The gritty city is rejuvenated with arts, culture and recreation
In some respects, Pueblo is the most interesting city in Colorado. Founded in the 1840s as a trading post on the banks of the Arkansas River, then the U.S.-Mexican border, the city became a center of industry and transportation in the late 1800s. Its steel mills belched smoke and fire through the day and night, while dozens of trains converged daily in its sprawling rail yards.
The city was diverse before diversity was cool. Historians claim that more than 40 languages were spoken in the steel mills and associated manufacturing businesses. In the early 20th century, 22 foreign-language newspapers were distributed to the city’s principal ethnic communities.
Many descendants of these deeply rooted immigrant communities remain in Pueblo, a city that’s unlike any other in Colorado, or indeed any in the Mountain West. It was a stable, working-class city, one that has only recently developed a visitor industry. It was inward-looking, gritty, resilient. Once the most prosperous city in the state, it was twice devastated by floods in the 20th century.
In the 1980s, the city suffered yet another blow with the sudden decline of the steel industry. Pueblo had to reinvent and reimagine itself, and it has done so with spectacular results. Today, it’s a fun, lively place that offers visitors many amenities and opportunities. Here are a few.
This 4,600 acre reservoir, located a few miles northwest of the city, impounds the Arkansas River a few miles after it emerges from the mountains. The state park includes 60 miles of shoreline and 10,000 acres of land. It’s great for fishing, swimming, boating, water skiing, hiking and picnicking. Many miles of biking trails ring the reservoir, which has become a favorite year-round destination for cyclists in Colorado Springs and the mountain communities. It can be 20-25 degrees warmer in Pueblo than in Colorado Springs on a cold winter day, making it well worthwhile to drive 40 miles for a sunny afternoon ride. Full service marinas and many campsites are available, and boat ramps are conveniently located.
Sangre de Cristo Arts Center & the Buell Children’s Museum.
These two wonderful facilities are located in an arts and conference complex at the entrance of Pueblo’s historic downtown. Unlike many small-city arts facilities, which tend to be musty, virtually deserted monuments to the past, the SDC is lively and vibrant, the city’s beating heart. Located just of I-25 at 210 N. Santa Fe, the center has plenty of free, adjacent parking. This summer, the museum will feature an important Ansel Adams exhibition of 72 images, each one printed by Adams for his daughter. Besides Adams, there will be selections from the permanent collection and a dizzying variety of events, activities, classes and performances.
If you’re traveling with kids (or even if you’re not!) check out the Buell Children’s Museum across the plaza from the main galleries. It’s exciting, interactive, challenging, absorbing and amazingly fun. You’ll leave the SDC wondering why most such institutions aren’t as dynamic and alive as this bubbling island of creativity.
Historic Arkansas Riverwalk.
The riverwalk is a public, pedestrian-oriented urban waterfront experience, an ambitious project that radically transformed downtown Pueblo by diverting the Arkansas River into its original channel, 80 years after floods had devastated downtown. Levees and reservoirs now protect the riverwalk and the picturesque businesses that line its banks. According to the city, “The riverwalk has dramatically revitalized a segment of the downtown area that was previously unsightly and unusable and has been vital in attracting new businesses, thereby helping to stabilize the economic base of the city.”
Interestingly, the now-placid riverwalk has been an international flashpoint for centuries. Six nations have claimed ownership of the Arkansas River at the current location of the Riverwalk: Native Americans (who lived in the area long before the other five nations came along) Mexico, Spain, France, the Republic of Texas and the United States.
Union Avenue Historic District.
Few western cities are blessed with as many historic structures and districts as Pueblo. After enduring flood and fire during the last century, the striking buildings along South Union Avenue are now home to boutiques, galleries, antique stores and restaurants. If you’re intrigued by Union Avenue’s Victorian ambiance, keep walking south, turn right and take a look at…
The Pueblo Union Depot.
Built in 1890, the Union Depot served five railroads. According to its present owners, “in 1892, the Union Depot handled 18,615 passengers on 51 daily passenger trains a day, loaded and unloaded164,718 pieces of baggage, and sold 103,114 tickets worth $568,634.” The grand old building is now an events center, flanked by the Pueblo Railroad Museum.
Biggest summer event?
That’d be the Colorado State Fair, which takes place in the historic fairgrounds Aug.26-Sept. 5. It conforms to the agreeable template of state fairs everywhere — animals, acts, attractions and absurdly delicious ultra-high-calorie food. This year’s acts will include Foreigner, Huey Lewis and the News and Travis Tritt. “I want to know what love is…” Talk about fun!