J. Dawg Journeys

Pits to Playgrounds – Colorado’s Small Mining Towns

Elk Avenue Crested Butte

Crested Butte

Over the last two years in my RV travels, I’ve visited several of the small towns in Colorado’s Mountain and Western Slope areas. These areas are much different from the heavily populated Front Slope areas like Fort Collins, Denver, and Colorado Springs. The towns in the Mountains and Western Slope are small and many have dramatic scenic settings.  They also have some unique historical character.

Lots of folks like me visit the Colorado Mountains for the jaw dropping scenery and recreation.  But, many of the popular places in the Mountains, like Aspen, Breckenridge, Crested Butte, and Telluride all got their start from mining.  Towns like Aspen, Boulder, Carbondale, Crested Butte, Delores, Durango, Leadville, Ouray, Ridgway, Redstone, Silverton, and Salida where all mining towns long before they became playgrounds.  And it all started with the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush of 1859.

Many of the Mountain towns didn’t exist before 1860, but then gold was found near Pike’s Peak in 1859.  More of the yellow ore was found near present day Boulder, Leadville, Silverton, Telluride, and Ouray.  Mining spread like a virus.  Coal came next in 1859, then silver in 1877, and uranium in 1898. Lead, copper, and molybdenum were also mined. Here’s a diagram of the Colorado Mining District.

CO_Mineral_BeltThe railroads followed the mining as the means for transporting the ore out of the mountains. The Denver Pacific Railroad, The Denver and Rio Grande, the Rio Grand Southern, Rio Grand Western, and the Durango & Silverton were just a few the railroads running through the Colorado  Mountains.

Many of these were narrow gauge railroads, which where easier to build in the mountains and less costly to operate. Many of todays main roads in the Mountains, like Route 24 from Leadville, Route 50 to Gunnison, Route 160 to Durango, Route 550 (the Million Dollar Highway) and Route 145 to Telluride where first build as railroads.

The engineering to build these railroads was incredible. How they got the railroads over Marshall Pass and Lizard Head pass is almost unfathomable.  Otto Mears, an immigrant from Estonia, was responsible for building many of them.  Mears built the original roads that the railroads then used to go over Poncha Pass, Marshall Pass, and Red Mountain Pass.

Red Mountain Pass Toll Road

Original Red Mountain Pass Road built by Otto Mears (photo from Delores Railroad Museum)

In my travels to these towns, I visited several local museums, read historical placards, and talked with some locals. I picked up some interesting anecdotes, facts, and folklore along the way.  Some of it may be hearsay and/or legend, but it made for some interesting reading.  And it gave me some historical perspectives to some of the things I saw in the towns.

  • One of Colorado’s deadliest mining disasters happened in Crested Butte. In 1884, fire-damp ignited in the Jokerville coal mine explosion killing over 60 men and forcing the mine to close.  Before this accident, there was no formal reporting of mining fatalities.  After the Jokerville explosion, the Colorado legislature passed a law requiring companies to report all accidents (fatal and non-fatal).
  • Coal mining (and ranching) was the key industry in Crested Butte until the 1950’s when the last mine closed. By that time, the town had shrunk and schools had closed.  The area was rejuvenated when a ski resort was built in the 1960’s. The main street in Crested Butte (Elk Ave) was not paved until 1980. While still small with a population of just 1,500, Crested Butte is known as one of the best ski towns in the US.
Elk Ave Crested Butte

Elk Ave Crested Butte – once a coal mining town

  • Many of the miners where immigrants from Ireland, Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia.  The 1860 census for Colorado listed 32,691 males and 1,586 females. Most of the miners where young single men and they outnumbered woman 20 to 1. 
  • Brothels, gambling halls, and saloons lined the streets of many of the mining towns in the late 1800’s. In 1879, Silverton had 40 saloons/dance halls, 27 gaming dens, and 18 brothels.  Today, those same buildings are now  boutique shops and restaurants.
Silverton, CO

Main Street, Silverton, CO

  • The town of Salida burned twice in the late 1800’s (1886 and 1888). It was rebuilt with the lovely brick buildings you see today in the downtown historic district.
F Street, Salida, CO

F Street (main street) in Salida

  • In Salida, I heard that the local madame who owned a bordello in the 1900’s, helped finance many of the original town services (e.g., police, fire). She was making so much money she “contributed” (thru heavy fines) money to provide these services.  At the height of her business, she had 38 women “working” for her and it was rumored that she made enough money to buy a new car every 6 days. It was also rumored that there was a tunnel from the local hotel to her cribs behind the hotel to help customers avoid being seen.
Salida Cribs

Former brothel cribs (now apartments) in Salida behind the Palace Hotel (web photo)

  • The east end of Pacific Ave in Telluride was known as the  “sporting district” (i.e., red light district).  It was lined with small houses (called Cribs), like you see in the picture below, all the way to the Town Park.  The three in the picture are the last that remain.  The street was nicknamed “Popcorn Alley” because of the constant opening and closing of doors on the street sounded like popcorn popping.
Pacific Ave Telluride

Popcorn Alley in Telluride

  • Ouray got its name from Chief Ouray, a Ute leader.  Much of the land in the San Juan’s was the Ute people’s homeland. The Utes were peaceful and in an attempt to preserve peace in 1873, Chief Ouray signed a treaty allowing mining rights to their land.  The Ute’s got $25,000 per year for giving up 4 million acres of land.  Prospectors arrived the next year finding gold and silver. Six years later, in 1880 the Utes where booted out of the San Juan’s to a small reservation in the southern edge of Colorado, after having given up 23 million acres of their homeland.
  • There are over 350 miles of mining tunnels under the mountains between Telluride and Ouray.  It’s been said that miners would travel underground from Telluride to Ouray when the weather was bad.
  • Leadville, at an elevation of 10,152 ft, is the highest city in the US.  It was once the second most populated city in Colorado and lost by one vote for being chosen the state capital.  The key mineral mined near Leadville was silver, but it was named Leadville because the town founders felt there where too many “silver” named towns.  The National Mining Museum is in Leadville.
  • In Redstone, John Cleveland Osgood built the entire town for his miners after discovering coal in the late 1880’s.  All the small Swiss type cottages that you see today in the small town were originally built by Osgood.  In 1897, Osgood build a 42 room mansion for his second wife, a Swedish Countess.  It included servant quarters, a gamekeeper lodge, carriage house, and green houses.  Life was good for Osgood,   Today, it’s called Redstone Caste and is open for tours.
Redstone General Store

Redstone General Store

  • Many of the mountain towns have much smaller populations now than during the late 1800s.  Leadville, which has a current population of about 2,500, peaked at 15,000 in 1893.  Telluride and Silverton each had over 5,000 people.  Now, Telluride is half that and Silverton is just over 600 people.  Aspen peaked at 12,000 people in 1893, shriveled to just under 700 by 1930, and now has a population of about 6,500.
  • Much of the mining activity peaked in 1893.  That’s when the Panic of 1893 hit.  The Government repealed the Sherman Silver Act and stopped buying silver.  That was a death-blow to Colorado mining.  Mining continued, but many towns shrunk dramatically.  Gold and coal mining continued through the 1950’s but on a much smaller scale.
  • Colorado’s annual gold production was 260,000 ounces in 1892 and peaked at over 1,400,000 ounces in 1900.  It dropped to just over 200,000 ounces per year in 1928 and by the 1970’s was just over 70,000 ounces. Gold mining continues today in mines near Cripple Creek, Lake City, and Gold Hill.

After the Panic of 1893, many of Colorado mining towns shrunk and became depressed areas until the late 1950’s.  But then a turnaround started.  “White” gold (snow) was found to be of value and ski resorts were developed in the mountains.  Now, the places once known for their mining pits have become playgrounds.

The mountains still dominate the views but ski areas dot many of their slopes. The saloons and gambling halls are now trendy shops and restaurants.  The small miners huts have become shops or million dollar vacation cottages and the mining roads have become hiking trails and 4 wheeling routes.  While the scenery is the same, the towns have really undergone quite a transformation in the past 50 years.

  • Elk Avenue - Crested Butte
  • Old Town Hall - Crested Butte
  • Court House - Telluride
  • Ouray and the Beaumont Hotel
    The Beaumont Hotel - Ouray
  • Opera House - Aspen
  • True Grit Cafe Ridgway Colorado
    Ridgway Main Street with the True Grit Cafe

Many of the towns like Crested Butte, Cripple Creek, Salida, Telluride, and Ouray have established National Historic Districts in their towns to preserve and maintain their historic architecture. Some like Crested Butte and Silverton encompass the entire town.  Others like Aspen and Ouray have a few blocks.  It’s nice to see some of the history preserved in these towns.  Here’s a link to some of my blog posts about these towns:  J. Dawg Colorado Posts.

This was just a smattering of the things I learned/heard while exploring these mountain towns.  I’m sure there’s many more interesting facts and stories and lots more to learn about each of them in future visits.

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