Colorado: Telluride Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Prospectors first found gold and silver in the area around Telluride in 1875. Completion of a railroad in 1890 led to a rush of fortune seekers, and Telluride experienced a mining boom through most of the 1890’s. Many of the buildings from Telluride’s heyday remain, providing an attractive setting for tourists who visit for the skiing or summer festivals.

Site Office

Telluride Visitor Information Center

666 West Colorado Ave

Box 653

Telluride, CO 81435

ph.: (303) 728-3041

From the 1870’s to the early 1900’s, Telluride was a classic Western mining town, with a boom-and-bust economy and a rowdy nightlife of saloons and bordellos. Incredible profits (sixty million dollars in the first thirty years) from the rich gold and silver veins sparked construction of churches, banks, a school, a courthouse, and the New Sheridan Hotel. Telluride featured immigrant workers from many nations, typical of mining towns. It also was the site of very violent labor disputes between the miners’ union and the mine management.

This rich labor history is what earned Telluride an honored place in United States history, and the fact that many key buildings remain intact makes it a rewarding place to visit from an educational standpoint. In the late 1980’s, moreover, Telluride emerged as a popular tourist destination for skiing in the winter and several world-famous festivals in the summer.

Founding and Naming the Town

The first prospector, John Fallon, set up camp in the mountains above the future site of Telluride in 1875. He established the first mine, the Sheridan, and hit pay dirt. Within a few years he sold the mine for forty thousand dollars. In 1883, the Sheridan again changed hands when it was purchased by Scottish bankers living in Shanghai. In addition to the Sheridan, other rich early mines included the Tomboy, the Pandora, and the Smuggler. The Smuggler had one gold vein over a mile long. News of such strikes attracted a steady stream of adventurers, necessitating the organization of a town.

Telluride, originally named Columbia, was incorporated as an eighty-acre town site in 1878. Problems with mail going to a town of the same name in California quickly prompted debate about changing the name. In 1880, someone suggested the name Telluride, and it was adopted by the post office. Townsfolk did not officially adopt the new name until 1887, however. “Telluride” was derived from tellurium, a rare sulfurous element sometimes found in gold ore. Strangely enough, it is not at all common in the Telluride area.

The name has also become associated with a legendary warning to visitors en route to Telluride: “To hell you ride.” This phrase probably had nothing to do with the naming of the town, but may well have been uttered by train conductors or wagon operators. If it was not, it should have been, because life in Telluride during its wildest days really could be hellish.

Growth of the town remained slow through the 1880’s due to the extremely high costs of transportation in and out of Telluride. Some key advances did occur, however, with a town hall being completed in 1883 and the San Miguel County Courthouse going up in 1887. The first newspaper was established in 1881, a weekly called the San Miguel Examiner.

Another early landmark, the San Miguel National Bank, gained notoriety on June 24, 1889. On that day Butch Cassidy pulled his first bank robbery, escaping with about twenty-four thousand dollars. Telluride’s sheriff had no luck catching Cassidy, but he did capture his horse and proudly rode it around town for many years.

A Railroad Brings Prosperity

The boom days for Telluride began in 1890, when a brilliant Russian-born engineer named Otto Mears headed construction of a railroad line into town. Beginning in the spring, some fifteen hundred workers started building the main line of the Rio Grande Southern, which would link Ridgway to Durango. A branch line into Telluride was completed on November 23. The first train chugged into town three days later on Thanksgiving, met by a band and the cheers and toasts of local citizens. The train line was soon hauling 150 carloads of ore out of Telluride per month, and the Wild West had arrived in Telluride.

By 1891, the population jumped to four thousand and consisted of miners from Finland, Sweden, England, France, Ireland, Germany, and Italy. Two industrious Chinese men even opened up shops in town, one a laundry and the other a general store. The most notorious businesses were clustered on or near Pacific Avenue–some twenty-six saloons and twelve bordellos. The most popular of the houses of ill repute was the Pick and Gad. There and in other bordellos such as the Cozy Corner and the White House worked approximately 175 prostitutes, including the famous Diamond Tooth Leona. Miners from Scandinavia were in such a hurry to get to the excitement of Pacific Avenue on payday that they strapped boards on their feet and slid down the mountainside, thus becoming the earliest skiers in Telluride.

Saturday nights in the saloons could get rough, and legends abound, such as the story of a man who tried to start trouble and had his thumb shot off by a lawman. The most successful of Telluride’s sheriffs was gigantic Jim Knous, who usually roughed up potential troublemakers with his fists and sent them home before guns were drawn. Another effective, if brutal, lawman was deputy marshal Jim Clark, who had previously been a member of Jesse James’s gang.

Bars and brothels were not the only new buildings in the 1890’s, however. A miners’ hospital was completed in 1893, and the first schoolhouse appeared in 1895. That year also witnessed construction of the town’s first luxury hotel, the New Sheridan. The hotel could claim a bar from Austria and a mirror from Paris and featured fine food and wine. Some of the more popular dishes included seafood, possum, and strawberries. Famous early guests at the New Sheridan included Lillian Gish and Sarah Bernhardt, and it was the scene of speeches by leading labor activists such as Eugene V. Debs and Big Bill Haywood. The most famous oration, though, was the “Cross of Gold” speech given there by William Jennings Bryan in 1903.

Impressive construction was not limited to the town itself in the roaring 1890’s. Five miles up the mountainside at the prosperous Tomboy mine could be found a huge boarding house, a YMCA, tennis courts, and a bowling alley. The Tomboy attracted international attention and was purchased for two million dollars by the Rothschilds of London in 1897.

Labor Strife and Mining’s Decline

In the spring of 1901, the mine owners announced a new contract that would effectively require more work for less money. Workers belonging to the Western Federation of Miners Union responded by going on strike. Violence soon broke out between union members and scabs, with three people being killed and six severely wounded. In July, the union won a victory, gaining recognition and negotiating an agreement guaranteeing the eight-hour day at the prevailing wage rate.

In 1902, some radicals, disgruntled with the settlement, assassinated the manager of the Smuggler Mine. His replacement was Harvard-educated Bulkeley Wells. Wells hated union radicalism as much as he enjoyed good food and fancy clothes, and the showdown came quickly. When one hundred workers at the Tomboy struck against the hiring of scabs in 1903, Wells and the mine owners called in the National Guard.

Five hundred troops arrived and enforced virtual martial law, closing bars and bordellos and instituting curfews and pass laws. The troops ejected all perceived agitators from Telluride and constructed Fort Peabody at the top of Imogene Pass to keep them out. The troops departed in 1904, but Wells carried on the fight. His efforts earned him the everlasting enmity of the miners, and in 1908, radicals attempted to assassinate him. A bomb exploded under his bed and blew him out the window, but he was not seriously harmed.

In spite of the strife, the Smuggler and the Tomboy remained incredibly productive and had their greatest years between 1905 and 1911, during which time over sixteen million dollars of gold and silver were taken from Telluride. Decline came quickly after that, however. Labor left to work in higher-paying war industries or to join the armed forces. Operational costs soared while the price of gold remained fixed by law. All the great mines closed, with the Smuggler holding out the longest, until 1928. By 1930, the banks had closed and the population dwindled to about five hundred.

Rebirth Through Tourism

A brief glimpse into Telluride’s future prosperity came in 1945, when the first ski lift (a rope tow) was constructed. It lasted only two years, but another was built in 1958. The lift utilized an old car motor, and season passes that year cost five dollars. Thenceforth, skiing and the economy of Telluride were linked.

Skiing remained relatively small-scale through the 1960’s, but in 1971, the modern era began with the opening of the Telluride Ski Area. The slopes boasted some of the best expert terrain in the United States, and the lift lines were relatively short. The 1970’s also saw the beginning of some complementary summer attractions–the first film festival and the first bluegrass festival–both of which quickly became world famous. Several other festivals have been initiated that attract summer tourists, most notably a jazz festival and a mushroom festival.

Construction of an airport in the late 1980’s opened the floodgates of high-priced development and brought wealthy vacationers from around the world. Real estate prices in Telluride rose drastically. Fortunately, Telluride’s status as a National Historic Landmark provided some defense against the onslaught of development within the town itself. An architectural review committee closely monitors new building, and Telluride retained much of its nineteenth century character.

Places to Visit

A great number of buildings from the mining heyday remain in Telluride for the interested visitor, and a short walking tour of downtown encompasses them all. The courthouse, schoolhouse, the San Miguel Valley Bank (robbed by Cassidy), and the First National Bank (turned into an Elks Lodge) are still standing. The renowned Sheridan Hotel remains open for business, and the Senate saloon has been restored and reopened, featuring a bar from 1880 and a hole in the floor from a bullet that took off a sheriff’s ear. Walking from Main Street over to Pacific Avenue, one can see what was once the notorious Pick and Gad brothel.

What was built as a miners’ hospital in 1893 has been turned into the Telluride Historical Museum. Exhibits include many powerful old photographs, beer tokens, pool balls, and a barber’s chair including hand straps that were used when the barber doubled as a dentist or surgeon. The museum is open year-round.

For Further Information
  • Abbott, Carl, Stephen Leonard, and David McComb. Colorado: A History of the Centennial State. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1994. Contains some good discussion of the labor disputes in Telluride and puts them into the broader context of Colorado history.
  • Buys, Christian J. Historic Telluride in Rare Photographs. Ouray, Colo.: Western Reflections, 1998. In addition to the story of mining in Telluride, this book includes a chapter on the Utes who lived in the area before the arrival of prospectors.
  • Fetter, Richard, and Suzanne Fetter. Telluride: From Pick to Powder. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, 1979. A nicely written account of the history of Telluride from mining to skiing, with an excellent final chapter describing a walking tour of the town.
  • Lavender, David. The Telluride Story. Ridgway, Colo.: Wayfinder Press, 1987. An informative overview of Telluride’s history.
  • Weber, Rose. A Quick History of Telluride. Colorado Springs: Little London Press, 1974. A very brief narrative with great photographs.
  • Wenger, Martin. Recollections of Telluride, 1895-1920. Mesa Verde, Colo.: Wenger Press, 1978. Interesting first-hand account of growing up during the boom days.
Categories: History