Moffat County History: Hamilton a hamlet to hundreds
The stories of Craig and Moffat County’s history written for this series in 2009 are made possible through a generous grant from the Kenneth Kendall King Foundation to the Museum of Northwest Colorado.
As Henry and Mary Hamilton raised their nine children on a farm in DeKalb County, Mo., they were fulfilling a dream of pursuing an agricultural lifestyle.
A former shoemaker, Henry found that farming in the post-Civil War era could be quite profitable. Their hard work paid off well, and their dreams came true.
Their oldest son, Riley, helped to work the family farm until he was 19, when the young man decided to make his own way in in 1881 in Colorado.
Like so many others before and after him, he first landed in the mines near Breckenridge. It didn’t take long before he realized that working underground wasn’t as fulfilling for him as working on top of and in the soil.
Hamilton spent some time working on a ranch in South Park before heading north to Fort Collins, where he farmed for two years.
His brother, Tom, joined him in Colorado, and in the summer of 1885 the young men made their way to Routt County, where there were few white people but many opportunities.
The brothers took up a pre-emption and a timber claim totaling 320 acres in the Williams Fork (Moore Rapids) and began to build their futures.
They later added more land to their claim with 200 acres under cultivation.
When the men arrived at Williams Fork after traveling hundreds of miles through unclaimed lands, they found another early settler squatting at the place they thought to take for their own.
There wasn’t a problem however, because Thomas Iles decided to move farther west. He settled on a piece of land that would make history in the development of Northwest Colorado and the energy industry when massive amounts of oil and gas were discovered on his chosen homestead.
When the Hamiltons took up their homestead, they had no close neighbors, roads or other amenities. They worked hard to improve their land, as did the neighbors who gradually settled in the area.
Riley married Clara Duse on April 16, 1892, and the couple raised their two sons on their ranch. Tom married Antoinette Johnston in 1893. One daughter and three sons were born to them.
The brothers eventually split their holdings, with Tom taking the northernmost section, including an area where the roads on the Williams Fork and Morapos Creek met.
In 1896, a post office was established in Hamilton with Tom’s father-in-law, J.B. Johnston, serving as postmaster.
A small store followed a few years later, and the little community continued to grow. It was at a convenient place for freighters and cattlemen to rest on the multiple day journey from the Yampa Valley to Meeker.
It was a close-knit community made up of strong people who cared about each other as well as their own families. When the community school burned to the ground, they were quick to rebuild:
“The three-roomed building was valued at $400 and the school furniture at $300. In addition all the pupils lost their school books. A new building is already being erected to replace the old structure, all the work to be done by donations from school patrons. George Pitchford was in Craig yesterday to procure second-hand school books as the district will furnish books to replace those owned by the scholars.” (Craig Courier; March 1, 1922)
Nearly half a century after the Hamilton brothers settled on the Williams Fork, the first energy boom hit Northwest Colorado when the Hamilton oil dome was drilled by the Texas Company.
That well was the first of many events that would change the course of the area and the state. The Discovery well came in at 5,000 barrels of high quality oil a day, and the race was on.
“Hamilton, once the ‘halfway house’ for cowpunchers and freighters, has had a figurative shot in the arm.
“The ‘shot’ consisted of oil, and the old town doesn’t look the same. It has, in fact, changed the Tom Hamilton ranch into a booming little town, with the sound of carpenters’ hammers drowning out the coyote’s wails. It is conservatively estimated that Hamilton now has a population of some 200, where six months ago the citizens could be enumerated on the fingers of one hand.” (Craig Courier; August 6, 1924)
The little town was only a mile from the Discovery well and just a few more miles from the massive oil field that was being opened. Tom Hamilton partnered with J.E. Frost, an experienced Townsite planner.
The men “have laid out 2,000 lots on the 160-acre Hamilton homestead and are building up a real trading point. Streets have been laid out and named, a park has been planned in the beautiful trees along the river. The town adjoins the Hamilton oil dome and is the junction of two pipe lines.” (Craig Courier; September 25, 1924)
Boarding houses, shops and restaurants quickly rose from the land as people rushed to get their share of the boom. The Otten store and the Hamilton’s lunchroom were the first two businesses to serve the growing population, but they were joined by new businesses daily as the swelling population packed into the area.
“The Hamilton Grove : is one of the most thickly populated spots in Moffat County. Scores of tents and temporary shelters house the majority of Hamilton’s population and space on which to pitch a tent is at a premium.” (Craig Courier; August 6, 1924)
The quick construction served a purpose, but it also lent itself to quick destruction. In the few years after the initial building frenzy, several of the structures fell to fires. In 1943, the post office and main store were leveled in a fast-moving fire.
In typical fashion though, the residents of Hamilton came together and rebuilt.
Little remains today of the bustling little oil town of the 1920s, but the people of Hamilton continue to collect their mail at their post office and gather regularly at the community building.
The core of the community remains and as new residents move into the area, they discover a little gem along the Williams Fork.
Shannan Koucherik may be reached at email@example.com.
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