In Travel & Visitors Guide

Milwaukee's MacGregor was Rocky Mountain pioneer

When you travel just north of Estes Park, Colo., you run into MacGregor Ranch, 1,200 acres of sprawling range in the Black Canyon tucked up against the mountains.

The ranch is now linked to Rocky Mountain National Park and serves as a living museum. If it had not been for Alexander Q. MacGregor, a Milwaukee native, neither the ranch nor the park might exist today.

Born in 1846, MacGregor was raised in Milwaukee by his widowed mother, Margaret. He became a printer for the Daily Wisconsin newspaper in Milwaukee and later became the publisher of the La Belle Mirror in Oconomowoc, while he was still in his early 20s.

MacGregor moved to Colorado as a young man, married, worked as a law clerk and eventually passed the bar exam to become an attorney. He moved with his wife to what now is Estes Park, built a toll road that provided the first decent route to the rather remote area and became successful as a businessman, attorney and judge, and a rancher.

Perhaps his biggest contribution, however, came when he helped fight off a land grab by the infamous Lord Dunraven.

Dunraven was actually Windham Thomas Wyndham Quinn, the fourth Earl of Dunraven. The wealthy Irishman traveled the world and became enamored with the Rocky Mountains.

While hunting bighorn near Longs Peak, Dunraven decided he would establish a private hunting preserve for his rich friends from Europe. He would do so through a scheme that took advantage of the Homestead Act.

Under that act, a homesteader could claim 160 acres of land for a $24 filing fee, and eventually buy the property for $1.25 per acre. Dunraven, working with a shady character named Theodore Whyte, recruited men to file these claims.

The men were paid anywhere from $10 to $100 to file the claims. Dunraven actually paid the filing fee and eventually bought the acreage, but his name was not on the paperwork. His holdings grew to an estimated 15,000 acres, including much of what is the eastern portion of today's national park.

Whyte enlisted thugs to intimidate legitimate homesteaders. The Dunraven company started to put up fences and prohibit travel over the land that, at least on paper, was not even in its ownership.

Mountain Jim's Murder

When people resisted, strange things could happen to them. For example, one of the original pioneers in the area, Rocky Mountain Jim Nugent, would not cooperate. He was found dead.

Originally, a man named Griff Evans, who was in cohorts with Dunraven and Whyte, was believed responsible for the murder, but he was eventually cleared. The murder remains unsolved to this day and has become a local legend.

MacGregor and his wife, Clara, who hailed from the Black Earth area, settled in Estes Park as homesteaders themselves. They, too, refused to cooperate with Dunraven's people.

Their holdings grew as MacGregor's toll road and other businesses prospered. Over time, the MacGregor ranch became one of the larger properties, with the exception of Dunraven's acreage.

MacGregor and other settlers tore down fences that were illegally constructed by Dunraven, but it was through his knowledge of the law that MacGregor eventually chased the Lord from the area.

On July 23, 1881, MacGregor wrote a detailed letter to John A. Jones, a special agent for the U.S. Department of Interior. In it, he reported 31 claims had been filed by people who were not known to anybody in Estes Park and did not spend any time homesteading the land. One hand at the MacGregor ranch had been paid $100 by Whyte to file a claim.

MacGregor's detailed investigation and accusations led to the filing of perjury and fraud charges against the people who had filed the claims and exposure of Dunraven's scheme.

Dunraven, tired of the litigation, sold his land and returned to Britain, where he served as Undersecretary to the Colonies from 1885-'87. It is now known if he established a hunting preserve in any of those colonies.

F. O. Stanley, the developer of the Stanley Steamer, bought some of Dunraven's land and established a hotel on part of it. The Stanley Hotel and resort remains a landmark in Estes Park today.

Some of Dunraven's land eventually became part of the national park. In fact, some historians maintain that Dunraven's hording of the land actually preserved it and first made people aware of the unique beauty of the area. It then became a natural place for a national park.

Other Wisconsin ties

MacGregor went on to various careers. He had ties to three-time Colorado governor Alva Adams, another Wisconsin native who had moved to the mountains. Adams once dated MacGregor's wife, Clara, and reportedly loved her to his death. But, he also befriended Alex. The MacGregor and Adams families wielded political clout in Colorado for decades.

While doing assessment work on a mining claim with his son, MacGregor was struck by lightning and died on June 17, 1896. He was 50.

Three generations of MacGregors continued to run the ranch. In the 1970s, the ranch became endangered by developers as the village of Estes Park grew. But, in 1983, an agreement was reached that put the ranch under the national park auspices.

The Colorado Historical Society also plays a role in maintaining the ranch, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. You can tour the museum on the ranch during the summer tourist season.

From the museum, you get perhaps the most spectacular view of Longs Peak, which is more than 14,000 feet high, and the Twins Peaks, which have a great hiking trail that starts on the ranch.

Dunraven's name also remains in the area. A fine Italian restaurant, named The Dunraven Inn: The Rome of the Rockies, is on Highway 66, outside of Estes Park. The cuisine has nothing to do with the Lord's home cooking. A downtown restaurant, Dunraven Downtown, is linked to the inn.

For more information of MacGregor and the ranch, this writer recommends the book, "Facing the Frontier" by Betty Freudenberg. Information also can be acquired through the Estes Park Library and the MacGregor Ranch Museum.

Talkbacks


Post a comment / write a review.

Facebook Comments

Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.