Women in Ouray History

Although the written history of Ouray County primarily relates the stories of men, numerous women made important contributions to the early development of Ouray County.  Una Whinnerah, Kitty Heit, Helen Croft, and Cora Orendorf, all born in the 19th century, may not immediately come to mind when the history of Ouray is discussed but they made very important contributions.

Una Whinnerah (1874-1957) came to Ouray in 1877 where her father, Charles Wheeler, worked as a surveyor. Charles died when Una was 16 and her mother, Abbie, married Charles’s brother Walter who was a partner with Richard Whinnerah in a surveying business.  Richard and Una were married in 1902. Una was an excellent photographer in an era when men dominated the field.  She used large glass plate negatives to record Ouray County life in the late 19th and early 20th century. Albert Schenider and Frank Massard used many of her photos on postcards that were sold in the Post Office Drug Store. Over 300 of her glass plate negatives have been preserved in the Huntington Library in California. They provide a glimpse of late Victorian and Edwardian life in Ouray.

Kittie Heit (1849-1915) built the St. Elmo Hotel in 1898 beside her Bon Ton Restaurant which she had acquired in 1890.  Kittie came to Ouray in 1886. During the recession brought on by the Silver Panic of 1893 Kittie provided rooms to unemployed miners free of charge.  During the Telluride labor strife of the early 1900s Kittie again opened her doors and gave the displaced miners free lodging and food. She died suddenly of a heart attack in 1915.  The Ouray Heraldsaid that during her residence in Ouray she had been a regular “mother” to hundreds of miners and no one could possibly be missed more than she.

Helen Croft (1895-1966) was the daughter of Ouray surveyor George Hurlburt.  She received her law degree from the University of Colorado and, after practicing law in New Mexico for thirteen years, she served as Ouray County Judge from 1935 to 1940.  She was appointed to fill an uncompleted term and then became the first woman elected Judge in Ouray County. In 1940 she married Roger Downer whom she had known all her life. She moved to Nevada where Roger and his brother Malcolm ran an assay business. After Roger’s death she returned to Ouray and again served as County Judge from 1952 to 1960.  In the 1950s she and her second husband Bud Croft operated Crofts Auto Court which survives today as the Alpine Lodge. In 1961 Helen published The Downs, the Rockies, and Desert Gold which gives the history of her former husband Roger Downer and his brother Malcolm who made their fortune in Ouray mines and then ran an assay business in Nevada for 40 years.

Cora Almond Orendorf (1885-1954) graduated from Ouray High School and attended both the University of Denver and the Normal College at Greeley.  She taught at the Piedmont School north of Ouray for two years before her marriage to Marshall Orendorf in 1912.  Marshall operated the commissaries at both the Revenue and Camp Bird Mines and later owned stores in Ouray, Silverton and Norwood.  The couple lived at the Camp Bird Mine for three years.  During the depression Marshall lost all of his businesses and died deeply debt in 1938.  Cora then ran for Ouray County Superintendent of Schools and held that elected office from 1939 to 1948. She was superintendent of Ouray Schools for more years than any other superintendent since the office was established in 1878.

About the Author:  Don Paulson is the curator at the Ouray County Historical Society and Ouray County Museum.  He is also a retired Professor of Chemistry where he specialized in organic chemistry.  Don is an active member of the Ridgway Railroad Museum, and an avid hiker, 4WD (jeep) enthusiast, and photographer in addition to his duties as curator for the museum.

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