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Monday, September 14, 2015

A Journey to Silverton, Colorado


Sometimes you can’t judge a book by its cover. Sometimes you have to open the book and start consuming the content before you get a real appreciation for the book.

At first glance Silverton is easy to dismiss. Sure it is in a spectacular setting but the town itself appears to be a bit of a hodgepodge of touristy stuff and being overrun by OHVs. I am sure that those arriving by the Durango – Silverton Narrow Gauge Train and only having an hour to spend in the town before returning to Durango never get a chance to get past the “cover” and really appreciate the essence of this historic western mining town.

Silverton is the county seat and only incorporated town in San Juan County, which as of the 2010 census was the least populated county in Colorado at 699 inhabitants, and the highest county in the US with an average elevation of over 11,200 feet.

After we left Ridgway state park we headed up the Million Dollar Highway (US 550) through Ouray and on to Silverton. This drive is not for the faint hearted. You drive along several long stretches of road on the outside lane that has little or no shoulder and no guardrails to protect you from the sheer drop off into the canyons below. This can be a white-knuckle trip in a car much less an RV. For this trip, we unhooked the Fit and JoAnne followed behind me as we slowly made our way up to Silverton. Here is a picture I grabbed from

On an earlier car trip to Silverton we found a dispersed forest service campground on FSR 585 about 3 miles north of Silverton that would be perfect for we hoped would be an un-crowded 12 day stay which included the Labor Day weekend. Success!

Our stay gave us plenty of time to dig past Silverton’s “cover”. Our first stop was at the rather impressive visitor center where we picked up a copy of the Silverton Standard & Miner newspaper (listed as a National Historic Site In Journalism which as been in print since 1875), hiking and jeeping trail maps a list of activates suggested by the very helpful volunteers – including a lecture that evening on events in Silverton’s notorious past to be given by the Standards editor. It was fun hearing how the newspaper had covered events like the shooting in 1881 of Marshal Clate Augsburry by members of the famous Ike Stockton Gang and the lynching of gang member Kid Black.

The lecture was held in the Town Hall. Which in 1992 had been almost completely destroyed by fire. It was the story of how the town and the San Juan Historical Society raised the money and restored the building that got our attention. Really, in a town with a population of less than 650 did this? During our time in Silverton we continued to learn of the extraordinary work the Historical Society – in fact, we became members. 

It was at the lecture that we meet the author and photographer of “Walking Silverton History, Sights and Stories”. The next day we set off walking the town. 

Part of the walking tour includes the very impressive Jail Museum and Mining Heritage Center. This is a must stop on any visit to Silverton – after all mining was the soul of Silverton and along with that came the bordellos, gambling halls and saloons of Blair Street - thus the need for a good jail.

As it turns out photographer Casey Carroll also works at the San Juan County Archives and she invited us to visit her there and take a tour of the Archives. Wow is about all I can say to summarize our tour. What an impressive chronicle of San Juan and Silverton history.

With JoAnne’s passion for genealogy a visit to the Hillside Cemetery was high on our list. Besides the location, seeing how the cemetery reflected the history of Silverton was fascinating. For example, gravestones marking the deaths from mine disasters, the 1918 flu epidemic, and the tragic lives lived by the prostitutes; lynching and even a Russian Princess were all found on the grassy hillside overlooking the town.

 It just so happens that during our stay they were holding their 4th Annual Western Film Festival. So, on a Friday and Saturday night we joined about 40 - 50 Silvertonians at the All-School cultural arts center (a.k.a. auditorium). The highlight was the movie “A Ticket to Tomahawk” which was filmed in the early 1950s in and around Silverton and featured an ingénue role by a then unknown Marilyn Monroe.

On our final day we took the self-guided tour of the Mayflower Mill. Again, this is a must on any extended visit to Silverton. As you can imagine we know nothing about mining and milling. But after walking through the mill you can’t help be impressed with the guts and ingenuity of these turn of the century miners.  Interestingly, the mill remains exactly as it was the day it closed in 1991.

Besides our jeep adventure along the Alpine Loop which we covered in our previous post, JoAnne and I took several short hikes – with some spectacular views and pretty waterfalls. 

I also, did the Ice Lake hike which is one of the premier hikes in the San Juan Mountains. This spectacular 7 mile round-trip hike starts at 9,840 feet and climbs 2,430 feet. Along the way you are rewarded with spectacular waterfalls, fields of wildflowers, amazing vistas and of course a Micron blue glacial lake surrounded by spectacular peaks.

I think it is fair to say the Silverton captivated us – It grabbed our imagination if not our soul. We fell in love with the beauty of its surroundings, its history and its people. We will return.

Here are some of the sights we saw on our walking tour of Silverton.

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