“Now in the summer there are about 1500 people living here with 2 grocery stores, two gas stations and 4 saloons. In the winter about 400 people, 1 grocery store, 1 gas station and 4 saloons.”
Southwestern Colorado: Durango, Pagosa Springs, Telluride and Silverton.
Back to our summer vacation.
Reading between the highlights and headlines.
Checking out high quality-of-life mountain resorts on our bucket list.
We planned our itinerary as efficiently as possible to visit as many up-and-coming resort locations on our vacation as we could.
In the Southwestern Colorado travel region we could check off three already:
Durango, Pagosa Springs and Telluride. And, another innovation growth stage candidate – Silverton.
But there were plenty more throughout the state.
So many towns to visit.
So little time.
And, it would be impossible to visit all the ones on our bucket list.
Over a two week vacation.
So we stuck to our regional plans to sample as many as we could.
The night before at our hotel we found ourselves right behind the Silverton Durango – the Durango train depot and roundhouse — and the hub of the city.
We jumped into the indoor pool before and briefly, and for the first time on our trip, unanimously agreed on the first adventure of the next day.
We planned our first excursion from our “Durango Basecamp” to Silverton.
After missing the early morning train to Silverton, we opted for the bus tour later, instead.
“Stand-by?” For a bus!?
Not what we wanted to hear.
Luckily, a friend tipped us off before the trip.
He owned some property in Durango, had planned to build on his lot, but a divorce came between him and his dreams.
Fast forward years later.
He bought and renovated another home.
We visited him during the summer of 2015.
But, enough about that.
Take the Silverton narrow gauge one-way, but not up and back.
Try a bus, or maybe a jeep tour.
Because, the train is so sllllooooooowwwww.
And, it’s not like we’ve got a precious vacation day to waste standing in line.
Well, we were still shocked.
We grumbled for a while trying to figure out how to kill about an hour and come back in time to stand by for the next bus.
But as it turns out, after schmoozing with the driver before we boarded we scored some seats after all.
We caught the 11:45, and still had plenty of discovery time.
And, we enjoyed the winding Durango to Silverton road with his local insights.
I guess we lucked out, when the 20-something bus driver announced:
“Unlike the other guides who came to Durango from Florida or Minnesota, I’m an original — born and raised in Durango.
I know every mountain, river, lake, tree, plant and all the local history — so sit back and sleep if you want, but I’ll make the hour trip as entertaining as I can.
Just ask away — any questions.”
Here’s what I picked up from the scenic Q & A.
- Construction began on the narrow gauge railroad line in 1881 between Durango and Silverton.
- Nearly a year later it was completed and began hauling mine ores – over $300 million — throughout the years.
- For roughly eighty years.
- Durango became cut off from the rest of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad in the late 1960s, isolating the remaining narrow gauge track along the 45 mile route between the two towns.
So, today for us tourists, the locomotives operate 100% on coal-fired steam and were manufactured by the American Locomotive Works in 1923 or Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1925.
All the coaches are from the 1880s era — many originally build in the 1800s.
The trip hugs the walls of the Animas River Canyon, rises to 11,000 feet and takes you back to the Silverton frontier days through history, forests, and natural wonder.
We endured the Colorado afternoon rain.
We lunched, walked the main street, and visited Blair Streets once booming bordello district.
I guess you could say we did what every other tourist did.
We snapped pictures of a street that looked like it could have been the backdrop for the “Gunfight-at-the-O.K.-Corral.”
The bus driver told us Silverton had 300 inches of snow each year and because of avalanche danger nothing was built on the other side of the river.
I loved his line …
“But, kids, there aren’t any snow days, because everyone walks to the one room school which could fit in this bus.”
“Look up on the hill,” he said.
There protecting the mining town was a monstrous statue, Christ of the Mines Shrine, built in 1958 -1959 as a tribute to all those who worked the mines.
“One Sunday, the only time the mines around here weren’t working, a nearby lake broke through the ground and flooded the mines.
No fatalities, but if it had been on any other day of the week, at least 150 god-fearing souls would have been lost.”
He also said only the hardy stick around in the winter.
“Now in the summer there are about 1500 people living here with 2 grocery stores, two gas stations and 4 saloons.
In the winter about 400 people, 1 grocery store, 1 gas station and 4 saloons.”
He also told us that Silverton sits in a small valley called Baker’s Park, named after Charles Baker who led a small expedition to the area around 1860.
After the Civil War miners began flooding into the area, when it was still Ute Indian Territory — originally their hunting grounds.
And here’s another coincidence for you.
It has something to do with the only way into the area at that time – Stony Pass Trail.
A member of Baker’s original party of prospectors – George Howard, founded a town named after himself.
A long lost ancestor?
Turns out he was quite an entrepreneur.
Here’s how the story is told:
“When George decided he needed to build a log cabin, he put the free enterprise system to work. George hauled in a large stack of logs and set a barrel of whiskey next to it.”
“As the thirsty miners came into the area over the Stony Pass Trail, George would offer them some refreshment.
When the miners began to feel the effects of the free refreshments, George would ask them for a little help on his cabin.”
Before long he was the owner of the first permanent settlement.
According to Dee Brown:
“The Ute’s were Rocky Mountain Indians, and for a generation they had watched the invading white men move into their Colorado country like endless swarms of grasshoppers.”
Did they realize what was to become of them right away?
- But we do know that the Brunot Treaty negotiated with the Utes ceded the area to U.S. and by 1873 more than 1500 mining claims had been registered.
- And, as our bus driver told us, Silverton as a town was plotted in a year later 1874.
- But, in the early days Silverton was hard to reach.
- With the railroad coming in 1882, getting supplies to Silverton was less of a problem.
- In less than three decades, as Brunot had pointed out to Chief Ouray, you couldn’t turn away the hoards of get-rich-quick miners if you wanted.
In fact, mining hit its peak between 1900 and 1912 when San Juan County’s population swelled to 5,000 people.
Turning from facts to fun.
An excerpt from Book Three in “The Knowledge Path Series” dedicated to helping you find the place of your dreams.