Unveiling the Wild West: Explore the frontier legacy at Craig’s Museum of Northwest Colorado

This Bridgeport Rig on display April 17, 2024, is part of the Cowboy Collection exhibit at the Museum of Northwest Colorado in Craig. It was invented in 1882 by Camp County, Texas sheriff Louis Flatau. The Bridgeport Rig was designed for one purpose: to shoot faster than the other guy. The way it functioned was by removing the hammer screw on the side of the revolver and replacing it with a much larger protruding screw. The modified firearm would then slide into a steel clip mounted onto a gun belt.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Isam Dart, the loyal and steady cowhand for the well-known Northwest Colorado Bassett family, and his partner Mat Rash were shot in cold blood by the notorious hired gun Tom Horn in Browns Park in 1900. Hired by local cattle barons to kill suspected cattle rustlers in the area and expand their own power, Horn was eventually convicted of another murder and hanged in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1902.

The murder of the pair raised the ire of Queen Ann Bassett of Browns Park, who made it her life’s mission to forever be a thorn in the side of the cattle barons of Northwest Colorado and southern Wyoming. A purported lover of Butch Cassidy, Bassett became known as the Robin Hood of Moffat County by poaching cattle from wealthy ranchers. Tried and acquitted twice in Craig of cattle rustling, Bassett lived well into the 1950s, leaving a legacy of mystery and frontier adventure.

Historical adventures like these come alive at the Museum of Northwest Colorado in Craig, where the frontier history of Moffat and Routt counties is highlighted. Funded by the city of Craig, the museum draws over 8,000 visitors annually (down from a pre-COVID high of 11,000), and provides a vivid look into the development of the region.

The museum is located at 590 Yampa Ave. in Craig in what originally was the armory for the Colorado National Guard. Exhibits trace the prehistoric geological history of Northwest Colorado, indigenous settlement, the rough and tumble frontier period, and the technological developments of the 20th century.

Yet it is the Cowboy and Gunfighter Museum housed on the second floor that may be the most impressive exhibit in a museum filled with wonder. The exhibit houses the cowboy collection of local Bill Mackin, and features locally made spurs, a saddle owned by Buffalo Bill which was handcrafted in Craig, as well as frontier fast draw holsters.

This 25-35 caliber Winchester Model 1885 (High Wall), shown on April 17, 2024, has been featured in numerous national publications, was awarded the National Rifle Association’s “Ten Best Weapons Award” and was the very first 15″ rifle to be cleared by the ATF as a legal “Curio & Relic” firearm. The Museum of Northwest Colorado acquired the firearm from Bill Mackin, a renowned collector from whom the museum acquired nearly its entire Cowboy & Gunfighter collection.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The frontier gun collection of Mackin may be the biggest draw to visitors of the museum. Valued in excess of $1.5 million, an impressive array of Colt revolvers ranging from early Dragoons, 1873 Peacemakers, New Service double actions, along with Winchester rifles and many more are on full display. The pristine condition of the guns is as impressive as the collection itself. Truly, very few museums of Western frontier history can boast such an exhibition.

As the frontier began to tame at the turn of the 20th century, the exhibits in the museum highlight the changes that led to a more connected and civilized Moffat County. The expansion of the railroad is highlighted with an emphasis on how life was transformed for Northwest Colorado. Transportation brought more opportunity and growth to the region as mining began to rise in importance, along with the historically strong agricultural sector.

The early 20th century also brought the wonder of flight to Moffat County, and on one spectacular day in 1927, a low flying airplane buzzed the town. It was none other than the Spirit of St. Louis, flown by legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh in the cockpit. Lindbergh was in the midst of a victory tour after his transatlantic flight and was en route from Cheyenne to Salt Lake City. Thrown out of the plane was a letter to the citizens of Craig thanking them for their support. The letter is on full display in the museum, signed by Lucky Lindy — one of the many great artifacts the museum boasts.

While the COVID-19 pandemic presented challenges for the museum, it also spawned opportunity. As Moffat County began realizing that economic changes were on the horizon as it transitioned away from coal, the museum decided to have a new mural commissioned that would highlight the traditions and grit that characterized the spirit of the community. The result was a stunning painting by local artist Israel Holloway, titled “Western Reflections.” The painting, which adorns the back wall of the museum, is the world’s largest watercolor measuring 16′ by 10′.

This stunning Colt Army Special was on display in the Cowboy Collection exhibit at the Museum of Northwest Colorado in Craig on April 17, 2024. The nickel-plated .41 caliber Army Special is in near-mint conditions and was engraved by German-born Cuno Helfricht, who was Colts chief engraver for 46 years.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The Museum of Northwest Colorado is fortunate to be administered by Dan Davidson and Paul Knowles, who possess a wealth of knowledge regarding the expanse of history that has taken place in Colorado. Their enthusiasm for their exhibits and love for the community is evident, as they have painstakingly created exciting exhibits that captivate the attention of visitors.

Admission to the museum is free, although donations are appreciated. Hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m on Saturday year-round, and the museum is closed on all major holidays.

So if you are looking for adventure and a glimpse into the colorful past of Northwest Colorado, saddle up and make the museum a priority for a day trip to Craig.

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