Energy billionaire William Koch is developing a private Wild West town, with a saloon, jail and train station, high in the Rocky Mountains in a region pockmarked with ghost towns that died when the mines that supported them played out.
Koch, 72, who made his fortune partly by developing underground coal deposits in Somerset, Colorado, is building the frontier community -- part reproduction, part transplanted 19th-century structures -- at his Bear Ranch, a working cattle operation southwest of Aspen. The 50-building compound will also include a 21,762-square-foot mansion with an elevator, a wine room and his-and-hers mud rooms. A third of the house will be underground.
Koch is a collector of Old West memorabilia, including the only known photograph of Billy the Kid, which he bought for $2.3 million at a Denver auction last year. He plans to open the make-believe town solely to his family and friends, not the public, said Brad Goldstein, a spokesman for the company Koch founded, West Palm Beach, Florida-based Oxbow Carbon LLC.
“Remember, he’s using that as his home,” Goldstein said. “Mr. Koch has offered to show the public his collection of Western artifacts here in Palm Beach and he intends to do it in Washington at the Smithsonian. There’s nothing, with the exception of the buildings, that the public isn’t going to be able to see in those exhibits.”
Goldstein declined to discuss details about the town, including whether it would house Koch’s Western art collection, saying to do so would be “just giving an art thief a road map to steal something.” Bear Ranch project manager Tom Newland also declined to comment, citing an agreement with Koch that “I’m not to discuss the project at all.”
The Gunnison County Community Development Department approved multiple building permits for the site, including agricultural structures, and storage and other units that are accessory to single-family residences, said Neal Starkebaum, the assistant director.
A land-swap deal Koch proposed to insulate his pioneer town, which sits at the foot of the picturesque Ragged Mountains, an area popular with hunters and anglers, is sharply dividing organic farmers, miners and retirees who populate the region’s working-class communities.
Koch, who Forbes estimates is worth close to $4 billion, proposed trading several parcels he owns, including land near the Curecanti National Recreation Area and Dinosaur National Monument, for property near the ranch managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, including a public road that splits the ranch and serves as access to the Gunnison National Forest. The road provides a good view of construction at the Western town, including the expansive columned veranda of a Victorian-style mansion.
“Bear Ranch wishes to acquire these parcels in order to consolidate their ranching activities, combine their ranch into a single contiguous parcel, and solve occasional trespass and poaching issues,” according to an online summary of the land-exchange proposal.
The swap would give better public access to the wilderness area than the road that bisects the ranch and ends near a trailhead that’s often impassable, Goldstein said.
Commissioners in Gunnison and Delta counties approved the proposal, which is opposed by some residents in Paonia, a town about 23 miles southwest of Bear Ranch.
“Why should we give him three square miles of well-watered riparian area just because there may be some other access?” said Ed Marston, former publisher of the High Country News, a Paonia-based magazine and website. “The arrogance of the man is quite startling -- land exchanges are supposed to be in the public interest and there is no public interest here.”
Congress will ultimately decide whether to approve the deal because it involves land managed by federal agencies in Colorado and Utah. A bill that would have exchanged 1,846 acres of federal land for 991 acres of land Koch owns died in committee in 2010.
A chemical engineer with three degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Koch is the brother of Tea Party funders David and Charles Koch, He was born and raised in Kansas, and is known for his collections of art and wine. His yacht America3 won the 1992 America’s Cup.
The billionaire’s interest in the West stems in part from work he did on his father’s ranch, said Elizabeth Broun of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where she is the Margaret and Terry Stent director. Koch sits on the museum’s board. He invited Broun to tour warehouses in Colorado that held, by her estimate, about two million Western objects, as well as the town at Bear Ranch.
“He has a number of very old historic buildings from a ghost town that he acquired and others he’s constructing to be in the style of the Old West,” she said. “It’s a little bit of a combination of a private enclave and a Wild West frontier theme park. It’s intended as a showcase for the collections he’s assembled.”
What sets Koch’s Western art collection apart is that he’s not only amassed fine art and items owned by famous -- and infamous -- figures, but also objects used in everyday life such as memorabilia related to the gold rush, clothing that would have been worn by frontier women, materials used by cowboys like hats, saddles and lariats, and fine Indian beadwork, Broun said.
The collection includes works by Charles Marion Russell and N.C. Wyeth; four of Frederic Remington’s famed night scenes, known as nocturnes; Jesse James’s gun, Wyatt Earp’s vest, Sitting Bull’s rifle, the flag George Custer is thought to have flown at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and photographs of Annie Oakley, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
“It’s a vastly ambitious, sweeping compendium of Western art and artifacts that is unparalleled anywhere in private hands,” Broun said. “As you spend more time with the collections you realize the depth of his passion for the West and his fascination with the history of America.”