By Carla Charter
RIDGWAY, CO.- John Wayne made a career of playing memorable characters. Among the most memorable was that of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, a movie which was filmed in Ridgeway, Colorado.
“Exactly who made the decision (to film in Ridgway) is uncertain, but director Henry Hathaway probably was involved. He had directed a segment of the 1962 movie How the West Was Won in Ridgway and the surrounding area, including the town park and the same meadow used for the movie’s final shootout, so he was very familiar with the area. Paramount sent someone to Ft. Smith Arkansas (where the book actually starts), and they were not impressed with the scenic possibilities. So it’s likely that Hathaway said “I know a place…” said Jim Pettengil, Writer, Historian specializing in the American West and Vice President of the Ridgway Railroad Museum
Filming for True Grit began when Paramount’s production crew arrived in Ridgeway in July of 1968 to begin building sets and transforming the town into “Ft. Smith, Arkansas”, The actual filming took place in September and October of 1968.
During filming, a four or five square block of the downtown area had to be transformed. “Several existing buildings were modified or redecorated, and the studio built several other structures, including Col. Stonehill’s livery stable (now the site of our post office), a blacksmith’s shop, and courthouse, were just a shell,” said Pettengil. After filming was complete, the courthouse was torn down. The vacant lot has since been developed, and is the location of the True Grit restaurant, among other businesses.
Among the Ridgway sites in the movie include the ranch which can be seen at the beginning and end of the film, the snake pit from the snake pit scene, McAlester’s Store and Stage Stop, Katies Meadow, where the final shootout was filmed, the ferry scene filmed on the Gunnison River between Montrose and Gunnison and the interior courthouse scenes filmed in the Ouray County Courthouse in Ouray, ten miles south of Ridgway. The original True Grit Jail Wagon is on display at the Ouray County Ranch History Museum, across the street from Hartwell Park, Ridgway’s town park.
Today the town pretty much looks like it did during the filming. “There are still some people in Ridgway who helped with the film, and people who were kids when the movie was filmed. Some of them have stories of the event – some appear in the most recent DVD copy of the original movie (as additional material),” he continued.
During tourist season, Pettengil said, there are usually several families each day stop at the town visitor center for True Grit information and self-guided tour sheets. “We have interpretive plaques at about a dozen locations in town that explain where each scene was filmed, and guided tours at 11 am every Friday between May and mid-October. It’s quite amazing the high interest in this film that was made 50 years ago!”
Tourists also come to town to visit the Ridgway Railway Museum. Ridgway was founded in 1890 as the headquarters and operations center of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad. “The RGS operated from Ridgway between 1890 and 1951, Pettengil said. “Today it is one of the most famous, most researched, most written about, and most modeled narrow-gauge railroads in the world. Our Ridgway Railroad Museum gets about 7500 visitors each year from about 47 US states and 22 foreign countries.”
True Grit was only one of the westerns filmed in the Ridgeway area, according to Pettengill. Tribute to a Bad Man (1957) starring James Cagney, written by Jack Shaeffer (who also wrote Shane and Monte Walsh), directed by Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Andromeda Strain and others), was filmed in Ridgway.
Portions of How the West Was Won (1962) were filmed in Ridgway’s Hartwell Town Park, as well as in the Owl Creek Pass area. “The exact same meadow that was used for the final True Grit shootout was used for the How the West Was Won scene where the wagon master (Robert Preston) proposed to Debbie Reynolds. As a result, many locals refer to the meadow as Deb’s Meadow instead of Katie’s Meadow – there is no formal name. Henry Hathaway directed both this segment of How the West Was Won and True Grit, so it’s likely he had a hand in selecting Ridgway for True Grit,” Pettengil said.
The town held a True Grit Days event in Ridgway back in 2007 and still get inquiries whether the event will be repeated. “There are plans underway for an event next October, tentatively called “Ridgway Western Jubilee”, which will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of the film. The event is in the planning stage at this time, but the focus will definitely be on True Grit. Whether the event becomes an annual one will depend on the success of the 2019 event. If the event continues, it could also feature other films from the area, including The Sons of Katie Elder, which was not filmed there, but was based on the lives of George and Charlie Marlow, who lived here after 1890, Pettengil said.
More information on the True Grit film sites in Ridgway Colorado, visit https://ridgwaycolorado.com/images/Itineraries/Ridgway-western-movie-heritage-film-locations.pdf. More information on the railway museum can be found at www.ridgwayrailroadmuseum.org.