A Totally Serious History Of Silverton, Colorado

[Editor’s Note: Silverton, Colorado is home to the start and finish of the Hardrock 100. It’s also Dakota Jones’ home for the next few months as he trains for the race.]

On September 13, 1873, American officials met with Chief Ouray of the Ute indians to finalize the largest land cession the Utes had yet given. The Brunot Treaty gave up more than four million acres of the San Juan Mountains, previously held as a Ute reservation, to white settlers. This opened the area to mining and settlement, and thousands of people soon flooded into the area, spurred by reports of fabulous wealth to be found in the mountains. Within a year, 100 people were calling Silverton home.

For generations prior to the Brunot treaty, the Utes had roamed widely across what is now eastern Utah, northern New Mexico and all of Colorado. The introduction of horses by the Spanish in the early part of the seventeenth century allowed them much greater mobility and prosperity. Seasonal hunting trips to the eastern plains for buffalo were far more lucrative on horseback, and the increased food and skins allowed the Utes to group into larger, more cohesive bands. Peaceful with the Spanish and American settlers in the east and south, the Utes even acted as allies in battling more violent tribes like the Apache in New Mexico. Yet, the white influence increased. In 1849, the Utes officially recognized the sovereignty of the United States for the first time. Little was asked of them except to remain within their prescribed territory.

Ute Territory Map

This all changed when gold was discovered near Denver in 1858. Soon miners were moving West into the mountains, encroaching onto Indian territory. A series of treaties followed, all of them reducing the size of Ute land. The first treaty in 1863 ceded most of the central Rockies to settlers in exchange for food and animals that were never given. The next treaty five years later further defined the Ute reservation as the western slope of Colorado, basically everything east of a line between Pagosa Springs, Gunnison and Steamboat Springs. The San Juan Mountains in the southwestern corner of the state remained the Ute’s sanctuary. With the area closed to all non-Indians, they continued to spend summers in the high country before returning to lower elevations each winter.

The first white men came to the Silverton area in 1860. They prospected around and found evidence of great riches to be had. After the Civil War, they returned in larger numbers, defying the government’s treaties and trespassing into Indian lands. As settlers advanced increasingly westward and tales of rich ore deposits drifted out of the San Juans, the pressure increased to open the land to settlement. Thus, the Brunot Treaty in 1873 effectively decapitated the finest remaining portion of the Ute reservation. The story of the Utes in the San Juans essentially ends with the Brunot Treaty, as they would be continually forced back until they occupied only minor patches of reservation land in eastern Utah and southern Colorado. Pioneers would dominate the area thenceforth.

During the early years of mining Silverton was the hub for the many small towns accumulating around the biggest mines: Gladstone, Eureka, Animas Forks, Howardsville, Red Mountain, Chattanooga and others. Rich veins of silver were discovered that quickly allowed the town to take root. Originally exported out of the area via donkey, the first railroad arrived tp Silverton in 1882 and finally allowed the town to truly prosper for the first time. Branches of the railroad would be built over the mountain passes to the satellite towns as ore continued to flow from the mines. The 1880’s were the largest boom time for the town, and Silverton was home to as many as 1,500 people mid-decade, about three times larger than the current population. During this time, the town worked hard to build infrastructure such as a post office, town hall, courthouse and library in order to compete with the scandalous revelry-taking place on “Notorious Blair Street.” Saloons and brothels flourished during the boom years.

The Panic of 1893 wrecked the mining industry. President Cleveland revoked the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which had artificially increased the value of silver by requiring the US government to purchase a minimum 4.5 million ounces every month. When this was discontinued the price of silver plummeted and Silverton and the surrounding towns nearly went bankrupt overnight. Eventually the mines resurfaced, but never with quite the same enthusiasm. The next century in Silverton was typical of mining towns. Boom and bust cycles following the oscillation of the stock market, the price of metals and frequent wars. In the 20th century, precious metals lost some of their value to more regular metals, such as zinc and copper, which could be used for infrastructure and military purposes. The 1970’s and early 80’s saw a resurgence of mining in the Silverton area, and during this time the mines in Cement Creek north of town were some of the highest-producing gold mines on the planet. The Lake Emma mine, in particular, has retained notoriety since then because of the massive flood it caused in 1978. Miners had bored through the mountains horizontally from far below the lake, and had started exploring upward directly beneath it. The gold in this area was so bountiful that miners were reluctant to abandon it, despite the fact that they were fast approaching the bottom of the lake. On June 4, water broke through the mine and drained the entire lake, flooding the valley with water and tailings. Miraculously, this occurred on a Sunday – the one day of the week nobody was in the mine. This event is now commemorated on the Christ of the Mines shrine on a hill above Silverton.

The last mine to close – the Sunnyside mine – shut its doors in 1991, and Silverton shrank accordingly. Since then, the town has relied on tourist dollars from the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which during the summer sends several trains per day to town, each of which spits out hordes of tourists who walk through the city’s dirt streets and marvel at the Victorian homes before buying souvenirs like shirts, mugs and homemade fudge. Silverton Mountain has also helped the town stay afloat by attracting skiers and snowboarders to some of Colorado’s most extreme lift-served powder. Several other events help Silverton stay relevant each year, such as the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, the Hardrock 100, the Kendall Mountain Run and massive July fourth celebrations that bring far more people to town than any other occasion of the year. Other popular activities are jeeping, horseback riding, mountain biking, gun shootin’ and kid havin’. Silverton sits at 9,300 feet, boasts a year-round population of close to 700 and supports a K-12 school system with around 53 students. To the southeast lies the state’s biggest wilderness area, the Weminuche, with nearly 490,000 acres protected. This annually attracts thousands of hikers and backpackers, most of whom then proceed to purchase lattes from me at Mobius Café[, which is run by mountain runner Megan Kimmel].

I now live here, and struggle to climb up big mountains everyday in the thin air. It’s good to be home.

Works Cited

  • Evans, Mark L. “Early Exploration of the San Juan Region.” The Silverton Railroads. www.narrowgauge.org, 17 Nov. 2010. Web. 29 May 2012.
  • Fetchenhier, Scott. “Hardrock History: New Boom on the Horizon?” Hardrock History. Silverton mag. Web. 29 May 2012.
  • “The Brunot Treaty.” New York Times, 22 Feb. 1876. Online.
  • “The Utes in Southwestern Colorado: A Confrontation of Cultures.” BLM Cultural Resources Series. National Park Service, 20 Nov. 2008. Web. 28 May 2012.