By John Leach
Before a gold and silver mining boom made the town rich and drew celebrities Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp, Silverton was a summer camping spot for the Ute or Nuchu tribe, nomadic hunter-gatherers who roamed the Western Slope. The Utes had been summering in Silverton since 1000 A.D.
Prospecting began in the 1860s, after an expedition led by Capt. Charles Baker reported success with placer mining for gold. The report drew about 300 prospectors but proved to be misleading because placer mining proved inadequate. The area also was officially under the control of the Ute tribe, under a treaty with the federal government.
Prospectors left the area to fight in the Civil War but returned in the late 1860s and found a gold vein in 1870 that led to the opening of the Little Giant Mine in Arrastra Gulch four miles east of Silverton in 1872.
That and other mineral discoveries in the San Juan Mountains drew more prospectors to the area and brought pressure on the federal government to negotiate the Brunot Treaty of 1873, which removed 4 million acres in the San Juans from the Ute Reservation and opened them up to mining.
By the end of 1874, an estimated 2,000 men had moved into the Silverton area with dreams of striking it rich, and the town had been founded. The town was incorporated in 1875, and its population had swelled to 500 by 1876. Like other frontier boomtowns, Silverton was rough and often violent, and the winter was long and harsh. The town had its share of saloons, gambling halls, dance halls, and brothels, and Blair Street alone at one point had 40 saloons running day and night to serve the miners.
In the 1880s, Silverton hired the feared lawman Bat Masterson as a special marshal to clean up the town after the previous marshal was shot to death by two fugitives from Durango. Legend has it that the troublemakers left town after hearing that Masterson had arrived, without the famed Dodge City gunfighter having to open fire.
The mining boom spurred the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad to build a narrow-gauge route to Durango from Antonito in 1881 and extend a line north to Silverton in 1882. 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 formed the San Juan and New York Smelting Co. in 1880, and they proceeded to purchase a Silverton smelting works and relocate it to Durango in 1882 to handle the ores that would arrive from Silverton and Telluride.
Silverton’s three-story, 40-room Grand Hotel opened in 1882. The brick-and-stone building features a mansard roof on the third floor, arched windows on the second floor, and storefronts on Greene Street. It’s still in operation as the Grand Imperial Hotel.
The frontier lawman Wyatt Earp arrived in Silverton early in 1883, two years after the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Earp dealt cards at the Arlington Saloon in the Billy Cole Building until April 1883, when Masterson convinced Earp to come to the aid of their friend, Luke Short.
Short, a gambler, had run up against the new mayor of Dodge City, who owned another saloon, after Short bought half of the Long Branch Saloon. Earp and Masterson organized a group of gunfighters in support of Short, and the mayor backed down, producing a peaceful ending to what has become known as the Dodge City War.
Entrepreneur Otto Mears completed a toll road in 1885 that connected Silverton with Ouray, another mining boomtown. The road, which crossed Red Mountain, later would become U.S. 550, the Million-Dollar Highway. A year later, Mears completed a toll road from Silverton to the mines in Animas Forks and Mineral Point.
Mears also built the Silverton Railroad to the Red Mountain Mining District along the route of the toll road. The railroad opened in 1889, and the rich Yankee Boy and Orphan Girl mines became the line’s largest shippers, sending silver and zinc ore to Silverton. The Yankee Boy was discovered in 1882 and produced $12 million worth of high-quality silver ore during its 16 years of operation.
By 1890, San Juan County had 1,572 residents, according to the Census.
In 1891, tourists began arriving in Silverton from the Denver & Rio Grande began its “Around the Circle” tour, which began in Denver and took passengers on a 1,000-mile trip through the Western Slope. One segment of the tour brought tourists by train to Silverton, where they were transferred to wagons to take them over the Mears toll road into Ouray. Then they boarded another train for the return trip to Denver.
The silver crash of 1893 hit Silverton hard. Ten large mines in the Silverton area were forced to close when silver prices plunged to 63 cents an ounce from $1.05 an ounce. By 1896, the Yankee Girl and Guston mines between Silverton and Ouray were played out.
But some of the mines continued operating, and the last large mine did not close until 1991. That, along with tourism, kept Silverton from becoming a ghost town like so many of the other mining boomtowns in the San Juans.
The 1924 completion of the Million Dollar Highway, or U.S. 550, from Durango to Montrose, replacing the Mears toll road, opened up the area to tourism. The highway also began to be used to transport ore from the Silverton mines instead of the railroad, 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, and those tourists hit Silverton at lunchtime, giving the town’s restaurants and shops a boost in business.
The town’s historic buildings also drew Hollywood in the 1950s. “Ticket to Tomahawk” in 1950 featured Anne Baxter and Walter Brennan, plus Marilyn Monroe in an early and uncredited role. “Run for Cover” starred James Cagney and Ernest Borgnine in 1955, and “Great Day in the Morning” starred Virginia Mayo, Robert Stack, and Raymond Burr in 1956. “Night Passage” featured James Stewart, Audie Murphy, and the D&RG train.
The town earned a historic designation in 1966 that covered homes and business buildings from the late 1880s and early 1900s. The boundaries were expanded in 2000 to include the Mayflower Mill (also known as the Shenandoah-Dives Mill); Crooke’s Polar Star Mill Office; Animas Power and Water Co. buildings, and the Hillside Cemetery.
The San Juan County Historical Society Museum and Mining Heritage Center preserves a slice of Silverton’s past with its samples of local minerals, mining and surveying equipment from the late 1800s, collection of Derringer handguns, frontier schoolroom, and fully equipped turn-of-the-century kitchen.
The historical society even has a rarity – a two-hole potty rail car once used by miners when nature called as they were working deep underground.