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.

There are 21 comments

  1. Matt Smith

    Thanks for the good read – nice history lesson, but noticeably lacking any whimsical sarcasm. What will the iRF commenters say about that?!

  2. JMock

    Thanks! Just drove the Alpine Loop from Lake City this weekend and went through a lot of those ghost towns, nice to have some more history behind it.

  3. Peter

    Thank you for acknowledging the indigenous people of this land. They were/are amazing runners as well, if you have not read Peter Nabokov's book on Indian Running check it out – early stories of 100 milers.

  4. Chris

    It's incredibly sad that the Ute culture was torn out, for a bit of silver and gold. There's a current bestseller " Empire of the Summer Moon" that talks about the same in TX with the Comanches. It's a good read.

    Thanks for the story.

  5. Chris P.

    Nice article. For some great history on the San Juans including some good specifics on the Silverton area, I highly recommend the book Summits to Reach, which is Franklin Rhoda's report from A.D. Wilson's 1874 Hayden survey team. For someone who loves mountains and is intrigued by the history surrounding them, the survey team reports are a fantastic read.

  6. Jonathan

    Great article. Had a chance to visit Silverton a couple winters ago. Nice town and feels like time stopped. The mountains there are absolutely fantastic. Can't even imagine what it's like to run them.

  7. Steve Pero

    Dakota….nice history lesson on my favorite place in the nation. Silverton has been my home for 2 weeks almost every summer since 2000 (excluding 2002 and 2009)and am looking forward to moving back in in 5 weeks.

    See you soon! Happy high training!

  8. Sarah Lavender Smith

    I love reading all this history about Southwest Colorado. Since it seems to be such an interest to you, I encourage you to go to the library or bookstore and look for books by my grandfather, David S. Lavender. He was born and raised in Telluride, worked in the Camp Bird Mine by Ouray, and wrote both nonfiction and fiction about the area. "Red Mountain" is his fictionalized account of life near Ouray, and "One Man's West" is his autobiography about mining and ranching around Ouray and Telluride during the Depression. I'm proud he and his brother were founding members of the San Juan Mountaineers and my great uncle, Dwight Lavender, first explored and recorded many of the trails around the 14'ers in the 1920s and '30s. You can read more about the San Juan Mountaineering club in Mel Griffith's terrific book "San Juan Country," out of print but probably in the local library. See you in Silverton! I can't wait to be in Telluride & Silverton in July again :-) BTW here's a blog post w/ pictures of these early mountaineers in the San Juans if you're interested, http://www.therunnerstrip.com/2011/07/heading-to-

  9. Chris P.


    When I saw your name, the first thing I thought was "I wonder if she is related to Dwight Lavender." Your great uncle was one of the most important pioneers for mountaineering in the San Juans, and his Climber's Guide to Southwestern Colorado remains one of the best reference sources available for the mountains in that area. I'm amazed at the amount he accomplished in mountaineering at such a young age.

    1. Sarah Lavender Smith

      Chris, thank you for what you wrote. Yes, it's amazing what he and the other climbers/explorers did back in the day when trails were nearly non-existent and gear was rudimentary. And to think Dwight climbed and covered so much territory before contracting polio and dying at age 23. If you're interested, here is a link to the Colorado Mountain Club Press that published one of the few typewritten copies of the Climber's Guide that you mention: [broken link removed]. The challenges those climbers and miners faced, and the risks they took, inspires and awes me.

  10. Meghan Hicks

    A cool book I read during my month in Silverton last year was "The Lost Grizzlies:

    A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado" by Rick Bass. One learns deeply about the San Juan Mountains' natural history, including its history as grizzly-bear range. The book also philosophizes on the ways the humans about which Dakota has written have manipulated local ecology. Sometimes a sad read, but I learned a lot.

  11. Denver Gregor

    I'm excited to read this kind of content. This is recent history in the scheme of things but it may as well be ancient or mythological in the popular mind. Glad to see a different angle on this medium and hopefully more of the talented thinkers and writers in this community will continue to expand the boundaries for content. Thanks DJ and BP!

  12. CJ

    Mr. Jones, you'll need every second of that Silverton training in order to break Kyle Skaggs' very stout record. I wish you well

  13. Speedgoatkarl

    I do think it's kind of funny that most folks look at the race, like it's Anton (if healthy, which at this point is hard to say) against Dakota Jones, and there's noone else. Keep in mind that this is the hardest 100 on earth, and there are lots of variables. I see at least 10 other runners in this field that can all run sub 26 if they have there day. And sub 26….well, has only been beaten twice. Dakota is the man to beat, and he's beatable.

  14. CJ

    Totally agree Karl…100 miles over that terrain is going to be won by the person who grinds their way through the issues that will surely hit every person

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