The History Of Telluride

History of Telluride
From the Telluride & Mountain Village Visitor’s Guide
by Mary Duffy, 2002


Once a numerous and nomadic people, the Utes were the first visitors to the Telluride valley. Making their summer camps along the San Miguel River, they hunted in the surrounding mountains for elk, deer and mountain sheep. In the winter, they retreated to the lowlands and nearby red rock canyons of the desert to find shelter and dry ground. For centuries this way of life remained unchanged.

In the late 1700s the Spanish made their way north through Mexico and established a town site in present day Santa Fe. Searching for an overland route to their landholdings on the Pacific coast, they crossed the lower Rocky Mountains and named them the San Juans. None stayed to settle this rugged high-altitude environment. Fur trappers were likely the first Anglos to spend extended time in the San Juans, but with the demise of the beaver due to the > increasing popularity of top hats made from its pelt, the trappers moved on. The discovery of gold in 1858 put Colorado on the map. As prospectors flooded the northern Rockies, many fortune seekers headed south. The > discovery of gold in the San Juans heralded a new era for this desolate mountain range.

In 1875, prospector John Fallon made the first claim in Marshal Basin above Telluride. He registered the Sheridan Mine with the Silverton County Clerk, a claim that proved to be rich in zinc, lead, copper, iron, silver and gold. The town of Columbia was established in the Telluride valley in 1880. Because of confusion with another mining camp, Columbia, Calif., the United States Post Office refused to grant the town a local branch. Thus, Columbia, Colo. was changed to Telluride. This name was probably derived from tellurium (ironically not found here), a nonmetallic element often associated with rich mineral deposits of gold. The other theory is that the town was named for the famous send-off, “To-hell-u-ride,” given to fortune seekers heading to the southern San Juans.

With the coming of the railroad in 1890, the town flourished and Telluride’s population soared to 5,000. Many immigrants made the arduous journey over the Rockies and traveled south to find their fortune. Telluride became a melting pot of Finns, Swedes, Irish, Cornish, French, Italians, Germans, and Chinese, all supported by mining. The town boasted all the amenities of a thriving community, plus saloons, gambling, and a much-heralded red-light district. Mining for silver, gold, zinc, lead and copper resulted in an impressive 350 miles of multi-level tunnels that honeycomb the mountains at the east end of the valley. The wealth of Telluride attracted the likes of Butch Cassidy and his “Wild Bunch,” who began their brazen bank-robbing career at the San Miguel National Bank in 1889. Silver prices crashed in 1893, followed by the first World War in 1917 and the end of the mining boom in Telluride. Gold prices were fixed during the war and many men left the mines to join the armed forces or work in war-related industries. By the 1960s the place was barely more than a ghost town, and the population had dwindled to less than 600 residents.

In its own magical way, Telluride was resurrected in the 1970s by another kind of gold-snow. When a small group of wishful locals, led by Bill Mahoney Sr., joined forces with newcomer and entrepreneur Joe Zoline, a ski area was hammered out of the ridge coming off Gold Hill. The newly created ski resort reshaped the economy, reviving the Telluride community. This winter the ski area will celebrate its thirtieth year of lift served operations.

As alpine enthusiasts shaped Telluride’s winter scene, artists and culture lovers nurtured a vibrant and diverse array of summer festivals, and Telluride became a year-round resort. The longest running events; Telluride Film Festival, Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Telluride Chamber Music and the Imogene Pass Run, all began as small grassroots efforts in the early ’70s. A host of events have joined in the celebration, including MountainFilm, Telluride Mushroom Festival, the Jazz Celebration, Telluride Blues & Brews Festival, Wild West Fest, Steps to Awarness, Telluride Wine Festival, Dance in Telluride, The Tech Fest, Walking Words, Writers in the Sky and the Telluride AIDS Benefit. With all these festivals, locals get tired-the Nothing Festival was created to ensure at least one quiet summer weekend.

Today, Telluride’s population of 2,000 plus residents is less than half of what it was during the mining heyday. Miners have been replaced by (or have become) skiers and boarders, festivals have grown up and improved, but Telluride’s history has not been forgotten. Look around. Whether you stumble across an old mining shack in the forest or scale a rugged peak for a majestic view, you’ll find that Telluride’s mountains are still full of riches, and the spirit of the Old West remains.

The Telluride Historical Museum has been restored and is now open. Although fundraising is still in progress, there is much to be seen and learned on the premises. Displays include historic photographs, a turn-of-the-century hospital room, and artifacts from the mining era. Located at the north end of Fir Street, it is housed in the old miners’ hospital, built in 1888. Call 728-3344 for hours and exhibits, and check out its website at

(Please do not reproduce the above text without permission from the publisher)

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