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 all of 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 a number of 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 where 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 member of the group 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, there were as many as 1,000 prospectors working 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.
The towns of Silverton, Howardsville, and Eureka were the first to take root to serve the miners who worked the surrounding mountains. During these early years, 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. However, the miners continued to come.
The Town of Silverton was established in the area of 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 people in 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 in 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.
During these growing days, Silverton, like so many other mining camps, was turbulent and sometimes prone to violence and wicked ways. 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 he was killed by the gang. 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 which lasted several days. The first ore was hauled on July 13, ushering in a new era in 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.”