Wednesday, July 11 marked the third day of my journey through Colorado’s mining towns. Because of hitting a rock on my first day, I had to deviate from my carefully planned timeline in order to find a new rim for my minivan, which led to an unexpected detour.
Finding a Rim
After striking camp, I set to work trying to track down a rim for my car. A shop in Durango didn’t have anything, and said my best shot was to try the wrecking yard south of town on Highway 160. They didn’t have anything like it, and the owner there checked his computer which located several new rims, for over $300: one in Albuquerque, one in Cañon City, and one in Denver, all too far away and too expensive. I called the Dodge dealership in town, and they suggested calling some wrecking yards in Farmington, New Mexico. The second yard I called did have a used rim for a Dodge Grand Caravan. Finally! But it meant a 45-mile detour south. I had never been to New Mexico before, unless you count the time I visited Four Corners years ago, and then I only had part of my body in the state. Of all the western states, it is the one I’ve missed visiting. So here was my chance at last!
At the suggestion of the lady at the wrecking yard, I took 160 west about 10 miles, then 140 south. I got stuck for half an hour waiting for road resurfacing near Breen, travelled on through Red Mesa and La Plata into New Mexico to Farmington. I missed the turnoff to the wrecking yard, and realized I’d gone to far and pulled over. Up ahead to the west I could see the Shiprock, a famous landmark in these parts. I’ve never seen it before, and snapped a photo even though there were power lines in the way. I knew a Navajo kid in high school named Albert Todacheenie who was from Shiprock and I’ve wondered since whatever happened to him.
I got the used rim and found a tire store to mount the rim and tire. They had quite a crowd waiting, but the prices were good. I walked in blazing heat (near 100 ° F) to find someplace to eat, a good Mexican restaurant about a half-mile away. After getting my car back about 3:30, I headed north out of town on Highway 550.
The Million Dollar Highway
I was over six hours behind schedule and knew I wouldn’t be able to stop in Silverton to take the mine or the mill tour as I had originally planned. I had to be in Ouray that evening, as I had a reservation at the Western Hotel there. So I had to make some choices. In order to get back to Silverton, I would have to miss going through Alamosa and seeing Great Sand Dunes National Park on Saturday. It was a hard choice, but I was here to see the history of Colorado mining and the sand dunes had always been optional.
So I wound up back in Durango. Again. After favoring the spare tire for three days, it was hard to get used to driving at normal speeds. I took 550 north past the ski resorts, then the road began to wind its way up into the San Juans. It is called the Million Dollar Highway here because it cost that much and more per mile to build. It wound over Coal Bank Pass and then Molas Pass (10,910 ft.), where I stopped to take some wonderful photos. It then curved its way down steeply to Silverton. I stopped wherever the road allowed for good views of the town below.
Beyond Silverton the road travelled up a broad glacier-carved canyon toward Red Mountain Pass. I had seen a video on the Internet called “America’s Most Dangerous Highways” about this pass, and it seemed much worse on the video than it actually was. I wouldn’t want to drive an 18-wheeler around the switchbacks, but it was no problem in my minivan. In fact, I quite enjoyed the drive and the views were amazing.
The Red Mountain Mining District
Just beyond the pass was the Idarado mine, with a great deal of infrastructure and even houses intact. I stopped and photographed it all. Large silver chimneys were discovered here in 1882 and within a few years, six different towns grew up around the pass, including Guston and Ironton. The most prosperous mine in the 1880s was the Yankee Girl; its headframe is still intact. Later, as prices dropped after the Silver Panic of 1893, some of the mines were closed and others consolidated as other metals were mined.
Eventually the Idarado became the leading mine, gradually expanding its drifts, levels, shafts, and stopes. After World War II three major ore bodies were connected underground through the Treasury Tunnel. It began here at Red Mountain Pass and continued underground (with a few internal shafts which dropped over 1700 feet) until it reached the Pandora Mill above Telluride. Altogether, over 100 miles of drifts and tunnels were blasted out of these mountains. Mining continued here until 1978.
It was just past sunset as I travelled on toward Ouray. The worst part of the road was the last five miles as it was carved out of the side of a steep canyon cliff face without any guardrails to speak of. It was just getting dark as I drove into Ouray and checked into the Western Hotel. This is an authentic 1800s hotel and saloon, with European style rooms and a shared bathroom down the hall. I got everything charging up, and ate supper of excellent pizza in the saloon.