To say that Otto Mears led a complex life is an understatement. To try to even summarize the accomplishments of his lifetime is difficult. The “I can” man born in 1840 seemed to be able to do anything he decided to do in the Saguache and San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. His life story also is the story of that region in the latter part of the 19th century. An uneducated and poor immigrant…birthplace in Russia, with early deaths of a Jewish father and mother…shipped (or possibly runaway) by sea to England at age 9… unsuccessful search for English relatives…somehow sent to New York and then to California…Mears’ adventuresome early life story provides tantalizing hints of Mears future life. The 11-year-old Mears arrived in San Francisco (1851) two years after the gold rush. Forced to go to work, with no family, Mears acquired a strong interest in making money, no matter how and where. A chance acquaintance led him to California mines thriving in the gold rush. Dirty, hard and dangerous work in mines had a side benefit. Mears invested in mines, not much and not too successful but a learning experience. He also learned that people making money more often than prospectors were saloon and store keepers.
Mears became a U.S. citizen, joined the Army and, in 1862, was sent to New Mexico to fight the Confederacy. Discharged in New Mexico in 1864, Mears and friends headed north to make their fortune. Mears left with lots of cash earned from various Army deals and winnings from poker. On the way north, he connected with the Jewish community in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and started his own store. A year later he moved his store to Colorado. Soon afterwards, seeing the high prices the Army was paying for lumber, flour and beef, Mears and friends went into cattle ranching, farming, flour and saw milling. Later Mears branched into building roads. Bringing in goods and material for his various enterprises, Mears started operating pack trains from Denver to Saguache. Mears brought the first threshing machine into the area and taught his Mexican employees to use it on his ranch. In the same year, 1867, he incorporated Saguache. Seven years later he founded the town’s newspaper and later a printing and publishing company. Later he financed a Lake City newspaper, before the city boomed with rich mineral finds.
For Mears political life was simply a means to his ends. By the time Colorado became a state (1876), Mears was deeply involved in Colorado political life, especially its Republican politics at state and even national levels. A few years earlier Mears got a mail route from the Ute Indian Agency to Saguache, about 40 miles, later extended 100 miles to Silverton. To increase profits, he transported supplies along with mail. When cold and snow prevented mail delivery, Mears himself made the grueling dog sled trip in order to avoid a fine from the postal service.
In the late 1860s in Colorado it was easy and cheap to get charters to build and operate toll roads. No maps or engineering designs needed, just a statement of beginning and end points. So in 1870 Mears and another investor formed the Poncha Pass Wagon Road Company. Mears eventually built some 450 miles of roads. His roads usually served his own and the business interests of others. They became investors, paid off by tolls. Mears himself figured out where a road should be cut, laid out the road and directed construction. Mears built so many roads that he became known as the “Toll Road King of the San Juan.”
One of his most ambitious road projects ran from the terminus of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RGR) across Marshall Pass to Gunnison. In the next years (1880-81) Mears formed several new road building enterprises including the Dallas and San Miguel Toll Road, from Dallas to Telluride, and the San Miguel and Rico Toll Road from Telluride to Rico. Diverted by politics in the next two years he didn’t launch another toll road building project until a very rough and precipitous one from Ouray to the Mount Sneffels Mining District, finished in 1884. The next road project, from Ouray to the Red Mountain Mining District, was the most challenging of all. Engineering problems were staggering. Today, on essentially the same bed, the “Million Dollar Highway” attracts visitors who gasp as the tight corners and precipitous drops, and the absence of guardrails along some of the narrowest parts of the road hovering above the river below.
Silverton people wanted their own roadway to the Red Mountain District. No one else other than Mears had the expertise. Completed in 1885 ore could be shipped to Silverton and then south to Durango by rail. The last toll road built by Mears was a road from Silverton north to Mineral Point by way of Howardsville, Eureka and Animus Forks. Mears and his engineers had to figure out how to build up the roadbed to prevent its destruction by snow and ice. They solved this dilemma and Mears operated the road profitably until 1896 when he sold it to his own Silverton Northern Railroad Company for use as a railroad track. Mears turned his projects from toll roads to railroads. In about 20 years Mears had built a network of almost 450 miles of roads and even managed to make a profit in doing so. Perhaps his greatest skill was not toll road design but selling his often challenging projects to investors for the capital needed for his enormously expensive ventures in the very rough San Juan Mountains.