Butch Cassidy in the San Juans

Most people remember Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as a Western film in the late 1960s starring Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy) and Robert Redford (Sundance Kid). Based very loosely on fact, the film tells the story of Wild West outlaws Robert LeRoy Parker (Butch Cassidy) and his partner (Sundance Kid) who are on the run from a U.S. posse after a string of train robberies. The pair and Sundance’s lover, Etta Place (Katherine Ross), flee to Bolivia for safety and in search of more successful criminal careers. Neither goal was accomplished. But the film was hugely successful, one of the great Westerns of all time. The true story of Butch Cassidy and the fabled Sundance Kid, their wild rides in the San Juans, battles with posses, bank robbery, and other stories provide one of the most interesting stories in Colorado’s frontier history.
Butch Cassidy

The setting for the story starts along today’s Colo. 145 between Telluride and Rico. Unmatched in scenic beauty with towering 14,000-foot mountain peaks and the rock formation known as Lizard Head, it also is the scene of the once-active days of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad and the heyday of mining in the San Juan Mountains. This scenic route also holds an early chapter of the Butch Cassidy story. On June 24, 1889, a small group of outlaws robbed a bank in nearby Telluride, escaping into the rugged mountainous terrain with the miners’ very large payroll. The heist kicked off the infamous career of Harry Alonzo Longabaugh (1867 – November 7, 1908), better known as the Sundance Kid, who likely met Butch Cassidy after he was released from prison around 1896.

Harry Alonzo Longabaugh

Born on April 6, 1866 near Beaver, Utah, Parker was the son of immigrants who had taken part in the Mormon migration to the West. From an early age he formed a bond with local rancher Mike Cassidy. The young man soon took the name George “Cassidy” (later picked up the nickname “Butch” during his brief stint as a butcher). After a few run-ins with the law in Utah, Cassidy made his way to the booming mining town of Telluride. He got a job with a crew bringing high-grade gold ore off nearby mountains. In Telluride Cassidy met Matt Warner (real name Willard Christensen). Cassidy, Warner and another local formed a gang that planned a robbery of the San Miguel Bank in Telluride. A younger brother of Cassidy, who had come to visit his brother, also took part in the heist.

Butch Cassidy & Sundance Kids

Each afternoon, the gang rode into town to socialize at the various saloons with local miners in order to gather information for their heist. At this time a large group of miners numbering between 400-500 men were working in Marshall Basin at the headwaters of the San Miguel River. As always, pay day would be BIG! The well-planned robbery was a success. Back in the saddle, they rode up the street shooting off guns and shouting threats to anyone who dared to follow them. Soon a posse of a dozen men headed into the mountains after the robbers. After a brief rest near Trout Lake, the outlaws were off again, over the mountains to the gold mining camp of Dunton along the headwaters of the West Dolores River. Not one of the Telluride bank robbers was ever caught by the posse.

Visitors can relive part of Butch Cassidy’s ‘Outlaw Trail’ by taking Colo. 145 south from Telluride. This route is also part of the San Juan Skyway. After a long, gradual climb up the 10,222-foot summit of Lizard Head Pass, a drive around Trout Lake takes you past a restored railroad water tank and the remains of a wooden trestle that is a remnant of the bygone era when Otto Mears’ famous Rio Grande Southern Railroad linked the mines of Telluride to the outside world. As you start down the south side of Lizard Head Pass, watch for a sign on the right hand side of the highway reading Dunton. A dirt road that climbs sharply from Colo. 145, winding through dense groves of aspen trees, leads to the West Dolores River and then the former gold mining camp of Dunton. Dunton today has several thermal hot springs in the vicinity of the community. The road continues to follow the West Dolores River for approximately 23 miles, eventually rejoining Colo. 145 south of Rico.