Silverton, Colo. - A "gem" of a find for historians

Photos by Michael Mundt

Walking in downtown Silverton is like stepping back in time to the Old West.

Walking in downtown Silverton is like stepping back in time to the Old West.

     I’ve visited many of Colorado’s numerous mountain mining towns and felt the nostalgia of the Old West. But when you step into Silverton, Colo., the entire town is so well preserved it’s like you’ve stepped back in time right into a “Gunsmoke” episode, circa 1880.

     From the original jail to saloons, hotels and former bordellos along Blair St., to the telltale high pitch of “old timey” piano music, and the iconic Durango/Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train (D&SNGRR), visitors hit the “mother lode” of Colorado history by visiting where miners once pulled “silver by the ton.”

     Once known as the queen city of the San Juan Mountains, Silverton is a “gem” of a find for history buffs. Federally designated as a National Historic Landmark District, Hollywood discovered it mid-century as an ideal backdrop for Western films, including “A Ticket to Tomahawk (1950),” in which Marilyn Monroe plays a bit part, “Maverick Queen (1954),” starring Barbara Stanwyck, and, most famously, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969),” starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

     Once home to the Ute tribe, the town opened for settlement in 1874, when post-Civil War prospectors clambered here in hopes of striking it rich. By 1882, Silverton was established as the center of commerce in the region with the completion of the Denver Rio Grande Railroad line, making it easier to transport supplies and ore to and from the mines.

     With the last mine closing in 1991, however, the population that at its peak swelled above 3,000 dropped to about 600. But the train that has operated continuously from more than 130 years and once carried an estimated $300 million in precious metals continues to serve as the town’s livelihood today, transporting thousands of tourists year-round who want to experience the rough-and-tumble days of the wild, wild west.

If you go:

     A labyrinth of mining history conjoined in a former boarding house and the town’s 1902 jail, the San Juan County Historical Society Museum and Mining Heritage Center was the highlight of our Silverton visit. My boys were thrilled to wind their way through the expansive exhibits, displaying all-things-mining from tools and gear, to minerals and machinery, even original jail cells. Open Memorial Day-mid-October.

     For southern mesquite BBQ, have lunch at Thee Pitts Again, winner of more than 300 International BBQ competitions and featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives with Guy Fieri.

     And if you're lucky enough to spend a full day in Silverton, you can tour historic mines such as the Old Hundred Gold Mine, or enjoy a 4x4 or river-rafting adventure. Click here for more information. 

To read the full Durango story, click here.