Silverton, Colorado, a former silver mining camp, is nestled high in the San Juan Mountains at an elevation of 9,318 feet.
Long before European settlers came, the Ute Indians lived and hunted in the area, ranging from eastern Utah, northern New Mexico, and Colorado. While the Spanish were exploring eastern Colorado, they mostly ignored the western part of the state because the Ute were quick to attack the interlopers. However, this changed when the Spanish governor of New Mexico, Vélez Cachupín, finally succeeded in making peace with the Utes of western Colorado. The governor then sent two expeditions north under the leadership of Juan Antonio María de Rivera. More expeditions followed, and several trails were developed through the area. The Spanish introduced horses to the tribe, allowing them much greater mobility and prosperity.
By the early 1800s, American fur traders and explorers were making their way through the area. These people also found resistance from the Ute tribe. However, a group of prospectors led by Captain Charles Baker visited the western San Juan Mountains in August 1860. They found traces of placer gold along the Animas River in what was later called “Baker’s Park.”
The miners were forced out of the area by the Ute Indians in 1861, who had, by that time, been awarded control of the region by a U.S. Treaty. One group member described the area as “the highest, roughest, broadest, and most abrupt of all the ranges.”
News of the gold discovery quickly spread, but with the Civil War looming and the fact that the land belonged to the Ute tribe, white settlers did not immediately return. However, that changed when prospectors found lode gold in the Little Giant vein at Arrastra Gulch, four miles east of Silverton, in 1872. At that time, miners returned in large numbers, defying the government’s treaties and trespassing into Indian lands.
In August 1873, George Howard and R.J. McNutt discovered the Sunnyside silver vein along Hurricane Peak. Before long, as many as 1,000 prospectors worked in the high country of the San Juan Mountains. The federal government came under pressure from both sides and ordered the miners to leave, but instead, they continued to come.
In September 1873, American officials met with Chief Ouray of the Ute Indians to finalize another treaty made with the Ute. The Brunot Treaty gave up four million acres and placed the tribe on a reservation. This opened the San Juan Mountains to white settlement, at which time numerous miners and settlers came to the area. By the end of the year, nearly 4,000 claims had been staked.
Silverton, Howardsville, and Eureka were the first to take root to serve the miners who worked the surrounding mountains. These towns could only be accessed via a difficult route over the 12,500-foot Stony Pass after ascending the Rio Grande from Del Norte during these early years. However, the miners continued to come.
The Town of Silverton was established in Baker’s Park in 1874, and Francis Marion Snowden built the first log cabin. The town was officially organized in September, and a townsite was laid out. With its central location at the confluence of several streams, the new town quickly became the center of numerous mining camps and stole the county seat from Howardsville. At first, the town was comprised mostly of tents, log cabins, and wooden structures. But, these were soon replaced by more permanent buildings lining Greene Street (Main Street). A sawmill and smelter were built, and the first newspaper, the La Plata Miner, began in 1875.
The main problem for Silverton and the surrounding mining camps in the early years was its remoteness. Its mining operations would not really be tapped until the coming of the railroad. In 1874 the district produced less than $15,000 in ore, all of which had to be exported out on donkeys. In 1876, the Animas Canyon Toll Road Company began building a 32-mile thoroughfare on the Animas River’s east side to connect Silverton miners with Animas City resources.
The Congregational Church was built in 1878. The church, which stands at the corner of Reese and 11th Streets, continues to serve a congregation today.
In 1879, the town established a hook and ladder company whose fire truck had been hauled over the steep Stony Pass. The Animas Canyon Toll Road increased the number of people living in Silverton, and the town boasted about 1,000 people by 1880. By September of that year, William Jackson Palmer’s Denver & Rio Grande Railway established the town of Durango, and tracks reached the new town in July 1881. Almost immediately, workers started on the final 45-mile stretch to Silverton, using parts of the Animas River wagon road for the railroad’s route.
Silverton, like so many other mining camps, was turbulent and sometimes prone to violence and wicked ways during these growing days. On August 24, 1881, the notorious Stockton Gang had made their way to town. With warrants on their heads, Marshal David Clayton “Clate” Ogsbury attempted to serve a warrant for their arrests, and the gang killed him. Two of the gang members were later captured and lynched by vigilantes.
The first train reached Silverton on July 8, 1882, and passenger service began just a few days later, on July 11. The arrival of the railroad touched off a wild celebration that lasted several days. The first ore was hauled on July 13, ushering in a new era for Silverton and San Juan County and creating a mining boom that would last for the next three decades.
By 1883, the district’s mining production quadrupled to $400,000, and Silverton boasted of a population of 2,000 people. It also had 400 buildings, including two banks, five laundries, 29 saloons, several hotels, and a bawdy a “red light district” occupied Blair Street. One of these many buildings included the Grand Hotel, which later became the Grand Imperial Hotel, which had its grand opening that year. It is still in operation today.
From its earliest days, the residents of Silverton had drawn an imaginary line down Greene Street, which separated the “respectable” people on the west side and the more decadent people on the east side. Blair Street was the heart of the most notorious section of town and was lined with saloons, variety theaters, dance halls, bordellos, “cribs,” and boarding houses.
This was generally accepted, as prostitution and gambling contributed heavily to the town’s economic base. Each prostitute was required to pay a monthly fine of $5 a month. However, in May 1883, a grand jury brought 117 indictments against “lewd women.”
That same year, frontier lawman Wyatt Earp arrived in Silverton early in 1883. Briefly, he dealt cards at the Arlington Saloon in the Billy Cole Building until April. At that time, Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday arrived to convince Earp to come to the aid of their friend, Luke Short, who needed help in dispute in Dodge City, Kansas. This bloodless confrontation became known as the Dodge City War.
In 1885, Otto Mears, who had built an extensive network of toll roads throughout southwestern Colorado in the past decade, finalized his “greatest road” – the predecessor of the “Million-Dollar Highway” between Silverton and Ouray. This rugged toll road followed the Uncompahgre River gorge, crossed Red Mountain, and skirted a narrow ledge hundreds of feet above the canyon floor. The same year, Silverton was incorporated, and the San Juan Mining District produced $1 million worth of ore.
Though Silverton had already become the region’s transportation hub, it would become even more so as three short narrow gauge lines would be built to connect the outlying mines to the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad at Silverton. The first of these was built in 1888-89 by Otto Mears, who constructed the Silverton Railroad north up Mineral Creek to Red Mountain. Ten years later, the Gold King Consolidated Mines Company built the Silverton, Gladstone & Northerly up Cement Creek to the Gold King Mine. And, in 1904, the Silverton Northern reached Animas Forks.
In the mid-1880s, Bat Masterson was back in Silverton after the lawless mining camp’s town council requested his services to “clean up the town” as a special marshal. Bat’s mere presence had an immediate effect on the troublemakers in the town, and most of them cleared out without Bat having to touch his gun. During his brief time in Silverton, Masterson left a bullet hole in the ornately covered back bar of the Grand Imperial Hotel.
In the 1890s, the San Juan Mining District produced more than $2 million in ore per year, and by this time, Silverton had become more “civilized,” organizing a number for fraternal lodges as well as a literary society.
According to newspapers, there was so much mining in the district in 1890-91 that the railroad could not move the ore fast enough. This was due to the many advances that had been made in mining machinery, as well as the establishment of concentration and reduction plants and aerial tramways that were built between mines and mills.
In 1893, however, when the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed, it plunged the silver mines across Colorado into a devastating depression from which most never recovered. Ten large mines in the Silverton area were forced to close when silver prices plunged to 63 cents an ounce from $1.05 an ounce. However, many of the mines were owned by large corporations with deep pockets, which allowed them to survive. Gold became the new goal and, with the help of new technology, more easily extractable.
In the early 1900s, several new buildings were erected, including the Carnegie Library in 1906, San Juan County Courthouse in 1907, the County Jail in 1902, Town Hall in 1907, Wyman Building, Benson Block, Bausman Building, Miners Union Hall in 1901, and the Miners Union Hospital.
Silverton’s long mining boom ended in the 1910s, and the Silverton Commercial Club was organized in 1913, which began to promote recreation and tourism in the region.
By 1918, the San Juan Mining District had produced more than $65 million in ore. That same year, Silverton, along with the rest of the country, was severely affected by the 1918 flu epidemic. More than 150 people died within a three-week period in October and November of that year, approximately 10% of the population. Ninety townspeople were buried in one mass grave.
In 1921 prices for metal fell, mining went into a decline, and the population dwindled. During its booming mining years, the San Juan mining operations made pioneering advances in tramways to transport ore, the industrial use of electricity, and various new equipment types.
In 1924 the “Million Dollar Highway,” or U.S. 550, was completed between Silverton and Ouray. The 25-mile stretch replaced Mears Toll Road and opened up the area to tourism. Today, it is part of the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway.
The three narrow gauge railroad lines that branched out from Silverton began to consolidate and close in the 1930s, and by 1941, all three were gone. During these years, the outlying mining camps of Animas Forks, Chattanooga, Eureka, Gladstone, Howardsville, Ironton, Mineral Point, and Red Mountain gradually emptied, leaving Silverton as the only town in San Juan County.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Hollywood studios used the Durango & Silverton Railroad to film several western movies. During this time, passenger traffic also increased as tourists were drawn to the line’s history and scenery.
By 1956, gold production had totaled some $39,000,000, while annual production of all minerals had dropped to $597,000, and lead and zinc had replaced the more precious metals as the staple ores of the district.
Mining began again in 1959 with the American Tunnel’s construction, which was constructed to tap the rich ore veins that remained in the old Sunnyside Mine. The mine was once again successful until the winter of 1973-74 when melting snowpack caused the tailings pond to break and 100,000 tons of tailings and mud to run down the mountain towards Silverton. All mining was suspended during the month it took for cleanup. The mine then reopened and operated for several before tragedy struck again.
On June 4, 1978, water from Lake Emma high above Eureka began to seep into the mine, eventually emptying the lake’s entire contents into the American Tunnel. Thankfully, no one was in the mine at the time. The cleanup of the mine forced its owners into bankruptcy. It was later sold and continued to produce ore until 1991. The lake’s draining is now commemorated on the Christ of the Mines shrine on a hill above Silverton.
The Town of Silverton was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1961 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. The town has retained an exceptional degree of historic integrity, largely due to its isolation, distance from major population centers, and altitude. The district comprises a number of historic buildings, most of which were built between 1882 and 1910 during Silverton’s boomtown days. The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and the Mayflower Mill have also been designated as National Historic Landmarks.
Some of the many historic buildings in Silverton include:
Ye Old Livery was once a working livery run by the Silverton Transfer Company. Built in 1897, it featured an elevator to the second floor. Located at 1320 Greene St, it is now utilized as a florist and gift shop.
The three-story, 40-room brick-and-stone Grand Imperial Hotel opened t in 1882. Its beautiful, ornate gingerbread makes it one of Silverton’s flagship buildings. The hand-carved rosewood bar with its diamond-dusted mirror, imported from England, is still in place. Called the Grand Imperial Hotel today; it is located at 1219 Greene St; the hotel continues to serve guests today.
The Posey and Wingate building, built in 1880, is the oldest commercial building in western Colorado and has been a hardware store, a bank, and a pool and billiards hall. Today, it features a couple of shops and a restaurant on the ground level, and the upstairs holds apartments. It is located at 13th and Greene Streets.
The Benson Block, built in 1901, once held the County Club, a saloon that had one of the most expensive bar fixtures ever imported to Silverton. It is now called home to the Benson Lodge. It is located at 208 Greene St.
The Teller House at 1250 Greene Street was built by brewer Charles Fischer in 1896 as a hotel and housed two saloons. Today, the Teller House Hotel continues to serve guests.
Silverton Town Hall, with its silver bell tower, was erected in 1907. Fire almost destroyed it in 1991, but it was restored with painstaking care and won the National Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1996.
At the north end of Greene Street is the San Juan County Courthouse, which was built in 1907. In Silverton’s earlier days, the second floor of the Grand Imperial Hotel was used before the courthouse was built. The beautiful building continues to serve as the courthouse today,
Two blocks of false-front former saloons and sporting houses still flank Blair Street, reminders of days when up to 40 such establishments ran day and night and attracted a lawless element.
To the north of Silverton, past the courthouse, on the steep lower slope of Boulder Mountain is the Hillside Cemetery. Here, these many graves reveal bits and pieces of Silverton’s past residents. The graves are not laid out in neat and orderly rows but are instead, sprawled over 20 acres on the side of the rugged mountain.
The San Juan County Historical Society Museum and Mining Heritage Center interprets the local mining history and includes numerous artifacts from Silverton’s colorful past. The museum is housed in the 1902 San Juan County Jail. It is located at 1569 Greene Street.
The most popular site is the Durango and Silverton Narrow Guage Railroad. This historic train has been in continuous operation along the 45.2 miles of track between Durango and Silverton since 1882, carrying passengers behind vintage coal-fired steam locomotives. One of southwest Colorado’s most popular attractions, the train follows the Animas River through spectacular & breathtaking canyons in the remote wilderness of the two-million-acre San Juan National Forest. In peak years, ridership tops 200,000, and today, more daily trains depart Durango today than at the height of the mining boom a century ago.
Outside of Silverton, the landscape is peppered with old mining structures and several old towns’ remains. Tours are available at the Old Hundred Gold Mine and the Mayflower Gold Mill.
Today Silverton is called home to about 630 people. The town’s rich history, coupled with the stunning natural beauty and ample recreation opportunities, draws thousands of visitors and tourists to the area each year.
© Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated April 2021.
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