Durango, Colorado – Railroad Town of the Southwest

The Strater Hotel in Durango, Colorado, today, by Carol Highsmith.

The Strater Hotel in Durango, Colorado, today, by Carol Highsmith.

In 1893, Henry Strater, who had neglected to exclude his pharmacy location in the lease of the Strater Hotel to H.L. Rice. Rice, became extremely frustrated with the high rent. As a result, he determined to build the three-story Columbian Hotel directly next door with the intent of putting Rice out of business. Unfortunately, for Strater and the rest of the area, the Silver Crash occurred the same year. Both hotels continued to operate until 1895 when both were foreclosed on. Afterward, the Columbian Hotel was consolidated with the Strater Hotel.

A number of social organizations formed early on, including the Durango Archaeological and Historical Society in 1893, the social Durango Club, various labor organizations, a gun club, a baseball club, two Chautauqua Clubs (adult education movement), a Shakespeare Circle and various reading clubs. The granges, rural schoolhouses and dance halls provided social gathering places in the rural areas. Two opera houses opened in 1894 and 1895, offering alternative entertainment to the many saloons, gambling dens, and dance halls in Durango.

Durango, Colorado, 1889

Durango, Colorado, 1889

Durango had a telephone system supporting 66 phones by 1894.

In 1896, the Durango Suburban and Street Railway began to operate, originally drawn by horses or mules, and only went from the train depot north to the Animas River. Later, it was electrified and traveled all along Main Avenue in Durango and Animas City. It continued to operate until 1921.

At the turn-of-the-century, most of the area mines had played out and Durango’s economy became more diversified, focused on timber harvesting, ranching, farming, and tourism. The creation of the San Juan National Forest in 1905 and Mesa Verde National Park in 1906 brought more tourists to the area.

Throughout the course of many years, the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad carried over three hundred million dollars in precious metals. But, by the beginning of the 20th century, the region’s railroad system faced many challenges; slides, floods, snow, war, and financial instability. When the US Government entered World War I, it assumed operation of the railroads for a time.

Streetcar in Durango, Colorado

Streetcar in Durango, Colorado

In 1910, the town had a population of 4,686. In October 1911, Durango and much of the area suffered a devastating flood. Described as the worst flooding in the history of southwestern, Colorado, it destroyed more than 100 bridges, 300 miles of railroad tracks, destroyed crops in the Animas Valley, and resulted in several deaths. Causing an estimated $1.5 million in damage across the region, all telegraph and telephone communications were lost and Durango and Silverton were cut off from the rest of the world. The most immediate concern at the time was food and fuel shortages for the 3,000 residents living in Silverton with winter coming on. Fortunately, partial road and railroad routes to the north were restored within a week or two, though most of the travel was via burro and horse-drawn wagon.

Over the next decade, the Durango area had to become accustomed to automobile travel. Locals responded by building a number of auto courts and motels in La Plata County, mostly in Durango. In 1924, the Colorado Department of Transportation completed the Million Dollar Highway (US Highway 550) to Durango.

Durango, Colorado in the 1920s, courtesy Denver Public Library

Durango, Colorado in the 1920s, courtesy Denver Public Library

During the Great Depression years, the Durango area suffered many of the same economic hardships facing the rest of the country.

During World War II, mining picked up again and in the 1950s uranium was the sought after ore. At that time, the Durango Smelter was refitted for processing of uranium ore. Oil and gas were also discovered. In 1948 Animas City, which had a population of about 500 people, was annexed to Durango. Today, the location of what was once Animas City, is called Uptown Main.

In 1956, Fort Lewis College was moved from south of Hesperus to Durango and changed from a two-year agricultural school to four-year liberal arts curriculum. A new community hospital district was also built, providing an alternative to Mercy Hospital, which also expanded and remodeled in the 1950s.

In 1966 the Purgatory Ski resort was developed north of Durango.

Today, Durango’s population is about 18,500. Though it has all the amenities of a small city, tourism continues to be an important aspect of Durango’s economy.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad by Carol Highsmith.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad by Carol Highsmith.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is one of the most popular attractions, which continues to run through the mountain sides along the Animas River Valley to Silverton.

Durango’s architectural heritage is visible along the Main Avenue Historic District which consists of 104 commercial buildings that collectively reflect the late 19th and early 20th-century history and architecture of the downtown area. The 34-acre area was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

A few of the more interesting buildings include:

The Newman Building at 801 Main was built in 1892 by Colorado businessman and politician Charles Newman who had made his fortune opening drugstores in Animas City, Silverton, and Chama and locating the Swansea Mine near Rico in the late 1870s. The first tenant was the Smelter National Bank, which closed in 1897. The imposing building that firmly lays claim to the corner has been carefully restored on both the exterior and interior and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Today, it is the fanciest office building in Durango.

1892 Central Hotel Building, Durango, Colorado by Carol Highsmith.

1892 Central Hotel Building, Durango, Colorado by Carol Highsmith.

The First National Bank building, located at 901 Main, an elaborately detailed Queen Anne brickwork building with Romanesque sandstone arched windows was built for $18,219 and replaced an earlier frame building that burned in 1892. The First National Bank moved south from Animas City in 1881 and operated in Durango from 1882 until 1980.

The Palace Hotel Building at #1 Depot Place was built in 1895. The two-story painted brick structure has housed the Palace Restaurant for 40 years. The restaurant retains the elegant character of the late 19th century Western architecture and design.

The General Palmer Hotel at 561-67 Main was built in 1902 by William Jackson Palmer, the president of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. The two-story painted brick structure is located right next to the railroad depot. The building has always served as a hotel and had never closed.

The La Plata Bottling Works and Saloon at 645 Main was built in 1900 as a bottling works for the Adolph Coors Company, which owned the building until 1915. It was then taken over as the La Plata Bottling Works and Saloon. John Kellenberger, Durango’s first Coca-Cola franchisee, purchased the operation during Prohibition. This brick bearing wall structure is relatively unadorned except for a tall sheet metal parapet with large brackets at either end and a gable above the letters “A. COORS A.D. 1900” in relief. Its 25-foot frontage with three bays at the second level is characteristic of many of the older intermediate row buildings that remain along Main Street.

The 1892 Burns Bank Building, Durango, Colorado by Carol Highsmith.

The 1892 Burns Bank Building, Durango, Colorado by Carol Highsmith.

The Strater Hotel at 699 Main was built in 1888 and exemplifies the period of wealth from the mines, railroad, and smelter. At that time, Durango was ripe for an elegant hotel and Henry Strater answered the call. The building is an eclectic mix of Italianate, Romanesque, and Renaissance architectural styles.  It was immediately leased to H L Rice and after the relationship between he and Strater soured, Strater built the new Columbian Hotel immediately next door. The two hotels are now one establishment and it continue to serve guests. The building is also home to the Durango Opera House with seating for 100- 200 people.

The Gardenswartz Building, located at 863-871 Main was built in 1901. This was the showpiece of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad’s land development company and was intended to be a model for future buildings. Today, the original storefront openings at the street level on the southern half of the building are largely intact while unsympathetic remodeling has obscured the lower level of the northern portion.

Old Durango, Colorado building by Carol Highsmith.

Old Durango, Colorado building by Carol Highsmith.

The Central Hotel building at 975 Main is a four-story French Second Empire structure built in 1892. Over the years it housed a saloon, a post office, a bank, and a hotel. References to French culture were often included in Victorian commercial architecture as an allusion to the continental sophistication associated with the French. On the first floor today is the El Rancho Tavern, where 20-year-old future heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey’s victory over Andy Malloy across the street at the now-long-demolished Gem Theater is remembered in a mural on an outside wall.

The Burns Bank at 900 Main Avenue was built in 1892 of rough dark red-brown sandstone block. The building was constructed to house the Colorado State Bank, which failed in 1907. It was replaced by Burns National Bank in 1910. Today, it’s occupied by the Irish Embassy.

There are numerous other activities near Durango that visitors enjoy, including Vallecito Lake, 23 miles northeast of Durango that offers fishing, boating, hiking trails, and horseback riding. Mesa Verde National Park, 35 miles to the east makes a reasonable day trip from Durango. In the winter, visitors enjoy the Purgatory Ski Resort 25 miles north of the city.

Durango is located on the San Juan Skyway, a 236-mile journey through southwestern Colorado, that connects the towns of Durango, Silverton, Ouray, Telluride, and Cortez. Along this route is the fabulous “Million Dollar Highway,” that visitors rate as one of the best drives in America.

Durango & Silverton Railroad Depot by Carol Highsmith.

Durango & Silverton Railroad Depot by Carol Highsmith.

©Kathy Weiser-Alexander, September 2018.

Also See:

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

Mesa Verde National Park

Million Dollar Highway

Million Dollar Highway Photo Gallery

Silverton – High in the San Juans

The Durango & Silverton Railroad in the Fall by Carol Highsmith.

The Durango & Silverton Railroad in the Fall by Carol Highsmith.

Sources:

City of Durango

Durango Downtown

Durango Herald

History Colorado

Visit Durango

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