On Thursday, July 12, 2012, I explored the history of Ouray and Telluride, Colorado. I rode a jeep up into the San Juan Mountains to the high mining camps, delved into an adit at the Bachelor Syracuse Mine, and floated in a gondola high above Telluride.
History of Ouray:
The town of Ouray (pronounced “you-ray”) is named for an Uncompahgre Ute Indian chief in the 1800s who tried to keep his people and their land safe from the gradual encroachment of white settlers and miners. Despite all kinds of provocations, he tried to keep the peace. When silver was discovered in the San Juan Mountains, each treaty that promised them they could keep their land “as long as the grass shall grow” was soon broken. Chief Ouray likened their situation to a buffalo that has been shot several times and has no choice but to lie down and take whatever will come. After Chief Ouray’s death the Utes were rounded up and forced to move to the Uintah-Ouray Reservation in northeast Utah, near the towns of Roosevelt and Ft. Duchesne. Chief Ouray was known for his intelligence and ability to negotiate, and his stained glass portrait in the old supreme court building in Denver is one of only a few to show Native Americans among the state’s leaders.
The original name for the valley and the town was Uncompahgre, the Ute word for the hot mineral springs located there (which Chief Ouray was known to soak in). Spanish explorers, including the Dominguez-Escalante party of 1776, explored the area but it wasn’t until the 1870s that silver deposits were discovered up what is now called Box Canyon. By 1876 the town of Ouray was incorporated and gradually grew. The best deposits were found around Gold Hill and further up the canyons, including the Imogene Basin and the area around Ironton and Guston in the Red Mountain District (which I drove through yesterday). The town itself became the transfer and shipping point, but growth was slow because of the isolation and difficulty of getting the ore to market on wagons.
The main line of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad extended itself up from Pueblo to Gunnison and on through Grand Junction to Salt Lake City between 1880 and 1883 (I talked more about this on Day 1 when I visited the railroad and mining museum in Helper, Utah). A branch line travelled through Durango, and a narrow gauge line extended up the Animas River Valley to Silverton (which I rode on Day 2). Knowing that the mines of the Red Mountain District could make great fortunes if only the ore could be gotten out, Otto Mears built a series of toll roads over the high passes between Silverton and Ouray and from Durango around to Rico and Telluride. The roads met up at what is now Ridgway, north of Ouray. But he saw even greater potential in building railroads.
The gulch between Ouray and Ironton was considered too difficult a route for a railroad, as it would require a 7 percent grade, a tunnel, and a double loop to get a train through the defile. Not even a Shay locomotive on a narrow gauge track could have done it. Mears decided instead to build a railroad from Silverton over the top of Red Mountain Pass to Guston and Ironton, which would link up with the Durango to Silverton line and bring the ore to smelters in Durango.
Meanwhile, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad built a narrow gauge extension line in 1897 from Montrose up the Uncompahgre River to Ridgway and on to Ouray. With these two railways in place, the town of Ouray really took off. By 1890 it had over 2500 people. Unlike many mining towns, most of the miners brought their families with them and Ouray was never quite as wild and wooly as some towns. Ouray was also fortunate to never have a devastating fire such as the ones the burnt down most western mining towns. Many of the original buildings are intact, and along Main Street there are metal signs on each block showing what the buildings on the opposite side looked like in the 1890s. The businesses in them have changed hands many times, but the buildings are still there, giving Ouray a much more authentic flavor. Some of the best-preserved buildings are the Beaumont Hotel, the St. Elmo Hotel, Wright’s Opera House, and the County Courthouse (which was used for the courtroom scenes of the 1968 version of the movie True Grit with John Wayne, Kim Darby, and Glen Campbell).
The Western Hotel, where I stayed, is another historic building. Built near the railroad terminal, it saw good business from the start and is restored very much like it was in the 1890s. The saloon boasts an unusual painting of a lady’s face on the floor. I had originally planned to stay in a campground up at the Amphitheatre above the town, but my reservation got messed up, so I booked this hotel at the last minute. It was in the style of hotels of the day, with a shared bathroom down the hall and fairly small rooms without air conditioning (or many electrical outlets, which had to be added later). I’m glad I brought a power strip to plug in all my electronics. But I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in an authentic piece of western history. If you’d like to stay there, please visit their website at: http://www.historicwesternhotel.com/home.html.
I ate a breakfast of chocolate glazed donuts and orange juice and walked around town, taking photos while waiting for my jeep tour. It’s a beautiful location, and the town lives up to its nickname as the Switzerland of the West (although it has some competition from Midway, Utah for the same title). Our jeep tour actually began with a tour and brief history of the Western Hotel. Owner Gregg Pieper led our tour of the ballroom and saloon bar, telling some of the colorful stories associated with the hotel, which was built in 1891.
Into the San Juans by Jeep:
Our jeep tour began at 8:30. There were several groups taking different routes, some up over Imogene Pass, others taking different canyons into the high San Juans. Gregg drove our jeep up Canyon Creek to the southwest of Ouray. The morning sun was just topping the mountains to the east, and the road remained quite good all the way to the Camp Bird Mine, where one branch continues up left to Imogene Pass and the other heads higher up the main canyon toward the ghost town of Sneffels and the Yankee Boy Mine, our destination.
In 1893 the good times in Ouray ended when the Silver Panic hit, the price fell out of the market, and many of the mines closed. Yet some, with enough gold in them, were able to stay open. One man who decided to stay and ride out the bad times was Thomas F. Walsh. An Irish immigrant from Tipperary, Ireland, Walsh worked his way up from being a carpenter to selling supplies to miners in the Dakotas during the gold rush there. Along the way, he learned a bit about gold mining, married a beautiful schoolteacher from Leadville, and moved his young family to Ouray. He had put together a modest fortune from his interests in the Dakotas and had built a smelter in Ironton. While looking for silaceous earth to use as a flux in his smelter, he examined some old tailings up Canyon Creek and saw they contained gold. Following the tailings to their source, he found a rich vein that had been overlooked by previous prospectors. He came home and told his daughter, Evalyn, “Daughter, I’ve struck it rich!”
The first miners at his claim were bothered by a bold mountain jay that stole their lunches. He was known as “the camp bird,” and the mine was named after him. It became one of the richest gold mines in the United States and propelled Thomas Walsh into fame and fortune. At one point, the mine and mill were producing $5000 of gold per day, a great amount in the 1890s. The miners at the Camp Bird Mine were treated well; their boarding house was more like a hotel, with excellent meals served on china. Walsh built a mansion for his family in Washington, D.C., which is now the Indonesian Embassy. He even bought the infamous Hope diamond from Cartier for Evalyn as a wedding present (of course, her family then became part of the Hope diamond curse).
The Camp Bird mine continued to produce into the 1950s and has been opened for exploratory mining occasionally since. There appears to be some activity going on around the site even now, since gold prices have gone so high. The mill was eventually dismantled and moved to Mongolia.
Further up the canyon we came to the ghost town of Sneffels, once containing about 200 people. Not much remains except the hotel and a few shacks, as the historical structures have been mostly demolished by further development and the harsh climate. The town and a nearby mountain were named for a character in Jules Verne’s book Around the World in 80 Days. Just beyond Sneffels are the ruins of a large stamp mill that pulverized and concentrated the silver and gold ore.
Our route became more steep and precarious, with the road carved out of the cliff face and sheer drops on our left side. Gregg stopped to tell us stories from time to time, and at one point the cliff actually overhung the road. We stopped for several minutes to make sure no one was coming down as one can’t see beyond the overhand and meeting a car under it would not be a good idea. Eventually the deep gorge opened up again into a glacial cirque where the Yankee Boy Mine was located. Not many structures remain, only the stains of old tailings piles and a few low-grade outcroppings. But there were many wildflowers and twin waterfalls and gorgeous scenery all around. From here we could see the St. Sophia Ridge, a jagged series of tooth-like pinnacles separating Yankee Boy Basin from Telluride. We were only a few miles from Telluride as the crow flies (although I doubt one could fly over that ridge).
We got out and explored for about 30 minutes, then met the jeep further down the road and bounced our way back to Ouray. I had tried a number of things with my camera gear, including attaching a Flip camera with my gripping tripod onto the frame of the jeep as we drove around Telluride. I finally decided holding it in my hand was easier and smoother.
I talked with Gregg for a while at the hotel front desk. He was nervous about all the video taping I had done, thinking I might be working for one of the competing jeep tours, but when I assured him this was for education and for my students, he opened up more. I laid down in my room for a hour or so to rest my spine and charge up my equipment again. It had been an unforgettable tour of the San Juan Mountains.