Silverton is a historic mining town established in 1874 in Baker’s Park in the heart of the San Juan Mountains. After the Denver & Rio Grande Railway (now the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad) reached the town in 1882, the surrounding region experienced a mining boom that lasted until the 1910s. After World War II, tourism took hold as people visited the town for its scenery and history. Named a National Historic Landmark in 1961, Silverton now has a population of about 600 people and is the only incorporated town in San Juan County.
Before white settlers started to arrive in the San Juan Mountains in the 1860s and 1870s, the region was occupied by Tabeguache and Weeminuche Utes. In the 1700s, Spanish explorers and miners occasionally ventured north from New Mexico into the rugged San Juans, leaving behind some evidence of mining and a host of Spanish place names. Fur trappers and traders started to pass through the region in the early nineteenth century. Many of them—including mountain man and Army officer Kit Carson—claimed that the San Juans were full of gold and silver.
The Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59 brought thousands of prospectors to the Front Range. Rumors of the San Juans’ mineral wealth abounded, but they were not firm enough to inspire many people to make the long journey from Denver. One who did make the trip was Charles Baker, who led a small party to the Animas River in August 1860. Baker discovered gold in a flat valley where Cement Creek and Mineral Creek joined the Animas at an elevation of about 9,300 feet. News of the discovery reached the Rocky Mountain News in October. Baker built a toll road up the Animas River from New Mexico, established a small supply town called Animas City at the base of the mountains, and waited for prospectors to rush to Baker’s Park, as the site became known.
Several hundred people, perhaps as many as 1,000, came to Baker’s Park in 1861. They quickly found that the area did not have as much gold as advertised. Moreover, they faced hostile Utes, a harsh climate, high elevation, and a remote location. By fall they all left the mountains complaining of the “San Juan Humbug.” Lingering memories of that disappointment and four years of Civil War kept other prospectors from trying their luck until the end of the decade.
By the time prospectors started to return to the San Juans, the Treaty of 1868 had officially established the area as Ute land. This did little to stop whites attracted by the mountains’ reputed mineral wealth. They explored the area in violation of the treaty, and by the early 1870s, they made their way back to Baker’s Park and the upper Animas River valley. This activity led to the 1873 Brunot Agreement, which forced the Utes out of the area and officially opened the San Juans to white mining and settlement.
Waiting for the Railroad
By the end of 1873, after the Brunot Agreement made claims and titles more secure, more than 4,000 claims were recorded in the mountains and valleys around Baker’s Park. Unlike the earlier claims, which had been made on easily accessible deposits of placer gold, these claims were for gold and silver locked in the rocks below the mountains.
Mining towns began to take shape throughout the region, such as Animas Forks, Eureka, and Howardsville along the upper Animas River. By 1874 Howardsville had a post office and claimed the La Plata County seat.
Compared to some other mining camps in the area, Silverton got a relatively late start. The town took shape in Baker’s Park, where Francis Marion Snowden built the first log cabin in 1874. Silverton was officially organized that September and quickly became the preeminent town in the district. That fall it won an election to steal the county seat from Howardsville, and it also worked to attract vital new businesses such as a sawmill and a smelter. Its central location at the confluence of several streams made it a natural supply center for outlying mining camps, and it soon developed into the political, economic, and social capital of a large section of the San Juans.
The main problem for people in Silverton and the surrounding mining camps was that it was a long and treacherous journey—at best—to the outside world. As with other mining districts throughout Colorado, the San Juans could not really be tapped until a railroad arrived to make the transportation of heavy ores relatively cheap and fast. In 1874, the district produced less than $15,000. Because of its remote location, as well as the economic depression that settled over the country for several years after the Panic of 1873, Silverton had to wait nearly a decade before the Denver & Rio Grande Railway finally worked its way north into town along the Animas River.
In the meantime, San Juan County was created in 1876, and Silverton grew to a town of about 1,000 people by 1880. In contrast to other towns in the region, which tended to develop around a single main street in a narrow valley, Silverton had the space to build out a traditional street grid. Its first newspaper—the La Plata Miner—started in 1875, and Congregationalists built the town’s first church in 1878. In its early years, Silverton was reached primarily by a difficult route over Stony Pass after ascending the Rio Grande from Del Norte, but in 1877 a new route was forged south along the Animas River.
In September 1880, William Jackson Palmer’s Denver & Rio Grande Railway established Durango, and tracks reached the new town in July 1881. Almost immediately, workers started on the final forty-five-mile stretch to Silverton, using parts of the Animas River wagon road for the railroad’s route. The first train reached Silverton on July 8, 1882. Passenger service started on July 11, and trains hauled their first ore on July 13. The railroad opened a new era in San Juan County by improving transportation, decreasing the cost of living, attracting new investments, and making large-scale mining profitable.
The arrival of the railroad marked the start of an extended mining boom in Silverton and the rest of San Juan County. The district’s production was only $97,000 the year the railroad arrived, but it more than quadrupled to $400,000 the next year. Silverton’s population soon doubled to 2,000. By 1885 the district’s production reached $1 million per year, and in the 1890s, it hit more than $2 million. From 1882 to 1918, the San Juan mining district produced more than $65 million in ores.
Gold had first attracted attention to the San Juans in the 1860s and 1870s, but in the 1880s and early 1890s, the district rode the wave of silver that was also lifting towns such as Leadville and Aspen. When the Panic of 1893 knocked out silver mining across Colorado, the Silverton area suffered as well. Unlike many other mining districts in Colorado however, it was able to recover and even increase production thanks to its deep reserves of gold and other minerals.
The town became the transportation hub of the region, with three short narrow gauge lines branching up river valleys to connect outlying mines to the Denver & Rio Grande at Silverton. In 1888–89, Otto Mears built the Silverton Railroad north up Mineral Creek to Red Mountain. Ten years later, the Gold King Consolidated Mines Company built the Silverton, Gladstone & Northerly up Cement Creek to the Gold King Mine. Starting in the 1880s, the Silverton Northern inched up the Animas River until it reached Animas Forks in 1904.
From Mining to Tourism
Silverton’s long mining boom ended in the 1910s. Perhaps the clearest sign of a shift was the organization of the Silverton Commercial Club in 1913 to promote recreation and tourism in the region. Mining still continued in the area for most of the twentieth century, but after 1920 it was clearly in decline rather than on the rise. The narrow gauge lines branching out from Silverton began to consolidate and close, with all three gone by 1941. Outlying mining camps gradually emptied, leaving Silverton as the only town in the county.
One of the most important new mining operations during these years was the Shenandoah-Dives Mining Company, which operated mines and a mill northeast of town along the Animas River. Starting in 1925, general manager Charles A. Chase guided the company in acquiring and consolidating old mines and claims, and in 1929 he built a new mill to process the ores. The company originally intended to produce gold and silver, but base metals such as copper, lead, and zinc helped it survive during the Great Depression and World War II. Demand for metals stopped after World War II, and the Shenandoah-Dives Mining Company shut down operations in 1953. The area’s mining production dropped to its lowest level since 1882, and the town’s population dropped below 1,000. The mill changed hands but continued to operate most years until the early 1990s.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Hollywood studios used the Durango–Silverton railroad to film Westerns such as Across the Wide Missouri (1951). Passenger traffic started to increase as tourists were drawn to the line’s history and scenery. Passengers tripled from 12,000 in 1953 to 37,000 in 1962. In the mid-1960s the railroad started courting tourists more actively. The train started pulling straight into Silverton instead of backing in, and the rails were extended to Blair Street to deliver tourists directly into town. By the late 1970s, the line carried more than 120,000 passengers per year.
As mining declined and tourism increased, Silverton’s history became one of its most valuable resources. In 1961 Silverton and the Durango–Silverton narrow gauge line were named National Historic Landmarks, and in 1964 the San Juan County Historical Society was established.
In 1991 the Sunnyside Mine closed for good, marking the end of major mining operations around Silverton. Tourism became Silverton’s main industry. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (as the line was renamed in 1981), became just as vital to the town’s success as it had been a century before—only now it brought in tourists instead of hauling away ores.
Visitors were attracted to Silverton by its history and its natural environment. The San Juan County Historical Society became a leader in preserving and promoting Silverton’s many historic sites. In 1996 Sunnyside Gold donated the Shenandoah-Dives Mill to the historical society, which reopened it as a museum. In 2000, it was named a National Historic Landmark. In 2009, the historical society took over the Silverton Standard & the Miner to secure the future of the oldest continuously published newspaper on the Western Slope. The historical society also operates the Mining Heritage Center and the 1902 County Jail Museum in Silverton. It hopes to reconstruct the Silverton Northern Railroad for tourist trips to Howardsville.
The Silverton area’s mining history continues to affect its natural environment. Old mines in the region experience acid mine drainage, in which a yellow-orange slurry of toxic metals flows into nearby water sources. In August 2015, the problem received widespread attention when Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) workers at the Gold King Mine accidentally released 3 million gallons of contaminated wastewater that turned the Animas River mustard yellow as it flowed south to Durango and beyond. The incident spurred local officials to reverse traditional opposition to federal help and request EPA Superfund site designation to help clean up the area’s abandoned mines. In September 2016, the EPA placed the Gold King Mine and forty-seven other nearby mining sites on its National Priorities List for Superfund cleanup.
Despite the scars that mining has left on the landscape, the stunning natural beauty and ample recreation opportunities near Silverton continue to draw tourists and outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy driving, four-wheeling, cycling, hiking, kayaking, and skiing. Soon after the closure of the Sunnyside Mine, mountain runners in the region organized the Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run as a celebration of the area’s mining history. Starting and finishing in Silverton, the 100-mile run takes place annually in July and is widely regarded as one of the toughest and most scenic ultramarathons in the world.