7th June: Take away all the cars in Silverton and pretty much all you have left is some bad-ass, Wild West town. Wyatt Earp once rode into Silverton. They say he played a few hands of poker at the saloon. I’m not sure if anybody got themselves shot that day, though looking up Main Street I’m left with a pretty strong feeling that somebody probably did. It isn’t long that we’re parked up here beside the rail-road sidings when the sheriff of Silverton rolls up beside us. I’m making a smoked turkey sandwich when he hollers, ‘All right, you folks. I’m gonna have to confiscate that series 70 Cruiser off of y’all.’ When I hear his talk I lean out the back of the truck. I’m brandishing a dirty butter knife and an open jar of Best Buy mayonnaise when I look him straight in the eyes and I drawl, ‘You gonna have to fight me for it.’ Thankfully peace and good order prevails. The sheriff turns a smile and says, ‘I sure love that Toyota rig o’ yours.’ ‘It’s done us pretty good,’ I tell him. ‘All the way from Argentina.’ He nods like a man who knows a thing or two. ‘Well, y’all have a good day,’ he says, swinging round his wheels and high-tailing into the sunset. He had a pretty cool temperament, that sheriff. Though I can see how easy it might be to fall into a gunfight here in Silverton.
By the 1850s the mountains of Colorado were awash with prospectors hacking and digging and blasting in their fevered search for that mother lode of gold. An estimated 10,000 gold seekers flocked to the region. Prospectors journeyed across continents and oceans to try their hand. Fortunes were made and lost in the blink of an eye. Many died attempting to better themselves, buried in the shafts they’d dug only the week before, or blown all to hell in some petty gunfight. Towns that were once rich are now deserted, their timbers left to bleach in the sunshine. Others are household names and now have some of the most valuable real estate in the United States. We’ve decided to take a peek at just a sample of those old mining towns and our journey begins on Highway 550, crossing the Coat Bank Pass (10,600 ft altitude) and the Molas Divide (10,910 ft altitude), where the hale crackles on the roof and the windscreen, turning the verge white. We shed altitude, winding through the pine forest, and soon enough arrive at Silverton (9,318 ft altitude). By the 1870s some 1,000 prospectors worked the hills surrounding Silverton. By 1882 the Denver and Rio Grande rail-road had come to a town now boasting a population of 2,000 people. There were 400 buildings, including 2 banks, 5 laundries, several hotels, 29 saloons and a notorious red-light district on Blair Street. As more families joined their menfolk the town struggled to keep a respectable line drawn between the rough-necked gamblers and all their whoring, and those godly folks on their way to see the preacher. In 1883 a grand jury brought 117 indictments against “lewd women” on Blair Street. At its peak approximately 118 ladies of easy virtue worked the street on a 24 hour basis. They say it was pretty damn noisy back then. Today, the whorehouses have all gone (as far as I know), and you won’t see many people with a pick or a shovel, unless they’re clearing snow. Silverton capitalises on its mountain location, making a fine base from which to hike the hills. During winter the town offers alpine, extreme, snow-cat and cross-country skiing. Nowadays it’s “White Gold” that’s the name of the game.
8th June: From Silverton we continue our journey to Telluride. Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank in Telluride, the San Miguel National Bank, in 1889. I suppose he was expecting to make a fast buck from the mining payroll. The Wild Bunch stole $24,000 that day – so he did pretty well. To remain on the right side of the law all we do is make for the Last Dollar Saloon and a glass of the local ale. Here in Telluride we arrange to meet Alex, our friend from the Overland Expo in Flagstaff, Arizona. In the meantime we pass the night in the local camp ground to the north of town, where we note the town hall has posted signs warning us to place all trash in the bear-proof bins, for the bears are now active, inquisitive and in search of an easy meal. The next day, when we reach Alex’s 35 acre spread in the hills outside Telluride, I ask him if he gets much trouble from the bears. ‘Hell, yeah,’ he says. He points across his land. ‘I tried to set up a chicken farm over here. Except those bears kept breaking into the hen-house. I tell you, the chickens got so scared in the hen-house that they took to living in the trees. Then the bears got wise. They started shaking the trees and when those chickens fell out they just ate ’em all up. So you know what I did? I dug a moat around the hen-house and I filled it with water. Then I put an electric fence around it. Dude, that bear got so zapped when he tried to cross that moat that I didn’t see him for a whole year.’
In 1875 prospector John Fallon made the first mining claim in the Marshall basin above Telluride. It proved to be rich in zinc, copper, iron, silver and gold. The town of Columbia was established as a mining camp in the Telluride Valley in 1880. A confusion with another mining camp, Columbia, California, and the refusal of the US Postal Service to grant the town its own branch forced the people to find another name. There are two theories as to how the town came to be known as Telluride: 1) The name was derived from the mineral tellurium, a non-metallic element often associated with deposits of gold. 2) The town was named for the famous send-off given to fortune seekers heading to the southern San Juan mountains: “To-hell-you-ride.”
In 1891 entrepreneur LL Nunn and Westinghouse worked together using Nikola Tesla’s discovery of alternating electrical current to run almost 2.5 miles of cable from the hydroelectric plant at Ames to the Gold King Mine. Eventually those lines would be brought into town and Telluride would be the first town in the country to be powered by alternating current electrical power.
11th June: Economic depression hit Aspen way before the Great Depression laid waste to the nation. For Aspen and the state of Colorado the crash of the silver market in 1893 mirrored Wall Street’s crash 36 years later: by then Aspen had been in steady decline for decades. Pitkin County’s population dropped from nearly 13,000 in 1893 to just 1,700 in 1930. Since 1878 the federal government had been required by law to purchase $2 million to $4 million worth of silver for coinage annually, inflating the price of the white metal. But in 1892 President Grover Cleveland threatened to end the silver subsidy. Bankers in the east were losing money because the circulation of silver was leading to a decline in the value of gold-based transactions, as investors turned in the silver notes for gold dollars. Despite strong representation by the silver miners of Colorado the bankers of the east held sway and President Cleveland oversaw the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act causing the value of the metal to plummet. With the silver mines all but closed down the people of the Roaring Fork Valley turned to ranching and agriculture in an attempt to revive their fortunes. The town’s downward trajectory was to change at the hands of Walter Paepcke. Persuaded by his wife, Elizabeth, Paepcke, a distinguished Chicago business man, co-founded the Aspen Skiing Company in 1945, beginning with Lift One, the longest chairlift in the world when it opened in December 14, 1946. Paepcke and his wife saw potential to implement the Aspen Idea of “Mind, Body, Spirit for the benefit of others”. Paepcke is quoted as saying Aspen is a place ‘for man’s complete life … where he can profit by healthy, physical recreation, with facilities at hand for his enjoyment of art, music and education.’ He went on to create the Aspen Institute, after hosting a slew of international thinkers and artists at the famous 1949 Goethe Bicentennial Convocation. Following the success of the Goethe Bicentennial the Aspen Music Festival and School and the International Design Conference soon followed. Aspen very quickly become a hip and trendy place to be and be seen. Top artists, actors and musicians flocked to the mountain village and the transition from down-at-heel mining town to high-end resort was firmly established. Today Aspen boasts some of the most valuable real estate to be found in the US.
13th June: From Aspen we continue up the Roaring Fork Valley, to Independence, a mining town that did not make the transition into the modern world and is now deserted. Located at 10,900 feet elevation this was the land of the Ute Indians. The Colorado Rocky Mountains are the centre of the Ute’s world. According to legend they were the mountain’s first inhabitants. The Ute spent their lives migrating with the seasons, following the animals that fed them, clothed them and guided them spiritually and socially. Many of the modern day roads and passes are trails the Ute travelled for hundreds of years as they followed their migratory paths. Desire for the Ute’s territory became overwhelming when gold was found in the 1850s and thousands of prospectors and settlers arrived in the mountains. By 1861 the Colorado Territory was created and, in 1879 the Roaring Fork Valley was opened to prospectors eager to stake their claims. By 1880 the Ute had been located to three reservations in the semi-arid lands of southern Colorado and eastern Utah. They were no longer allowed to hunt or gather in the mountains.
Mining operations in Independence didn’t last long. Between 1881 and 1882 $190,000 worth of gold was produced. The next year that figure dropped to $2000. From an estimated population of 1,500 in 1882, six years later this had declined to 100. During the winter of 1899 the worst storm in Colorado’s history left Independence cut off from supply routes. Running short on supplies the miners were forced to dismantle their home and make 75 pairs of skis so they could escape to Aspen. They made light of their adventure by making it a race of the Hunter’s Pass Ski Club. The entry fee for the competition was one ham sandwich.
14th June: In the summer of 1859 gold was discovered along the Blue River and a base camp, later to be known as Breckenridge, was established. The town contains more than 350 historic structures, making it the largest historic district in Colorado. These days, much the same as the other former mining towns we’ve visited, it is the winter snowfall, or white gold, which is the currency pumping the commercial wheels of Breckenridge, the final destination on our mining town trail.