The Ute American Indians
The Native American Ute tribe were the first to inhabit the Telluride valley. They made their summer camps along the San Miguel River and hunted elk, deer, and mountain sheep high in the San Juan Mountains. In winter, they migrated to the lowlands and the nearby red rock canyons of the desert for shelter and dry ground. They named the area, “The Valley of Hanging Waterfalls.” The Ute way of life continued for centuries until Spanish explorers and fur trappers passed through in the late 1700s.
The Spanish made their way north through Mexico and established the current day city of Santa Fe, New Mexico in the late 1700s. They traversed the lower Rocky Mountains in search of an overland route to their landholdings on the Pacific Coast and named the mountain range, the San Juan Mountains. The Spanish, however, did not settle in the rugged, high-altitude environment, and it is likely that fur trappers were the only ones to spend extended time in the San Juans. The trappers did not stay long. The demise of the beaver, due to the popularity of top hats made of its precious pelt, sent the fur trappers deeper into the American West. The discovery of gold in the Colorado Rockies in 1858 officially put Colorado on the map.
The Mining Boom
In 1875, Prospector John Fallon made the first mining claim in the Marshall Basin above Telluride. He registered the Sheridan Mine with the Silverton County Clerk, a find that proved to be rich in zinc, lead, copper, iron, silver, and gold. The town of Columbia was established as a mining camp in the Telluride valley in 1880. A confusion with another mining camp, Columbia, California, and the refusal of the United States Post Office to grant the town its own branch forced the town to find another name. There are two theories as to how the town came to be known as ‘Telluride’: 1) The name was derived from the mineral tellurium, a non-metallic element often associated with mineral deposits of gold (and ironically, not found in this valley), or 2) The town was named for the famous send-off given to fortune seekers headed to the southern San Juan Mountains — “To-hell-you-ride”!
Wild, Wild West
The population of Telluride soared to around 5,000 residents with the coming of the railroad in 1890. Many immigrants made the arduous journey over the Rockies in search of their mining fortune. Telluride became a melting pot of Finns, Swedes, Irish, Cornish, French, Italians, Germans, and Chinese, all of whom supported the local mining industry. The town boasted all of the amenities of a thriving community including a seedy underbelly with saloons, gambling rings, and a heralded red light district. The mining operations created 350 miles of multi-level tunnels within 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 downtown Telluride in 1889. They stole $24,000 in mining payroll.
In 1891, entrepreneur LL Nunn & Westinghouse worked together using Nikola Tesla’s discovery of alternating electrical current to run almost 2.5 miles of power line from a hydroelectric plant in Ames to the Gold King Mine. Eventually, those lines would be brought in town, and Telluride would become the first town in the country to be powered with alternating current electric power.
The combination of the crash of silver prices in 1893 and World War I a couple of decades later ended Telluride’s mining boom. 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, Telluride was barely more than a ghost town, and the population had dwindled to less than 600 residents.
Telluride was resurrected in the 1970s by another kind of gold: white gold, or snow. A small group of locals, led by Bill Mahoney Sr., joined forces with entrepreneur Joe Zoline to build the first iteration of the ski resort on the ridge near Gold Hill. The new ski resort reshaped the economy, revived the Telluride community, and put Telluride back on the map. In 1978, two Colorado natives, Ron Allred and Jim Wells, with the backing of their Benchmark Corporation out of Avon, Colorado, assumed control of the ski area. Their vision included a resort village along with a first-class ski area and year-round destination resort. They installed snowmaking equipment, added lifts, and carved new beginner terrain. The Gondola came into operation in 1996. This free transportation system, the first of its kind in North America, today links the towns of Telluride and Mountain Village and has become one of the area’s most popular attractions. The ski area today includes a mix of groomed, un-groomed, beginner, intermediate, advanced, and off-piste terrain as well as multiple terrain parks for all levels of terrain park skiers and riders. Capital improvements continue on the mountain today to improve the winter sports experience of all of the guests. With the opening of Revelation Bowl in 2008, the Telluride Ski Resort currently boasts over 2,000 acres of skiable terrain and an average of 300 inches of snowfall annually.
Telluride’s summer season is filled with a wide variety of special events and activities. The world-renowned Telluride Bluegrass Festival annually brings together the best bluegrass and Americana roots music musicians in the world for a special four-day event of live music and celebration. The prestigious Telluride Film Festival provides a forum for discussion, screenings, and learning. Telluride is truly a year-round resort.
You Are Here
Today, Telluride’s permanent population is less than half of what it was during its mining heyday; it is currently estimated at approximately 2,000 residents. Miners have been replaced by (or have become) skiers and festivarians, but the history of Telluride remains in tact and celebrated. Take a look around while you’re hiking through the hills — you may stumble across an old mining shack in the forest or a piece of long-abandoned mining equipment. However you decide to enjoy your time here in Telluride, you will find that our box canyon is chock full of alpine riches and the spirit of the Old West remains and flourishes.