By John Leach
The Durango area was home to the Anasazi, or “ancient ones,” from the Pueblo Indian culture, who had lived in cliff dwellings in today’s Mesa Verde National Park east of Durango before they mysteriously left the area in the 1200s. The Anasazi began living in the area 1,400 years ago, eventually building their stone dwellings in canyon alcoves.
The Spanish Dominguez-Escalante expedition passed through the Durango area in 1776, camping at the base of the La Plata Mountains near the current Mesa Verde and at a spot along the Mancos River a few miles below where it runs into Mesa Verde. They found Anasazi ruins near Dolores, part of today’s Anasazi Heritage Center.
The discovery of gold near modern-day Silverton in 1860 by a group of prospectors led by Capt. Charles Baker drew others to the area, but placer mining was difficult and the environment was unforgiving. The mini-boom ended with the Civil War.
The Durango area began to draw a steady stream of prospectors headed into the San Juan Mountains in search of gold and silver in the 1870s, and major gold and silver discoveries near Silverton and the expanded use of lode mining spurred the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad to push west from Antonito to Durango and on to Silverton.
The railroad founded Durango in 1879 to serve as its southern terminus. It passed up the fledgling town of Animas City, which had been created by speculators a mile to the north in 1876 but had balked at providing free land and a cash payment to the railroad.
The railroad reached Durango from Antonito in 1881, along a route that passed across 10,015-foot Cumbres Pass and ran along the Colorado-New Mexico border. From Durango, the railroad headed north to Silverton, completing tracks up the Animas Valley to Silverton in 1882 and beginning to haul freight and passengers. The railroad dropped the cost of transporting ores and concentrates from $60 to $12 per ton.
William Palmer, founder of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, and English financier William Bell had laid the groundwork in 1880 for transforming Durango into “Smelter City” with formation of the San Juan and New York Smelting Co., and they proceeded to purchase a Silverton smelting works and relocate it to Durango in 1882. Palmer also purchased a coal field near Durango to power the smelter. In 1887, the smelter processed 1 million pounds of silver, lead, gold, and copper and employed 300.
Durango was incorporated in 1881 and became the La Plata County seat. The frontier boomtown needed a government to bring law and order. There were 20 saloons operating and eight in the works, plus several gambling houses, and they were drawing miners out of the San Juans to spend their money. There also were feuds over cattle and rangeland that spilled into Durango, with newspaper editor Caroline Romney complaining that lawlessness was turning Durango into the “City in the Wildnerness.”
But Durango’s success as a regional transportation center drew merchants, ranchers and farmers to the Animas River Valley, and they stabilized the community. The newcomers built homes, schools, churches and impressive commercial buildings, notably the 50-room, brick-and-stone Strater Hotel, which opened in 1888. Joining the Strater within a few years were the 1895 Palace Hotel, 1897 Newman Building and 1898 General Palmer Hotel, all of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A second railroad line reached Durango in 1891. Otto Mears’ Rio Grande Southern Railroad covered 162 miles from Ridgeway over Dallas Divide to Telluride, then south over Lizard Head Pass into Dolores and east to Durango. It brought gold, silver, and lead ore from the booming mines in the Telluride area.
Durango’s smelter, however, was hard-hit by the drop in silver production after the silver crash of 1893 and by the rise of new ore reduction processes for gold and other metals that could be done at the mines. By the 1910s, many of the larger silver and gold deposits in the San Juans had played out. The Great Depression hurt business further, and the smelter closed in 1930, along with the coal mines and coke ovens that had fueled it.
By the turn of the century, Durango had turned its economic focus to agriculture, serving as a trade and supply center for nearby ranches. Timber was added to the mix after the creation of the San Juan National Forest in 1905. A third rail line was built in 1902 by the Denver & Rio Grande from Durango south to Farmington, N.M., to haul agricultural products. It was originally standard gauge but was converted to narrow gauge in 1926.
But Durango also was seeing the first signs of the tourism industry that would be an economic powerhouse for the future. The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad’s “Around the Circle” tour, which started in Denver and ran in a 1,000-mile round-trip through the Western Slope, started in 1891. A popular option took tourists up from Durango to Silverton, where they caught the Silverton Railroad north to a spot six miles south of Ouray and then a stagecoach into Ouray. The trip resumed by train, returning to Denver.
The tourism industry got a boost with President Theodore Roosevelt’s decision to create the Mesa Verde National Park in 1906 to protect the well-preserved cliff dwellings there that dated back 700 years. Mesa Verde is 56 miles west of Durango.
The 1924 completion of the Million Dollar Highway, or U.S. 550, from Durango to Montrose, replacing a toll road that dated back to 1883, also opened up the area to tourism. The highway also began to be used instead of the railroad to transport ore from the Silverton mines, and the railroad switched in the 1950s to carrying tourists.
Today, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad uses coal-fired steam locomotives to carry tourists on the 45-mile journey from Durango to Silverton, which runs along the Animas River first in the valley and then through the Animas River Gorge, along the route carved in 1882. In peak years, ridership tops 200,000.
Durango’s long-closed smelter was bought by the federal government in 1942 and converted into a mill managed by the Vanadium Corp. of America to process uranium for the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. The mill recovered uranium from the tailings of vanadium mines in Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico in the form of a sludge, which was shipped to a refinery in Grand Junction that turned it into uranium concentrate. The mill continued to process uranium until 1963, with its production totaling 1.6 million tons of ore and 7.9 million pounds of uranium sludge.
The uranium tailings left at the mill when it closed emitted radon gas, and Congress passed a law in 1978 mandating the cleanup of the low-level radioactive tailings from the nation’s uranium operations in Durango and other cities. The Durango project moved 2.5 million cubic yards of mill tailings from the smelter site, across the Animas River south of downtown Durango, to a tailings burial site in Bodo Canyon, 3½ miles southwest of Durango, at an estimated cost of nearly $68 million.
Durango added two other key features with the opening of Fort Lewis College on the edge of Durango in 1957 and the Purgatory Ski Area 27 miles north of Durango in 1965. The ski area grew in fits and starts and was renamed Durango Mountain Resort in 2000, though locals still call it Purgatory.