Helping the Community Preserve Its Heritage and Tell Its Story
Thanks to the past support from our community, the Museums of Western Colorado (MWC) has become the largest multi-disciplinary museum complex between Salt Lake City and Denver. It includes three major museum facilities — Cross Orchards Historic Site, Dinosaur Journey Museum, and the Museum of the West; and four outdoor paleontology sites. We offer a multitude of programs and services including dinosaur expeditions and gift shops. Annually, over 100,000 people visit museum facilities and participate in our programs. The MWC is one of the most significant cultural institutions on the Western Slope and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Mesa County.
The MWC had its earliest roots in 1949 when a group known as the Memorial Museum Association purchased 24,000 adobe bricks and began construction of a building in the Intermountain Veteran’s Memorial Park. The building was never completed, but in 1953 the Memorial Museum Association reorganized as the Western Slope Museum Association, and the artifacts the group gathered would later constitute a major portion of the Museum’s present-day collections.
After these early efforts, the MWC finally got started when it incorporated as the Museum of Arts and Sciences in 1965. It opened its doors on May 1, 1966 in the former Whitman School at 248 South 4th Street. In 1968, it was renamed the Historical Museum and Institute of Western Colorado. The Museum began receiving operational funding from Mesa County in 1974 after voters overwhelmingly approved it by more than a 3-1 margin and the name was finally changed to the Museum of Western Colorado in 1977.
When the Museum was accredited by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) in 1971, it was the 28th in the nation and the second in Colorado to qualify for this professional certification. Periodic re-evaluation by AAM is required to maintain the prestigious designation, and regularly scheduled evaluations in 1982 and 1996 determined that the museum continually met or exceeded the highest professional standards and expectations. In August 2009, we were awarded our 4th accreditation, which places us in the top 1% of museums in the country. The MWC is one of only 13 accredited museums in Colorado, of which only two are the Western Slope.
Cross Orchard Historic Site
MWC acquired Cross Orchard Historic Site in 1980 following a community-wide, fundraising campaign to save the last vestiges of the former Red Cross Land and Fruit Company from demolition. The 4.3 acre site was once part of a 243-acre fruit ranch that was operated as an agricultural showcase from 1896 to 1923. With more than 22,000 trees, Cross Orchards was one of the largest in the state when most local orchards averaged nine acres. Most of the fruit ranch was planted in apples, but a few acres of pears and peaches were also grown. Primary apple varieties of the day included Black Twig, Gano, Jonathan, Winesap, Rome Beauty, and Ben Davis.
The historic Cross Orchards barn and packing shed, located at 3073 F Road, is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Ongoing restoration has returned the farm, now comprising 25-acres and several ancillary exhibits, to an early 20th century appearance. Costumed interpreters offer visitors an opportunity to step back in time and experience life in the Grand Valley in the early 1900s.
Also located at Cross Orchards is the largest collection of rolling stock for the historic Uintah Railroad that is known to exist. From 1902 to 1938, this rail line hauled Gilsonite from Dragon, Utah to Mack, Colorado where it was transferred to the Denver-Rio Grande Railroad. The cars and a caboose have been lovingly restored by the Rio Grande Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.
Dinosaur Journey Museum
The MWC expanded again in 1985 when it opened Dinosaur Valley in downtown Grand Junction. When the Museum acquired the former Dinosaur Discovery Center in Fruita in 2000, it transferred its existing assets to the Fruita facility and re-christened it Dinosaur Journey Museum.
Dinosaur Journey today tells the story of the history of life in western Colorado and surrounding areas with real fossils, cast skeletons, and robotic reconstructions of dinosaurs. Among the exhibits are real bones of dinosaurs such as Apatosaurus, Allosaurus, and the largest Triceratops skull known to exist. There are also robotic reconstructions of Dilophosaurus, Utahraptor, Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and a baby T-Rex. Accompanying all these are full-size cast skeletal mounts of Velociraptor, Camarasaurus, Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, Othneilia, Camptosaurus, and Mymoorapelta. Children of all ages can compare their size to that of the shoulder blade of a Supersaurus. On the other end of the size spectrum is the tiny Jurassic age Fruitadens, arguably the smallest known dinosaur. In addition, there are hands-on interactive displays, a working laboratory where dinosaur bones are prepared for display, a collections room where scientists study dinosaurs and other animals, a simulated earthquake ride, a dinosaur library reading area, a sandbox for making your own dinosaur tracks, and a “quarry site” where kids can uncover actual Jurassic dinosaur bones. More than a museum, Dinosaur Journey is an active research institution that contributes on a yearly basis to our knowledge of ancient North America.
Museum of the West
What was the main part MWC and was a regional history museum, moved from the Whitman school in 2000 to the renovated C.D. Smith Warehouse at 5th Street and Ute Avenue. Renamed the Museum of the West, it contains exhibits on Western Colorado within a regional perspective, a space for traveling exhibits, the Sterling T. Smith Observation Tower, and the Museum’s administrative offices. The Museum of the West now offers a thousand years of history that can be experienced. “Ride” in a stagecoach, “fly” a 1958 Cessna from Walker Field or gaze upon an ancient cup and ladle from the Ancestral Pueblo. Study Ute and Fremont rock art, see the real firearms that outlaws used, sit in a one-room schoolhouse and visit the Pastime saloon to experience western Americana at its best.
In addition to artifacts, the Museum of the West collects photographs, one-of-a-kind manuscripts, maps, city directories, high school annuals and rare books. In addition, the Museum of the West coordinates the Mesa County Oral History Project, one of the largest of its type in the state.
The MWC has also recently cooperated with the Colorado Canyon Association in the production a several videos including “Stories from the Land: McInnis Canyons” which won the American Association of State and Local History ASLH Award of Merit.
But wait, that is not all…
The former home of the history museum, the Whitman Educational Center, has been renovated and remodeled into conference and classroom space.
Outdoor areas have become a major element of the Museum’s operation. The Museum signed a cooperative agreement with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to co-manage the Rabbit Valley Natural Area in 1985. The Trail Through Time, a 1.5 mile interpretive walking trail, opened a year later. The Museum purchased Riggs Hill, located in the Redlands, in 1986. Elmer S. Riggs of the Field Columbian Museum discovered a Brachiosaurus, for decades the world’s largest known dinosaur, at this site in 1900. Dinosaur Hill, located near Fruita, has been co-managed by the Museum and BLM since 1987. The Apatosaurus that Riggs found at this site in 1901 has been a popular exhibit in the Field Museum, Chicago, for many decades. The Museums of Western Colorado also co-manages the Fruita Paleontological Area with the BLM.
The Western Investigations Team (WIT) was formed in 2005 as a joint cooperative venture between Colorado Mesa University and the MWC. The goal of WIT is to use history, archaeology, and all forms of science to solve unanswered questions and mysteries in regional history. Among other projects, WIT’s previous director David Bailey won an award for his work that proved the innocence of Alfred Packer, the famed “Colorado Cannibal,” and was been featured in a History Channel documentary, “Cannibals,” in 2005.