San Miguel County covers 1,289 square miles in southwest Colorado. Named for the river that flows northwest across its eastern flank, the county is bordered to the north by Montrose County, to the east by Ouray County, to the southeast by San Juan County, to the south by Dolores County, and to the west by San Juan County, Utah.
The county was established in 1883 and currently has a population of 7,840. Telluride, the county seat, is located in the San Juan Mountains to the east and has a population of 2,319. Founded as a mining town in 1878, Telluride today is a popular ski destination and is famous for its eclectic culture and annual arts events, including the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival and the Telluride Film Festival.
The San Miguel River, named in Spanish for Saint Michael, begins in the mountains above Telluride near the mining area of Pandora; it then flows past the county seat and runs northwest through the small towns of Sawpit and Placerville before continuing into Montrose County. State Highway 145 runs along the river during the latter stretch, joining State Highway 62 at Placerville. The Dolores River flows northward across the county's sparsely populated western flank, crossing State Highway 141 at the unincorporated community of Slick Rock.
By 1500 southwest Colorado was occupied by multiple Ute bands, predominantly the Weenuche, or “long time ago people.” The Utes lived off the natural wealth of Colorado’s mountains and river valleys, hunting elk, deer, jackrabbit, and other game. They also gathered a wide assortment of wild berries and roots, including the versatile yucca root. In the summer, they followed game high into the San Juan Mountains, and in the winter they followed the animals back to the shelter of the lower river valleys, including the San Miguel.
By the early seventeenth century, the northern frontier of New Spain began to encroach on lands belonging to the Weenuche and other Utes in southwestern Colorado. The Utes’ relationship with the Spaniards was one of alternate raiding and trading.
Official Spanish exploration of the San Miguel County area would not come until the expedition of Juan Rivera in 1765. Rivera’s mission was to have Utes lead him to a crossing of the Colorado River and investigate rumors of silver deposits in the mountains.
Rivera and his expedition carved out a route for future traders and explorers, such as the friars Silvestre Vélez de Escalante and Francisco Atanasio Dominguez. In July 1776, the padres were dispatched to find an overland passage from Santa Fé to Monterey, California. After following Rivera’s old route through present-day Archuleta, La Plata, Montezuma, Dolores, and San Miguel counties, a punishing October blizzard in Utah forced them to head back to Santa Fé.
The Spanish era of San Miguel County’s history ended when Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821. The area came under American control in 1848 after the Mexican-American War.
One of the first white Americans to visit the San Miguel County area was Captain John Macomb, who led an expedition in 1859 to look for a plausible railroad route through southwest Colorado. Macomb’s party quickly found that the San Juan Mountains were virtually impassable, and neither a railroad route nor a permanent settlement seemed feasible.
The next year, however, a prospecting party led by Charles Baker found gold near present-day Silverton, and the mineral riches of the San Juan Mountains became known to white Americans in the young settlements of the Front Range. Baker’s find turned out to be just the tip of a metallic iceberg in the San Juans. The small deposit of surface gold he found was panned out in a year, but when prospectors returned in the early 1870s, they found rich seams of gold and silver within the mountains.
Among these early prospectors was a group led by Linnard Remine that reached the San Miguel Valley in 1872. They were likely the first white Americans to explore the area near present-day Telluride. Remine built a cabin—illegally, as he was on Ute lands—and his group panned gold worth about $15 per day from the San Miguel River. Richer strikes were made to the southeast, in present-day San Juan County.
The discovery of large amounts of gold and silver in the San Juan Mountains prompted calls for the US government to remove the Utes, who in 1868 had agreed to live on a reservation that encompassed almost the entire western third of Colorado. In 1873, to the protest of many Utes living on the reservation, the Ute leader Ouray negotiated the Brunot Agreement, which ceded 3.5 million acres of the San Juan Mountains to the United States in exchange for annual payments of $25,000. Most of the payments were to be made in supplies, but they rarely came; and when wagon trains did arrive, the goods were often spoiled.
After the Brunot Agreement, the San Miguel County area was part of the larger La Plata County. The settlement of San Miguel, later renamed San Miguel City, became the hub for miners in what would soon become San Miguel County. Surrounded by the soaring peaks of the San Juans, the town was located in a box canyon only a few miles away from the area’s most productive mines. As other rich mining areas developed across the San Juans, the Colorado government began creating new counties; San Miguel County was carved from the western portion of Ouray County on March 2, 1883.
On the heels of the Utes’ retreat from the San Juans came thousands of miners. The first placer mining claim along the San Miguel River was placed on August 23, 1875. In October the prospector John Fallon staked out five claims in Marshall Basin, northeast of Telluride, including the rich Sheridan Mine. By that summer, more than 300 men worked claims along the San Miguel River. In 1876 the Pandora Mine was founded to the east of present-day Telluride, forming the base of the small mill town of Pandora. That year, J. B. Ingram also established the Smuggler Mine, which claimed a surplus part of the Sheridan.
When easily panned deposits of gold in streams and rivers became depleted, miners turned to hydraulic mining, which involved blasting away gravel from hillsides with high-pressure water cannons. Gold-containing gravel would tumble down into a sluice, where the gold was separated. Hydraulic mining began in San Miguel County in 1877, with the most prominent example being the operation on Keystone Hill, about three miles west of Telluride. Because it has been shown to increase erosion, contribute to flooding, and clog waterways with sediment, hydraulic mining is no longer practiced.
Before 1882, mine production in the San Miguel County area sat below $50,000 per year. The relatively low total was mostly due to the lack of railroads in the region, which made shipping ore across the rugged mountains expensive and impractical. Nonetheless, there were enough gold and silver veins to keep everyone in the area clothed, fed, and busy.
By 1887 area mines were producing nearly $1 million in gold each year. On November 23, 1891, the Rio Grande Southern Railroad arrived from Ridgway, driving down the cost of shipping San Miguel ore to Durango smelters and pushing up the annual value of county gold to $1.4 million by 1895.
The rich mines brought significant development and wealth to San Miguel County, but the miners paid a hefty price. Most worked ten- to twelve-hour shifts for around $2 per day, braving cave-ins, falls, explosions, sickening air, and other hazards. Many became indebted to company stores, outfits where miners had to purchase necessary goods from the company. Miners also had to pay the company for room and board, adding to their debt.
Although most were uneducated, miners were acutely aware of their unjust working situation. Many joined unions such as the Western Federation of Miners and the United Mineworkers of America. Union miners lobbied for better pay, shorter workdays, and safer working conditions. During an era marked by nationwide disputes between capital and labor, violent strikes rocked San Miguel County in 1901 and 1903–4.
During the 1903–4 strike, the Colorado National Guard was brought to Telluride on behalf of mine owners and citizens. As the town grew increasingly polarized, vigilante groups such as the pro-company Citizens’ Alliance confronted union members and sympathizers. Anti-union Governor James Peabody appointed Bulkeley Wells, manager of the Smuggler-Union Mine, as a National Guard captain. Wells declared martial law and illegally deported miners to neighboring Ouray County. To keep the deportees out, Wells built a machine gun nest atop Imogene Pass, the only way into San Miguel County from the east.
By 1905 the combination of the mine owners’ wealth, an anti-union governor, and an aggressive National Guard captain proved too much for the unions to overcome, and the strike was broken. Miners went back to work for the same pay and in the same conditions.
By the 1920s, San Miguel County mines had produced more than $80 million in gold, silver, copper, lead, and zinc. But those metals were not the only valuable materials to be unearthed in the county. Carnotite, a radioactive ore, was found in western San Miguel County in 1898-99. In the late nineteenth century, European scientists discovered that carnotite contained vanadium, radium, and uranium—all of which had various applications in medicine, industry, and arms production.
San Miguel County's carnotite was located near the town of Slick Rock, and in the early twentieth century, both San Miguel and Montrose Counties became worldwide centers of radium mining. Between 1910 and 1922, demand for vanadium rose because it was used as an alloy for steel, and mining occurred near Placerville. In the 1940s, the federal Manhattan Project—the covert mission to develop atomic weaponry—used uranium from mines in San Miguel and Montrose Counties, the only domestic source for the element. The two counties continued to supply uranium for the nuclear power industry from the 1960s to about 1980, when prices collapsed and brought an end to radioactive mining in western Colorado.
The town of Telluride began as Columbia and incorporated two miles east of San Miguel City in 1878. Because it was located closer to the mines, it soon overshadowed San Miguel City. The story of how the town changed its name to Telluride remains murky, but the name, which is derived from the rare element tellurium, was officially adopted on June 4, 1887. In 1890 Telluride had a population of 766.
In a decade that saw the ruin of many other Colorado mining towns as a result of the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893, Telluride profited from rich gold veins. In 1891 Lucien Lucius Nunn solved a regional energy crisis by throwing the switch at his Ames Power Plant on the San Miguel River, the first station to deliver alternating-current power for commercial use. The power reached Telluride in 1894, providing lighting for streets, homes, and mines. By 1895 Telluride’s population had increased to almost 2,500. A brick schoolhouse went up during the decade, as did a number of banks and other businesses, including the first-class Sheridan Hotel. Hall’s Hospital was built in 1896 and operated until 1964. By the late 1890s, a series of tramways connected by heavy iron cable helped move people and materials between high-altitude mines and camps.
Placerville and Ophir
Telluride was by far the busiest area in San Miguel County during the late nineteenth century, but two smaller mining communities also began to develop after the county was established. By the mid-1880s, Placerville, a few miles downstream from Telluride, had a population of about 100. The town served as a way station for wagons belonging to the stagecoach magnate Dave Wood, whose routes linked Telluride and Montrose. Placerville moved about a mile south of its original location in the mid-1890s and continued as a small mining and cattle community.
About seven miles south of Telluride, in another box canyon, the small mining camp of Ophir had two stores, a hotel, a billiard hall, and a stamp mill by 1885. The camp also featured two arastras—ineffective Spanish devices for grinding ore. The Rio Grande Southern’s arrival in 1891 helped the community develop, and by the turn of the century it had more businesses, a newspaper, a school building, and several fraternal organizations.
Denizens of the San Miguel Valley had to deal with a multitude of natural disasters in the twentieth century. On February 28, 1902, deadly snowslides killed sixteen people at the bunkhouse of the Liberty Bell Mine. Torrential rains in September 1909 caused flooding that wiped out the railroad between Placerville and Ames. But the worst deluge of the era proved to be the Comet Creek flood in 1914, a surge of water, boulders, mud, and debris that ripped through downtown Telluride. The flood destroyed some fifteen blocks of the city and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage, but thanks to the quick action of residents, it killed only one person.
Recreation and Culture
The decline of mining in the mid-twentieth century led to a downturn in the San Miguel County economy, but it also opened the door for recreational and cultural activities. These activities, centered in Telluride, revived the local economy by turning the county into a popular tourist destination. In 1961 the town of Telluride was designated a National Historic Landmark on account of its importance to mining history in the United States. In 1966 the Telluride Historical Museum opened in the old Hall’s Hospital building.
In the late 1960s, Californian Joe Zoline saw the potential of a ski resort south of Telluride, and Telluride Ski Area opened in 1972 with five chairlifts and a day lodge. The resort’s ski lifts were extended from Mountain Village to Telluride in 1975. In 1978 Ron Allred and Jim Wells purchased the resort from Zoline. As part of their vision for expanding the resort, they founded the small town of Mountain Village, which incorporated in 1995 with a population of about 900. They also added a snowmaking system, summer and winter trails, and additional lifts that provided access to 180 acres of new terrain.
Meanwhile, the southeastern portion of San Miguel County is part of the Uncompahgre National Forest, which was established in 1905 and has long drawn tourists on account of its natural beauty. Among its many attractions are Bridal Veil Falls near Telluride, Trout Lake southwest of Ophir, and an array of mountain peaks between 12,000 and 14,000 feet above sea level.
As skiing and the surrounding natural areas brought more visitors to Telluride during the 1960s and 1970s, the town underwent a cultural renaissance as well. Telluride Arts was established in 1971 as the first regional nonprofit, and the Telluride Chamber Music Festival began in 1973. In 1974 American producer Tom Luddy, along with Bill and Stella Pence, James Card, and the Telluride Council for the Arts and Humanities, founded the Telluride Film Festival. The festival has since become one of the most popular of its kind, once prompting renowned film critic Roger Ebert to say that the festival was “like Cannes died and went to heaven.” The Telluride Bluegrass Festival, another iconic annual gathering, also began in 1974.
In 1994 the town added the Telluride Brewer’s Festival, later renamed the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival, to its long list of annual cultural events. Today, the festival, based in Telluride Town Park, attracts some 75,000 people.
Outdoor recreation and cultural events continue to drive the San Miguel County economy today. Jobs in arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, and food account for more than a quarter of the county’s employment. The Telluride Film Festival celebrated its fortieth anniversary on Labor Day weekend in 2013, and in 2015 SKI Magazine named Telluride Ski Resort the fourth-best ski resort in the nation.