Otto Mears (1840–1931) was a Colorado businessman who played a key role in the removal of the Nuche (Ute) people and is best known for building more than 450 miles of toll roads and railroads on the Utes’ former lands in the southern and southwestern parts of the state. Called the “Pathfinder of the San Juan,” Mears established the routes that became the basis for much of the region’s highway system, including the famed “Million Dollar Highway” between Ouray and Silverton. His roads facilitated the development of the San Juan mining region by enabling cheaper and quicker transportation of people and ores.
Otto Mears was born in Kurland, Russia, on May 3, 1840, to an English father and a Russian mother. His parents were both Jewish, but otherwise little is known about them. They died when he was young, and he bounced from relative to relative until the early 1850s, when he wound up in San Francisco in search of an uncle who lived there. Arriving at the height of the California Gold Rush, the young Mears tried his hand as a prospector, a tinsmith, a merchant, and a speculator in mining stocks.
In 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War, Mears joined the First Regiment of California Volunteers. He served with the regiment at Fort Craig, New Mexico, where the soldiers were responsible for patrolling the Texas–New Mexico border after the Union victory at the Battle of Glorieta Pass. Along with the rest of his regiment, Mears also participated in the army’s campaign against the Navajo, which was led by Kit Carson in 1863–64.
Coming to Colorado
After mustering out of the Army on August 31, 1864, Mears became a merchant in Santa Fé. A year later he moved to Conejos in the San Luis Valley, where he had a store, a gristmill, and a sawmill. He moved again a year later, this time starting a farm, a mill, and a store at the site of present-day Saguache, which Mears helped to establish and develop in the late 1860s.
Since his year in Conejos, Mears had been selling lumber and wheat to the army outpost at Fort Garland. When the price of flour dropped in the late 1860s, he looked north for new markets in the mining camps of the upper Arkansas valley. To get there from the San Luis Valley, however, required traveling over Poncha Pass on a rough path. Mears improved the path to a wagon road, made a tidy profit on his flour, and proceeded to partner with an Arkansas Valley mill owner named Charles Nachtrieb to start the Poncha Pass Wagon Road Company in November 1870. The company’s toll road, which ran north from Poncha Pass to Nachtrieb’s mill in Nathrop and beyond, formed the first easily accessible connection between the San Luis Valley and the Arkansas Valley.
As the Poncha Pass company started its operations in November 1870, Mears felt financially secure enough to marry Mary Kampfshulte, a young German immigrant whom he had met in the Arkansas Valley town of Granite. The couple had four children, only two of whom—Laura May, born in 1872, and Cora, born in 1879—survived infancy.
Clearing Paths in the San Juans
The Poncha Pass road marked the start of Mears’s extensive road empire. He soon turned west to the San Juan Mountains, where he played a key role in both clearing the region for white settlement and clearing paths along which those immigrants could travel. Since Mears had arrived in Colorado, he had been developing ties with the Ute Indians, who had lived in the region for more than 400 years. Already in the 1860s, he became the tribe’s official trader, with a government contract to supply food to the Utes at the Los Piños Indian Agency. He also learned to speak Ute—one of the few white men to do so—and became friends with Ouray, the Tabeguache leader who often negotiated treaties with the US government. As a result of these close ties, Felix Brunot consulted Mears during the negotiation of the Brunot Agreement in 1873. By suggesting that Brunot promise Ouray an annual salary of $1,000 for ten years, Mears helped smooth the way for the Ute cession of the San Juan Mountains.
Like most men of his time and station, Mears saw no clear line between his business interests and his government service. As Ute territory became more restricted, the Indians became more reliant on the government for their survival, and Mears was happy to snatch up government contracts to provide them with trade goods. He was also happy to build and profit from the infrastructure that made white settlement possible on former Ute land. In 1873, the same year he greased the wheels for the Brunot Agreement, Mears acquired an interest in the Saguache and San Juan Toll Road Company, which was building a route from Saguache to Lake City via Cochetopa Pass. By August 1874, Mears had taken control of the company and completed the road.
As he expanded his growing toll road empire, Mears followed the market to new mining camps in need of better transportation. When necessary, he also took time away from his businesses to secure a stable environment for economic growth. Most notably, he secured Ute support for the treaty that removed the Utes to a smaller reservation. With the treaty on its way to ratification, Mears worked to ensure that the new Ute reservation would be located in Utah, not in western Colorado’s potentially fertile Grand River Valley, which he already envisioned as an agricultural paradise full of white farmers who would pay to use his roads.
In his work with the Utes, Mears did what he thought was necessary to avert a war that could have resulted in the annihilation of the Utes. But he also did what was best for his own bottom line. In the years after the Meeker Incident, he earned a small fortune in toll fees from soldiers traveling his roads, helped open vast new regions in western Colorado to white settlement, and secured the contracts to build and supply the Utes’ new reservation in Utah.
Over the next five years, Mears worked tirelessly to expand his San Juan road network to about 450 miles. The most significant of these projects were the roads he built to the Red Mountain mining district between Ouray and Silverton, which boomed after the discovery of the Yankee Girl mine in 1882. First, Ouray County asked Mears in 1883 to construct a toll road south from town up Uncompahgre Canyon. He completed the road to Red Mountain in September 1883, at a cost of almost $10,000 per mile. The new road worried residents of Silverton, who feared that all Red Mountain ores would now flow through Ouray. They, too, hired Mears to build from their town to Red Mountain. Construction on the Silverton–Red Mountain Toll Road started in July 1884 and was completed that November, linking Silverton not only to Red Mountain but also on to Ouray via Mears’s earlier road.
Mears’s work on Ute removal also gained him the publicity to launch his own bid for public office. Starting in the 1870s, he had already become a de facto Republican Party boss for the San Luis Valley and southwest Colorado. He served as a state presidential elector in 1876 and engineered the nomination of Frederick Pitkin for governor in 1878. After his work on Ute removal, he ran for office himself, serving a single term in the state legislature in 1883. His brief political experience was enough to convince him that he preferred to focus on making money and then using it to influence politics. Over the next few decades, Mears’s main official political role was as a member of the Board of Capitol Managers, to which he was appointed in 1889. Mears helped speed completion of a new state capitol, whose construction had dragged on for years, and he characteristically ensured that a stained-glass portrait of himself would adorn the building’s second floor. Today Mears is often remembered for his suggestion that the capitol dome be covered in gold leaf as a symbol of the state’s mining heritage.
Building toll roads eventually drew Mears into railroad development. After connecting Silverton to the mines at Red Mountain, he started the Mears Transportation Company to carry ore along the route. His company soon became the largest freighting firm in Colorado, but at the same time he saw firsthand that slow wagons could not keep up with the mines’ production. To enable faster and cheaper transportation to the Red Mountain mines, he decided in 1887 to replace his toll road with a railroad. When the Silverton Railroad was completed to Red Mountain in 1889, it was a triumph of engineering, maintaining a grade of less than 5 percent thanks to two loops and four switchbacks along the route. Red Mountain mines boomed because cheaper railroad transportation allowed them to ship lower-grade ores at a profit. Silverton boomed, too, as a supply center for Red Mountain, as did Durango as a source of coal and a smelting center.
Enjoying the profits and stature that went along with being a nineteenth-century railroad president, Mears dreamt up grander rail projects that had the potential to make him a national figure. The first step was the Rio Grande Southern (RGS), which Mears incorporated in 1889. His goal with the line was to bridge a gap in Denver & Rio Grande (D&RG) service between the northern and southern San Juans. With heavy investment from the D&RG, Mears established the new railroad town of Ridgway in 1890 and laid track from there to Telluride by the end of the year. In 1891 he continued the line southwest past Ophir, where he had to negotiate a treacherous passage from valley floor to canyon walls, and on through Rico, Dolores, and Hesperus to reach Durango on December 20. On the other side of the state, the Rocky Mountain News described the completion of the Rio Grande Southern as “the most important railroad event of the year.”
In the early 1890s, Mears used the record profits from the Rio Grande Southern to support his ambitious plans. In a bid to become a national railroad baron, he proposed extending the Rio Grande Southern to Phoenix and on to the Pacific Coast. But before he could set that plan in motion, larger economic forces intervened; the combined hit of the Panic of 1893 and the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act later that year caused economic chaos throughout Colorado. Not only did many mines close, drastically reducing revenues for Mears’s railroads, but so did the bank where he kept his money, making his suddenly precarious financial position even more difficult. Luckily for Mears, the Silverton Railroad continued to prosper because it shipped plenty of copper, but in 1895 he was forced to sell the Rio Grande Southern to the Denver & Rio Grande. Convinced that silver (and the San Juans) would rebound, he invested the money from the sale into a new railroad, the Silverton Northern, which he had completed along the Animas River from Silverton to Eureka by June 1896.
William Jennings Bryan’s defeat in the 1896 presidential election signaled that the silver market would not recover anytime soon, so Mears left Colorado to try to recoup his fortune. He built railroads in Maryland (with fellow Coloradan David Moffat) and Louisiana, but in 1905 he decided to return to Colorado when the Louisiana railroad failed to secure a right-of-way into New Orleans.
Mears had remained involved in his Colorado business and political interests during his decade away. In 1902 his Silverton Northern line to Eureka had started to show a profit, so in 1903 he decided to extend the track to Animas Forks. When he returned to Colorado a few years later, he hoped to continue expanding his San Juan rail network to forge direct connections between Silverton, Ouray, and Lake City. But it was not to be; the treacherous mountain terrain made construction difficult and expensive, and adequate funding was not forthcoming.
Later Years and Legacy
After his planned railroad extensions around Silverton fizzled, Mears shifted in the 1910s to a focus on mining investments in the San Juans. His shrewd investments in the Iowa Tiger, Gold King, and Mayflower mines, as well as in flotation mills to process low-grade ores, soon made him a millionaire again after his setbacks in the 1890s and 1900s.
With his wife Mary in ill health, however, Mears was starting to spend more time in the milder climate of Pasadena, California, where the couple often wintered. After World War I, with Mary’s health on edge and metals markets in a tailspin, Mears decided to retire to Pasadena. He sold his Silverton house in 1919, resigned from the Board of Capitol Managers in 1920, and terminated his mining leases in 1920. He retained ownership of his railroads in San Juan County, but they fared poorly as San Juan mining declined. In 1922 Mears shut down the Silverton Railroad, and the Silverton, Gladstone & Northerly ended regular service a year later. The Silverton Northern continued to turn a profit through the 1920s but operated intermittently after 1931; its rails were removed in 1942. By that time Mears, too, was gone, having died in Pasadena on June 24, 1931, at the age of ninety-one.
Mears dreamed of becoming a major railroad baron, but today the railroads he built—the Rio Grande Southern, the Silverton, and the Silverton Northern—have all disappeared. Yet his legacy is readily apparent on every map of the San Juan Mountains, where he facilitated Ute removal from the region and then opened access for white settlers to what was left behind. In the late nineteenth century, his toll road network made it faster and easier to transport miners, supplies, and metals, allowing the area’s mining towns to prosper. A generation later, his well-built wagon roads were converted for automobile use, providing the basic blueprint for the highway system that knits together the San Juans today.