflect the changing times.

Oil was discovered northwest and southwest of Cortez in 1909, setting in motion events that would later be duplicated. For instance, in the post-World War II era, Cortez was influenced by the same boom and bust cycles of energy development that the rest of the Southwest experienced, but tourism-related growth moderated those cycles. Continued growth in the trucking industry brought improved regional highways. Cortez also increased in importance as a regional retail hub, and the community experienced a rapid change of character. Commercial storefronts and signs grew in size to attract drive-by business, and older storefronts were "modernized" with new materials.

  1. The City of Cortez, Colorado, Comprehensive Plan: History of Cortez, 2008,, accessed July, 2013.

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