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Hippies, Uranium and Prairie Dogs Oh My - My Hometown Nucla, Colorado

Updated on May 13, 2013

Welcome to Nucla, Colorado - Home of 1000 friendly people and 1 grouch (Population 707)

Nucla is a small town located in southwestern Colorado. It is about 100 miles from the Four Corners Monument, the junction of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. In fact Nucla is about a two hour drive from anywhere most people have heard of.

We are sixty miles from Telluride, and 100 miles from Grand Junction, Montrose and Cortez in their respective directions. Nucla, Naturita, Bedrock, and Paradox form what is known as "The West End" of Montrose County.Nucla is my hometown. The place I grew up. The place my family has lived for countless generations.

A few years ago, I was snooping around the Internet when I found a forum posting listing the worst places in Colorado to live, and one woman proclaimed Nucla as the winner. She and her husband had found a home for sale in Nucla, so they drove to town to look around. When they got here, they found people walking around with dazed looks on their faces. They felt sorry for us.

There is no need.

What she mistook for a dazed look could well have been happiness. Life in a small town takes some getting used to, but most of us wouldn't have it any other way.

Though the sign at the city limits still welcomes you to "Nucla: Home of 1000 friendly people and one grouch," there are now less than 1400 souls living in Nucla and her sister town Naturita combined. And there isn't a whole lot of debate left about who the one grouch really is.

We weren't always this small though. When my youngest aunt graduated in 1980, there were 80 students. By 1992 when I graduated, there were 25. In 2010 we graduated 12.

Those of us who have been here through good and bad still remember what it was like to have several restaurants instead of just one. Nucla has HISTORY...

Nucla was originally founded as a utopian community, it was to offer cooperative communal living. The original experiment didn't work, but many of the people who live here today are descended from these first pioneers, including myself.

Then came the mining boom. During it's heyday this area of Colorado supplied much of the governments uranium for the first experiments with nuclear weapons. Then came the catastrophe in Chernobyl, and once again Nucla was in hibernation.

Finally in the 90's, Nucla caused controversy the world over when they hosted the first annual Top Dog" Prairie Dog Shoot. A competitive event that was quickly legislated and quietly shut down.

These three things have had a way of defining Nucla for its long term residents in ways those on the outside could never imagine. Nucla keeps coming back, no matter how many times hard times have hit us here, we have come through. We are a community of survivors. Newcomers don't always understand the impact these events had on our way of life, and most tourists aren't even aware of it, but anybody who calls Nucla home understands.

Living two hours from the nearest Safeway, Starbucks, or stoplight takes some getting used to there's no doubt about it. We chose to give up a lot when we made that decision, but the trade was worth it.

Nucla is a pretty laid back little town, not much to get excited about. It is is quiet, but most of us like it that way. It has it's drawbacks, but we all stick together as well. Whether it is a flat tire or a house fire, there is always someone there to lend a helping hand.

On the outside Nucla doesn't look like much, but to those of us who grew up here Nucla is our childhood, our family history, it is the one place we will always call home, no matter where we may wander. Nucla is many things to many people, but for me it is my roots. Roots that run deep.

What follows is the secret life of small town USA, so next time you visit any small town look a little deeper, you may be surprised at what you find!

Nucla (pronounced New-cluh) actually found it's beginnings in 1893, when ten people from Denver decided that they wanted to form a community that set aside competition and greed, this society would instead focus on "quality and service" the town was originally named "Pinon"

Together, they organized the Colorado Co-operative Company and set out to create the perfect Utopian community. The founders of this community originally planned to practice Henry George's single tax concept. There would be a tax on land only, all land would be owned as common property, rather than being individually held. There would be no tax on wages or interest. The organizers of the community issued 1000 shares of stock at a par value of $100. There was a limit of one share and one vote per person to ensure equality. The founding fathers organized their plan and then placed ads in "The Altrurian" explaining their goal.

In 1894 they settled at (TAB-watch) Tabeguache Park in southwestern Colorado. It was remote, and it was barren but it was beautiful. By 1900 Pinion had 50 buildings and over 200 members. Together the settlers undertook a massive communal project to irrigate over 20,000 acres of Colorado "desert" land. They began digging what is creatively known as "The Big Ditch," a fifteen-mile irrigation canal stretching from the river near Pinon to the site where my hometown is located today. The Big Ditch was completed in 1904. In 1919 the colonists moved the remaining buildings to the current site, and renamed the town Nucla. It was to serve as a "nucleus" to the surrounding community.

Before long the colony was no longer communal, and many people left to join a similar colony in Louisiana. What was left behind was a community of private citizens that owned the ditch, and cooperatively used the water supply. A town of people who still stick together today when it really counts. The old C.C. Ditch company building remains on Main street today, reminding us of where we came from.

Very little of Pinon remains today, a few lone buildings and a cemetery to remind us of the commitment those people made. Once, while researching my hometown online I came across a blogger who had visited us, he described this history as being founded by communist hippies. Sometimes, people just don't get it. Our founders wanted to build a community where "equality and service, rather than greed and competition, were the bases of conduct."

Many of us had family members that were among those original pioneers. You will find the family name of Gibbs at the site of the old Pinon cemetery. Their blood flows through my veins, and I have every reason to be proud of that fact. Those brave men and women moved to the middle of nowhere, for no other reason than they believed people should work together. To place the individual aside to do what was best for the majority.

To this day we retain the communal spirit that our town was founded upon. When a local family suffers tragedy the community reaction is inspiring. A home burns down, a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, or a car accident takes a life, the rally cry goes out and the community responds.

They bring food, clothing, furniture and money to a total stranger, because here nobody is really a total stranger.

Resources for this article: "A Colorado History," By Carl Ubbelohde, Duane A. Smith, Maxine Benson, "Modern American Communes," By Robert P. Sutton

Graphics Via Public Domain

Local History and Recreation

The Hell That Was Paradox (2nd Edition)
The Hell That Was Paradox (2nd Edition)
Greager writes a true historical account of the settling of Paradox Valley in Montrose County, Colorado. This area, often called "The slaughterhouse of the West" was settled by a tough group of men and women who often made their own laws and frequently lived beyond the reach of civil law.
Backcountry Adventures Colorado
Backcountry Adventures Colorado
Travel in the path of such famous explorers, outlaws, and prospectors as Ferdinand Hayden, Doc Holliday, and Horace Tabor. Stare in awe at the breathtaking scenery at the top of some of Colorado s tallest peaks. Like
Guide To the Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps
Guide To the Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps
In terms of locating ghost towns and camps and learning what they were all about, this book can't be beat. It's an excellent guide.

I'm gonna live... - A little music to set the tone...

A lot of people think the name Nucla was derived from the word Nuclear, but it wasn't. Nucla and nuclear were both just derived from the word nucleus. You can't fault them for making that connection though. If our first claim to fame was being one of the first hippie communes, our second turned around and slapped the hippies in the face. Our forgotten little area helped build the bomb.

Uranium is found at low levels in virtually all rock, soil, and water. Uranium is used in small quantities in the civilian sector, but the biggest market lies with military functions. Most of the material for the United States earliest experiments with uranium was mined right here where I grew up.

Most famous for its contribution to our nuclear legacy was the town of Uravan (a combination of the words uranium and vanadium) but you will find very little left of that town today. You can find its former location in the canyon a few miles west of Nucla. Mining was our areas bread and butter like much of Colorado. Uranium put food on our parents tables. Uranium was so much a part of our lives that our drive-in theater was named "The Uranium Drive-in."

Not everyone knew the full extent of the operations here, especially not the miners who worked with the material. Due to wartime secrecy, the use of the uranium was not fully disclosed until much later. All the miners and their families knew id that they were mining vanadium, which is used to harden metals.

My grandfather, along with just about every other grandfather in the area worked in those mines. The considered it their patriotic duty, and many of them sacrificed their health in the process.

Uranium is a part of our lives, even if it has nothing to do with us personally. My mother tells stories about walking to school with her hands in her pockets practicing for show and tell. In her right pocket, uranium, in her left pocket vanadium. Back then, health concerns did not exist, kids took uranium to school, women washed their husbands laundry right along with the babies diapers, and kids played with yellow cake in the streets.

There are still a lot of people around who can remember the days when uranium powered our community, but those days are long gone now. In the early 80's after several major nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl, uranium went bust. The town of Uravan went bust right along with it, it was found to be unsafe for living and began the long clean-up process that was not completed until 2008. Now when you drive by, you would never even guess a once thriving community was based there. Humans will likely never live on that land again.

We were uninformed about the health risks, and a lot of safety precautions that would be standard but the whole country was uninformed right along with us. We paid our price. Our area has lost many citizens to the many health conditions that come from being exposed to uranium. It is hard to find someone here who didn't lose someone to the effects of uranium mining.

I will always remember Uravan, I remember going to the community center, to the doctor, and many other buildings that are no longer there. I spent the bulk of my summers there. Every year when the weather warmed they would bus the kids from Nucla and Naturita to Uravan for swimming lessons. I looked forward to the long ride to "town." It was hot, and it was sticky. Crammed into a bus with twenty or so other kids. But it was something to be savored. Along with the ice cream bar from the snack bar that came much later.

Someday, they said, Nucla or Naturita would have a town swimming poll too. But it never happened. We didn't know then that the population was already in decline. That in our adult years Uravan would be only a memory. I learned to swim in a town that no longer exists. How is that for childhood ghosts? Now when you drive by, you would never even guess a once thriving community was based there. It's not even a ghost town, it's just... gone.

Uravan was a big part of Nucla life, and we all joked that we too were radioactive. There are long standing jokes about residents glowing in the dark, and rumors that we have a large number of birth deects but we don't. Someone from Union Carbide once corrected me when I joked about the radioactivity, explaining thatt it was "not radioactive but highly organic." I never understood what that meant. That Uravan was dangerous was no joke. Eventually they just pulled the plug on the whole town.

When the decision to shut operations down happened, I was still too young to realize what it really meant. That last night in those homes with my best friend Essie wasn't just another moving day. After that Uravan was no more. Little by little the town was leveled. The houses removed. The buildings torn down. Each year, as you drove by... just a little bit more was gone. The swimming pool become a settling pond. The land was reclaimed by nature.

Another page of history is gone, existing only in the minds of those who still remember. We still remember.

Nucla's next brush with fame came in the form of dead rodents.While being founded as a commune, and mining Uranium kept us going, it didn't exactly place us on the map. What did put us on the map, at least for a little while in the 1990 was the Top Dog Prairie Dog Shoot. To make a long story short, we invited hunters from all over the world to come help us with our rodent problem.

We needed fewer prairie dogs and we also needed more tourism, so why not hold a competition? Kind of like the original commune it was a sound idea at the time,translating that idea into practice was another thing entirely. The whole thing got blown way out of proportion the competitors came flying in, and right behind them animal rights activists.

Those of us who lived here at the time had never seen anything like it. We are small enough that when a stranger walks through town, we know about it. This time there was no way to not know about it. Strangers were everywhere. Some of them with rifles, and some of them with signs. Greenpeace had rallied the troops.

Things got heated a few times, with yelling matches between supporters and protesters. Major media outlets flew in. People were camped in every available corner. One animal rights activist waited for hunters to sight before running through the fields yelling at the prairie dogs to run. Threats were made.

People finally knew we existed. No matter how you felt about the event, excitement hung thick in the air. This was it! Locals had T-shirts printed up to commemorate the event. The mortuary made and tiny little prairie dog coffins. A chainsaw carving of a giant prairie dog was placed in the park.We stopped just short of declaring a prairie dog festival complete with prairie dog queen and attendants. This was our big shot, and we weren't going to waste it.

The media made a huge deal over it, then after the event they promptly forgot all about us. Nucla slipped back into obscurity. Very few papers covered the story a few years later when the Top Dog Prairie Dog shoot met it's demise. State legislators passed a law that prevented such competitions. They once again left us to be forgotten, because really, there's nothing interesting going on in a small town is there?

I'm not going to go into whether is was wrong or right for people to turn killing into a competitive sport. On that subject, like many others I really don't feel like having a strong opinion either way, I see both sides. What I will say is that when you live and work on the land, prairie dogs are nothing more than rodents. They are the farmer's version of rats. The media doesn't come swooping in on an apartment complex in the city because they hired an exterminator to take care of the rats. A rat is a rat, whether it lives in an apartment or a field. Most people here just thought of it as calling in the exterminators.

So laws were passed, the Top Dog Shoot faded into legend and Nucla faded into the background again. We all went back to our daily lives.

Brilliant reminders of days gone by are often overlooked by those who come to town for a day. The Uranium Drive-in Sign at one end of Main street. The Colorado Cooperative Company building at the other. In the middle, at the town park stands a lone sentry, a giant prairie dog.

None of it makes much sense if you don't know the history behind it. These landmarks gave hope to a community forgotten by the outside world but I hope nobody who lives here ever forgets what they mean for us. The need to survive has kept us going for more than a hundred years, and God willing, it will keep us going for another hundred years. This is the Nucla that started with survival, and survival keeps it going.

Now they are talking about reopening the uranium mines again, there is hope once again. They want to build a mill nearby. We just might get put back on the map if all goes right.

We started as pioneers, as people who were determined to not let the opinions of the outside world affect what we believed was right at the time. I guess when you look at it that way, a lot of us still fall back on our communal roots.

Those that drive through, or maybe even spend a day or two don't get it and we can't fault them for not seeing that. It takes less than a day to see our community. It takes a lifetime to understand the spirit that drives it. To appreciate what we really are. It takes more than a glimpse to appreciate the colorful characters that make up our community. The history that drives us.

We are the face of small towns everywhere. People who live a life many have forgotten how to live. In small townspeople work hard, and play harder. We still hunt and fish. We still eat what we kill. We still grow gardens in our backyard, and we don't call it a hobby. We still camp the old fashioned way, with a tent and a fire. We still know how to live off the land.

Okay, so we might have more than a few rednecks among our number, but they are some of the best people you will ever meet. And, redneck or not it today's tough economic climate it's a good thing some of us still know how to live the old fashioned way.

Country folk can survive

The Pinion Ridge Mill

The Revenge of the Uranium

First the uranium returned, (okay to be fair the uranium never left, it's always been here and will always be here.) But the industry revived. Mining is returning to the Nucla, Naturita, Paradox area... and it is getting mixed reviews.

The proposed Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill has divided residents near and far. Energy Fuels Inc. has requested a special use permit to process the uranium found in our area. It will be located 12 miles Uwest of Naturita in the Paradox Valley. For residents it could mean new life to a declining economy. It is said that it would create over 200 new jobs locally at the mill alone. That isn't counting the jobs it would bring as a secondary result, or what it could do for local businesses, housing, economy...

Opponents worry about the impact it will have on the environment. What impact the mines will have on water, wildlife, grazing, and of course the people who live here. I believe their concerns are justified. I also believe they can be handled constructively. Safety is an issue, but it is an issue that we have advanced a long way in handling.

Nobody even seems to know we exist in our little corner of the world until controversy arises. Most of the opponents to the mill don't come from our area, but from surrounding tourist resorts. From people who have jobs, who aren't worried about the future of our area but theirs. They have a future. We are just asking for the same opportunity. They have objected, they have screamed, they have filed lawsuits but the one thing that have failed to do is offer us a viable alternative.

The Radio Shack is gone, the grade school has been closed down, there isn't a local teen hang out anymore, we have one restaurant left. Our grocery store is the smaller than some convince stores. It is easy to pass judgement on others, but before you can truly judge another person you must first strive to understand why something is important to them. We still believe in Nucla or we wouldn't still be here.

I'm not thrilled about uranium mining, I'll be honest. I've seen too many families lose loved ones to the effects of long term mining. I've also looked at the risks and the rewards. I know that the town I grew up in no longer exists. Those of us who have roots here still remember the Nucla we lived in and loved. So many have left, and many more are leaving. We can't keep an economy going without something to feed it. I am an idealist, but I am also a realist.

If any of the opponents offered a way to bring 200 plus jobs to our area without uranium mining, I would back it with my full support... but they aren't. They are concerned with the environment, but that doesn't mean that supporters aren't. Opponents are concerned with their future but supporters are worried about their futures too. We are worried about the future of our community. Come up with an environmentally safe alternative that will bring us an equal number of jobs, or even better bring us a tourism draw and bring us even more stable jobs and we can let go of the mill. Until then...

Crushing the Uranium Mill also means crushing crush the first glimmer of hope our area has had since the early 90's. A hope that we will be able to find jobs, growth, and a place on the map again. Every person who is willing to take a job at the mill or the mines is already aware of the risks involved. They are willing to brave those risks to feed their families and keep our area alive. For them, the rewards far outweigh the risks.

If opponents want us to take a different route, now would be a good time to offer it. To show us a way to keep our economy alive without uranium. Instead of fighting us, work with us to find a safe and environmental alternative.

Instead of taking away opportunity, offer something better...


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