Delta is a town in the Southwestern part of the Rocky Mountains state of Colorado. It is also in the West Elks American Viticultural Area (AVA), a part of Colorado’s Wine Country and home to the highest wine vineyards in North America.
Halfway between Grand Junction and Montrose, Delta is located in an irrigated desert valley surrounded by mountains. It is the county seat for Delta County, and was named for its location on the delta of the Uncompahgre River. If you blow through town on Hwy 50, you are missing a quaint little community with a rich heritage and several sights worth seeing.
The 19th century history of the Uncompahgre Valley is largely a rocky tale of strained race relations between white settlers and the Tabeguache branch of the Ute nation, who called the valley home.
Delta was originally established as a trading post at the confluence of the Uncompahgre and Gunnison Rivers (the latter alternately called the Uncompahgre and Blue or the Eagle Tail). Built in 1828 by Antoine Robidoux, Fort Uncompahgre was neutral ground used by soldiers, traders, trappers and Native Americans. The fort lasted for 18 years and eventually came to a tragic end.
The Utes fought a rear guard action for the next 40 years, with intermittent settler encroachments on their lands. The U.S. further exacerbated the problem by trying to force the Utes to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and become farmers. The head of the government’s Indian Agency, Nathan Cook Meeker, approached the Utes with a mixture of arrogance and hostility. He plowed up a Ute horse-racing track to plant a field, and later engaged in a fist fight with the owner of the race track. In 1879, Meeker telegraphed for military assistance, and the Federal government responded with around 200 soldiers to police the area. The situation was handled with mutual mistrust on both sides, and several skirmishes occurred. The crisis culminated with the Utes killing several whites at the Indian Agency (including Meeker) and launching the so-called Ute War. Initially successful, the Utes were forcibly relocated to Utah, and Southwestern Colorado, near Cortez.
The Uncompahgre Reservation was opened to settlers in the fall of 1881. George A. Crawford, founder of Grand Junction, secured a townsite from W. C. Stephens. The Uncompahgre Town and Improvement Company was established, incorporating as Delta in 1882. It was named as the county seat the following year.
The area’s economy relied primarily on orchards and ranching, industries which continue to this day.
In the 20th century, the residents of Delta initiated reconciliation efforts with the Utes, founding the Ute Council Tree Pow Wow & Cultural Festival in 1992. Located in Confluence Park at a 200 year old cottonwood tree, the council tree was the traditional gathering place and mediation spot for the Utes. The three branches of the Ute nation gather each September and celebrate with dancing, singing, Native American artwork and a reconstructed tee pee village.
Deltans further celebrate their pioneer heritage with a reconstruction of Fort Uncompaghre, a living history museum that features authentically dressed interpreters who guide you through the fort.
Delta has paleontological wonders, as well. In 1971, locals discovered dinosaur bones at nearby Dry Mesa. Twenty-three genera of Jurassic-era dinosaurs have been found in the quarry, including brachiosaurs, supersauruses and ultrasauruses. The Dry Mesa Quarry is amongst the most diverse fossil beds in North America.
In the 1990s, grape growers discovered the area’s potential for raising white wine varietals, and Colorado’s wine industry migrated south from Grand Junction and Palisade. The West Elks American Viticultural Area was formed in 2001. Ranging from 5,400 feet (1646 m) to 6,400 feet (1951 m) above sea level, West Elks comprises some of the highest vineyards in the world.
Today, Delta is a hub for tourism and recreation, including camping, hiking, fishing, hunting and mountain bike riding. Delta is highly cognizant of preserving its history. The town has over 20 beautiful murals depicting its fruit orchards and other past times. There are several buildings in town on the National Historic Register, including the Egyptian Theater, an “Egyptian Revival” art deco movie house from the 1920s.