Birth of a Mining Town
PHOTOS COURTESY OF TELLURIDE HISTORICAL MUSEUM
THIS SAN JUAN MINING TOWN was first called “Columbia,” but after less than ten years, an order from the United States Postal Service changed all that. With handwriting the way it was, the hassle of deciphering between Columbia, California and Columbia, Colorado was too much. And so it was, that by 1887, letters sent out of this box canyon were labeled: From Telluride. Word traveled fast. These mountains were laden with riches including gold, silver, zinc, lead and copper. With the arrival of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad in 1891, the region flourished with a population swelling to nearly 5,000 residents. Telluride became a melting pot of Finns, Swedes, Irish, Italians, Germans, and many other people from various nations. By 1893 there were even multiple Chinese laundries, a Chinese restaurant and a Chinese bakery, all in business in Telluride. Despite its remoteness, Telluride boasted all the amenities of a thriving community including saloons, gambling, stores, and even a redlight district. The nightlife rivaled that of today: At the turn of the last century there were at least thirty-seven watering holes. Money and opportunity hung like a carrot on a stick, just out of reach for most. Greed was rampant. A muleskinner named Robert LeRoy Parker was overtaken with the desire to get rich quick. He robbed his first bank here in 1889 and got away with $24,000. People later came to know him as Butch Cassidy. In 1909, after the Trout Lake Dam broke, both roads and rail tracks were washed away. The town was cut off from supplies and the world. When a relief train finally arrived, some were dismayed while others thrilled to welcome the pack of mules that carried nothing but cases of beer. Parson Hogue traveled from Silverton each week to Jimmy Hurley’s saloon on Sundays just to save the poor souls of Telluride. Hurley would cover the gambling tables with sheets, out of respect. After the sermon, however, Parson Hogue would take the collection money and try his hand at doubling the donations at the poker table. Bulkeley Wells, a mine manager, built a house with a hydroelectric power station in its belly, atop Bridal Veil Falls, all to keep pace with the wealthiest family in Ouray. His extravagance was notorious and the beautiful residence, which has since been restored (along with the hydropower plant) by Eric Jacobson, still sits high above the valley today. All this prosperity in Telluride prompted the local booster club to coin the slogan, “Telluride, the town without a bellyache,” boasting to the world that one could not want for anything in this prosperous mining town. There was even a hospital, at the top of Fir Street and the base of Imogene Pass—a prime location for receiving the sick and injured miners, most of whom worked near Tomboy, the mining camp three miles above town. Life was hard for the miners, and many were fatally wounded in industry accidents or in avalanches. Many others died from alcohol-related deaths. The town may not have had a bellyache, but it probably had a throbbing head. Throughout the Prohibition era, isolation served Telluride well; you could get a drink just about anywhere, including the Courthouse. Still, the pace of the town had already begun to slow. Mining wasn’t what it used to be. There were fewer men and more machines doing the work. Both WWI and WWII took their toll on the population and many young people left Telluride for the promise of work and wealth elsewhere. By the 1960s, the community was as tight as ever and the Independence Day celebrations were renowned. But the hospital and even the banks closed, and only 400 locals remained. The saloons, though, carried on. A decade later, when the ski bums and hippies bellied up, they ushered in a new era of history, change and population growth. The year 1972 marked the beginning of the next chapter for Telluride—its growth into a tourist destination. —Beth Roberts, Telluride Historical Museum www.VisitTelluride.com
A resource for visitors to Telluride and Mountain Village, Colorado.