Durango’s Wild Years

Strater Corner Winter
Other than Ute indian tribes, the first settlers in the San Juan Mountains were prospectors that came looking for gold in the early 1860s. The area that is today’s Silverton originally had the ore. The area that is today’s Durango (and its predecessor settlement of Animas City) furnished shipping and processing. After the arrival of the prospectors, the federal government negotiated several treaties with the Utes. One of these (the Brunot Agreement ) in 1873 resulted in the Utes losing a vast portion of their territory in Southwestern Colorado. By 1874 there already were thousands of mining claims in the area of Silverton and Animas City. With a population of hundreds of residents and having many small businesses, a post office was opened. Farms and ranches sprung up around Animus City in the mid-1870s.
The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG) decided to build a railroad that extended from Alamosa in the San Luis Valley all the way to Silverton. D&RG decided to build a facility for the railroad in Animas City. History says that local leaders in Animas City refused to cooperate. Rumors spread that D&RG instead would build a new town. Perhaps D&RG never wanted to build the railroad into Animus City. However, out of this seeming conflict and confusion, in 1879 a group of investors connected to D&RG in one way or another formed a new town – Durango. Why the name “Durango”? One of the town’s power brokers had recently visited the Mexican town of Durango. Auspiciously for its future role, the name “Durango” derived from the Basque “Urango” which meant a “watering hole”. In other words, a place for travelers to stop and rest before continuing their journeys.
Hogsback Mountain and Perins

From the outset Durango boomed. The Main Avenue and 2nd Avenue business districts flourished. Lots in the 3rd Avenue residential district sold for much higher prices than in nearby towns. Soon the town had a newspaper, the Durango Record. Coal mining around Durango led to construction of a smelter across the river. The coal mining accelerated construction of the railroad. Durango fortunately had several business dynamos like John Porter and General William Palmer of D&RG for planning and developing the town and its primary businesses. By 1880 Durango had seven hotels, dozens of saloons and dance halls, two theaters and many other businesses, including those that populated a “red light district” along the riverfront. Houses of prostitution proliferated.

By mid-1881, with over a thousand residents, Durango welcomes the first D&RG passenger train. Durango had become the commercial hub of San Juan County. In July 1889 the town proved its resilience by joining reconstruction after a potentially disastrous fire downtown. Reconstruction, however, was done in brick and stone replacing frame buildings. In 1887, the iconic Strater Hotel added to the town’s attractions, respectability and prominence. In 1890, with Durango’s population approaching 3,000, Otto Mears” Rio Grande Southern Railroad arrived in town. The rail line connected Durango to the north, up the Dolores River via Lizard Head Pass, with the towns of Rico, Ophir, Telluride, and then on to Ridgway where it connected with the D&RG Railroad.

Saloon Doors
Even with all of its newfound respectability, Durango still retained its wild and rowdier sides. Nighttime still had what was referred to as its carnival atmosphere. The town’s redlight district thrived along with many saloons and gambling halls. Tourists continued to show up in large numbers especially when the city became a stopping point on the “Narrow Gauge Circle Route”. Even after the Silver Panic of 1893 cooled the San Juan mining boom, tourism grew along with a rebound of mining in the early 1900s. And the city of over 15,000 straddling the Animas River still can boast of an abundance of history, sporting activities and other assets that have made it so unique before and after its wild days.