Silverton, Colorado – High in the San Juans

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.

Toll Road between Silverton and Ouray, Colorado

Toll Road between Silverton and Ouray, Colorado.

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 transportation hub of the region, 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 town council of the lawless mining camp 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.

Silverton, Colorado, 1900.

Silverton, Colorado, 1900.

According to newspapers, there was so much mining going on 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 who had 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, a number of 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.

Mayflower Mill near Silverton, Colorado by the Historic American Buildings Survey.

Mayflower Mill near Silverton, Colorado by the Historic American Buildings Survey.

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 the use of tramways to transport ore, in the industrial use of electricity, and in various new types of equipment.

Million Dollar Highway between Silverton and Ouray, Colorado, by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Million Dollar Highway between Silverton and Ouray, Colorado, by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

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 a number of 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.

Sunnyside Mill and Mine, Silverton, Colorado.

Sunnyside Mill and Mine, Eureka, Colorado.

Mining began again in 1959 with the construction of the American Tunnel which was constructed to tap the rich ore veins that still 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 entire contents of the lake 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 draining of the lake is now commemorated on the Christ of the Mines shrine on a hill above Silverton.

Greene Street in Silverton, Colorado by Kathy Weiser-Alexander

Greene Street in Silverton, Colorado by Kathy Weiser-Alexander

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, its distance from major population centers, and its altitude. The district is comprised of 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.

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