The Animas Canyon Toll Road was built in 1876–78 to connect the mining town of Silverton to the coal beds and agricultural produce of the Animas Valley near what is now Durango. The roughly thirty-mile wagon road operated for about five years before it was overtaken by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway line through the Animas Canyon (now the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad) in 1881–82. The road was largely destroyed by the railroad, which used the road’s right-of-way, as well as by the creation of Electra Lake in the early twentieth century. In 2017 four miles of surviving road segments in the San Juan National Forest were listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A Southern Route to Silverton
Significant mining activity in the remote San Juan Mountains started in the early 1870s, especially after the Brunot Agreement removed the Ute Indians in 1873. By that time, mining towns were already taking shape all along the upper Animas River. After 1874 Silverton quickly developed into the region’s political, economic, and social capital. The main problem was that Silverton and all the other San Juan mining camps were isolated from the rest of the world, their development hampered by the extreme difficulty and expense of transportation to and from the area.
Starting in 1872, the best route to the San Juans was a rough road that connected the upper Animas River mining camps to Del Norte via Stony Pass. But Silverton residents yearned for a southern route out of the mountains that would give them better access to the Animas Valley’s agriculture and coal. Before 1876 a couple of trails headed south from Silverton in that direction, but they were not suitable for wagon travel because they used steep grades to cross the flank of Sultan Mountain. Starting in 1873, several different companies tried to establish a southern route to Silverton, but they built nothing.
The company that finally forged a southern route from Silverton was the Animas Canyon Toll Road Company, which formed in July 1876. Headed by James Wightman, the company invested about $23,000 to build a road south through the Animas Canyon to the new town of Animas City. Wightman’s team started construction on October 15, 1876, and worked quickly, completing somewhere between eight and fifteen miles of road south from Silverton before winter set in. In the spring, two crews worked from each end toward the center. By August 1877 the road was close enough to completion for traffic to start using it, and by the summer of 1878 it was fully finished.
Traveling Along the Animas River
The Animas Canyon Toll Road was in operation from 1877 to 1882. The Stony Pass Road to Del Norte remained the main route to the San Juans during these years—it was much shorter—but the Animas Canyon road had enough traffic to give rise to several settlements and rest stops along the way. Starting in 1880, Fred Steineger ran a daily mail and stage route along the road, charging six dollars one way. At the beginning and end of the summer season, when travel to and from Silverton was at its peak, Steineger could make up to $100 per day.
Heading south from Silverton, the road crossed Mineral Creek before entering the Animas Canyon and quickly crossing to the east side of the Animas River. The toll house at this end of the road stood just south of the bridge. From there, the road remained on the east side of the river until it reached Elk Park, where the canyon widened slightly about seven and a half miles south of Silverton. The road crossed back to the west side of the river, where it stayed until it left the canyon about thirteen miles later at Cascade Creek to avoid the canyon’s narrowest and most treacherous section. A series of switchbacks brought the road up Cascade Hill to Little Cascade Creek, where the road cut through a notch between Papose and Aspaas Lakes.
The top of Cascade Hill was the site of one of the road’s most important and longest-lived stops. In 1874 Sam Smith had built a one-and-a-half story log house there, and it quickly developed into a station where travelers could sleep, rest their horses, and get a meal. In 1880 Smith leased his station to a Swiss couple, Theodore and Lusette Schoch. In April 1881, however, they moved to Needleton, down in the Animas Canyon, and started a post office there. Needleton soon became the main settlement in the central portion of the Animas Canyon.
From Cascade Hill the toll road turned south (through what is now Electra Lake) toward Elbert Creek, which it followed until rejoining the Animas River. By July 1878 settlers in the area had established a small community called Rockwood. Road owner James Wightman moved there to live with his daughter and son-in-law and to have easy access to the road’s southern toll house, which stood not far south at Bakers Bridge. From there, the broad Animas Valley allowed easy access to Animas City.
Replaced by the Railroad
The Animas Canyon Toll Road marked an important advance in Silverton’s transportation history by providing a route that offered relatively reliable access throughout the year. But Wightman also recognized that his route had even greater potential as a railroad line to Silverton. In October 1878, Wightman organized the Baker’s Park & Lower Animas Railroad Company to pursue that goal, but it never laid any track.
Instead, in late 1879 Wightman sold the Animas Canyon Toll Road to William Jackson Palmer’s Denver & Rio Grande Railway (D&RG). Soon the D&RG started to build west from the San Luis Valley, forging a route through northern New Mexico to the Animas Valley. In 1880 the railroad established its own town, called Durango, just south of Animas City, and the first trains arrived there in July 1881. During this period the toll road remained in operation, with the D&RG probably leasing it to someone (perhaps Wightman) for toll collections and maintenance.
In August 1881, railroad workers started building north from Durango. The rail route departed from the toll road at Rockwood, where it entered the Animas Canyon early and forged a path along the canyon’s narrow stone walls to avoid the steep grades of the toll road’s Cascade Hill section. After Cascade Creek, the railroad largely followed the path already blazed by the toll road. The first train reached Silverton in July 1882 and immediately transformed the region by improving transportation, decreasing the cost of living, attracting new investments, and making large-scale mining profitable.
The railroad made the stage stations along the toll road obsolete. The only permanent settlement that survived in the Animas Canyon was Needleton, which Theodore Schoch and his wife had established in 1881. Needleton became a water stop for the railroad, and it also developed into a small supply depot for mines in the nearby Needle Mountains. In fact, in 1896 the Cascade Hill section of the Animas Canyon Toll Road was revived as part of a new wagon road to Needleton, but activity in the area eventually dried up and the Needleton post office closed in 1910.
Since the start of the D&RG line to Silverton in 1882, most of the Animas Canyon Toll Road has disappeared. Construction of the railroad claimed the roadbed from Silverton to Cascade Creek. Three more miles of road were lost in 1904, when Electra Lake was created as a storage reservoir for the Tacoma Power Plant. Much later, in the 1980s, the construction of a residential development and golf course near Rockwood destroyed some of the southernmost sections of the toll road.
More residential development claimed another old toll road segment in 2010, spurring efforts to preserve the few surviving parts of the road. In 2012–13 Alpine Archaeological Consultants conducted a detailed inventory of the toll road’s remaining cultural resources, and in 2014 the Forest Service stabilized part of the road’s original retaining wall near Cascade Creek. Today about four miles of the toll road still exist in sixteen short segments, primarily along Cascade Hill and just south of Electra Lake, including a one-and-a-half-mile segment now used as a hiking trail. In 2017 the surviving segments of the Animas Canyon Toll Road were listed on the National Register of Historic Places.