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Telluride History

Main Street

Telluride, looking East from the intersection of Colorado Ave at Pine Street. c.1884. The American House, the leading hotel at that time, flourished about 1891.

If only the walls of Telluride’s historic 1896 Hall’s Hospital building could talk… oh what stories they could tell!! Hall’s Hospital is now home to the Telluride Historical Museum however, preserving those stories through exhibits, interactive elements, and programs. Telluride’s history is fraught with tales of discovery, perseverance, riches, heartache, rebellion, conflict, change and recreation.

Before the arrival of Spanish explorers and fur trappers to the area, Ute Tribes hunted deer, beaver and sheep along the San Miguel River for centuries. In the 1870s after silver was discovered in the Silverton, Colorado area, prospectors and miners seeking their fortune made their way to the valley known by the Utes as the “Valley of Hanging Waterfalls”. The area proved very rich in silver, and the Brunot Treaty in 1873 completed the removal of the Ute Tribes from the San Juan Mountains opening the region for further exploration.

San Miguel City grew along the river in the middle of the valley floor to support the surrounding mines. Land prices were lower closer to the end of the valley however, in the burgeoning town of Columbia, and San Miguel City was eventually abandoned. The town of Columbia brought hoteliers, merchants, liveries, opera houses, blacksmiths and ranchers who kept the miners well supplied for their work, and well entertained on their rare days off. The mining boom-town drew mostly single men, and brothels and saloons were an important part of the local economy. The doors opened and closed so frequently on the small establishments known as “cribs” on Pacific Avenue, that the area is still known today as Popcorn Alley.

In 1887 in order to distinguish itself from another mining town, Columbia, California, the town was renamed “Telluride” after the element tellurium which is often found with gold and silver. While the name may have helped draw prospective investors to the region, interestingly there is no tellurium in the Telluride area.

Telluride was bustling with activity in 1889 when the San Miguel Valley Bank on Colorado Avenue was robbed of approximately $24,000 in mining payroll. Thus began the career of Robert Leroy Parker, alias Butch Cassidy.

Telluride was connected to the outside world in 1890 when the Rio Grande Southern Railroad arrived. Coupled with the first commercial use of alternating current in the world in 1891, Telluride’s good fortune was sealed. Because the mountains were denuded of old growth trees for building materials and fuel, and because coal prices were soaring, an alternative power source for the mines was needed. Entrepreneur LL Nunn engaged George Westinghouse and chief engineer Nikola Tesla to run power line from the hydroelectric power plant in Ames to the Gold King Mine almost 2 ½ miles away. Eventually those lines were brought into town, and Telluride was one of the first towns in the world to be lit with alternating current.

By the early 1900s, over $250 million in gold had been mined from the surrounding mountains and Telluride’s population was close to 5000. Mining operations were owned by large investors and corporations, and miners worked long hours for minimal wages. The Western Federation of Miners struck throughout the state of Colorado seeking an eight hour day and a fair wage. The conflict in Telluride escalated, and murder, mayhem and Marshall Law ensued before the conflict eventually dissolved.

Gold and silver being limited commodities; it was fortuitous that the mines in the area proved rich in other minerals, sustaining the mining industry through changes in supply and demand. During the 1940s for example, lead, copper and zinc were mined to support the war efforts. As mining waned, “white gold”, or snow, replaced yellow gold as the draw to the Telluride valley.

By the late 1960s, Telluride’s dwindling population recognized that mining would not last forever. Rumors of a new ski area in the early 1970s brought a new population of young people to town. West Coast entrepreneur Joe Zoline succeeded in opening the Telluride Ski Area 1972, and commercial mining and milling ceased in 1978.

The young newcomers, determined to make it work, opened new businesses, got involved in local government, and started summer festivals to help sustain the economy during warmer months, (and to entertain themselves!) Some of these festivals, such as the Telluride Film Festival and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival have since gained international acclaim. Additional festivals including Heritage, Jazz, Chamber Music, Plein Air, Mushroom and Cajun Festivals, as well as the recreational opportunities and the rich regional history now draw visitors, in lieu of prospectors, from around the world.

Telluride Historical Museum – past and present. Originally a hospital, until it closed in 1964. It reopened in 1966 as the historical museum we know today. 201 W. Gregory Ave.

Telluride’s mining roots have been preserved thanks in part to the designation of National Historic Landmark District in 1964. Offering much to the Heritage tourist the region also attracts recreation and outdoor enthusiasts for some of the best skiing, mountain biking, and hiking in the West.

Visit the Telluride Historical Museum at the top of Fir Street while you are in Town or on the web at Tell them the gals at Accommodations in Telluride sent you!

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