Rikki Santarelli

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  • Petroglyphs (gun for scale), Courtesy Rikki Santarelli
    Petroglyphs (gun for scale), Courtesy Rikki Santarelli

Editors note: Rikki Santarelli died Jan. 21, 2021

I have known Rikki Santarelli since the 1980s and was so sorry to hear of his passing. He was well-known in the Gunnison Country for so many things, but for me, it was his love of Gunnison area history. Rikki grew up in Sapinero, Colorado, long ago inundated by the waters of Blue Mesa Reservoir. His stories of his boyhood in Sapinero inspired my research into the many resorts, ranches, and towns that now lie beneath the reservoir. Let me tell you a few of them.

His grandfather, Rocco Santarelli, emigrated in 1896 to Florence, Colorado. After a few years, he moved to Baldwin (now a ghost town up Ohio Creek) where he ran a saloon. In 1916 he moved to Sapinero and purchased the Metropolitan Hotel. Later renamed the Sapinero Hotel, the family ran it until 1961 when construction of the reservoir started. By this time, Rikki was in his early twenties and attending law school in Boulder. I asked him, “Did you watch the water cover your family’s property?” He replied, ‘Absolutely not! I couldn’t. I didn’t return until it was full.” He then explained how hard it was for everyone to lose their property, often in families for generations. He said the reservoir had been threatened since the 1930s, causing banks to be unwilling to loan money to expand businesses and real estate sales to stagnate. With no comparable sales, the area was artificially depressed and the appraisals low. Ranch and resort owners were not happy.

But before these sad times, Rikki had fun as a boy! On fall days he would walk a mile from Sapinero to the Highway 50 bridge crossing the Lake Fork of the Gunnison. Walking across the highest road bridge in the United States, he stopped below the west abutment. He said, “There I picked chokecherries at the best chokecherry tree around.” During the spring of each year, he was charged with going to the river to look for Willow Flies. If he found some he would bring them back to the hotel in a jar as proof they had hatched. His dad would call KOA Radio in Denver, announcing, “The Willow Fly hatch has begun!” This would bring tourists eager to fish the world-renowned Gunnison River.

Rikki had some childhood disappointments, too. When he was eight, an egg truck coming from Montrose missed a turn and struck the Highway 50 bridge near town. The bridge and the egg truck went into the river. The boys in town rushed to the site and enjoyed “The Great Egg Fight.” But Rikki’s mom wouldn’t let him go - he was too young.

My favorite story is when Rikki was about fourteen and loved to pretend he was an Indian. Above Sapinero on a hillside were 12 large stones decorated with petroglyphs. One day Rikki walked up the hill and sat down on the edge of a cliff. He said to himself, “If I was an Indian where would I put my tools?” He reached down and found a small opening. Inside were several tools including spear points, scrapers, and arrowheads. They had probably been stored in a leather bag, long since rotted away.

Before the reservoir was filled, two of the large petroglyph stones were preserved. Several years later Rikki facilitated placing one of the stones at the Curecanti Visitor’s Center. In the fall of 2018, Rikki called me and excitedly said, “I think the reservoir is low enough to see the petroglyphs! Let’s find someone with a boat and go see.” Unfortunately, winter set in and we agreed to do it the next spring. But it never happened; something I will always regret.

I will miss Rikki.