The Town of Telluride was founded in 1878 and was originally known as Columbia. It was renamed in 1881 to avoid confusion with another mining camp. Telluride was reportedly named after tellurium, a gold bearing ore, although a popular myth attributes the name to people saying, “To hell you ride” upon departing for the mining camp. The town’s isolation at the bottom of a long box canyon along the San Miguel River Valley surrounded by the high peaks of the San Juan Mountains presented numerous challenges and hardships to early settlers drawn by the promise of gold and silver. Despite the obstacles, the mining industry and Telluride boomed. With the sudden increase in population and growth of the mining industry came the need for more efficient transportation and power systems. The advent of the railroad, electrical power and a telephone exchange triggered an increase of new construction, as well as the improvement of a number of existing buildings. It wasn’t until the 1890s that Telluride began to take on a more permanent appearance and create the unique identity that it still has today.
Until 1873, the San Miguel River Valley was home to the Ute Indians, when the government forced the Utes to sell a large portion of the mountains as well as cede all mineral rights. In 1880, the Utes were permanently forced from the area. On August 23, 1875, a group of men located and recorded the first placer claim in the San Miguel Mining District. Six weeks later, the first lode claims were established by the Sheridan Group in Marshall Basin. On October 10, 1877, the Town of San Miguel was incorporated; it was located a few miles west of Telluride near the first placer claim. In January 1878, Telluride was platted into an 80-acre town site.
With the arrival of the Rio Grande & Southern Railroad in 1890, Telluride experienced its greatest boom, and within ten years, the population had grown from 766 people to 2,446. This significant transportation improvement linked Telluride with the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad System, and for the first time ever, the town began to take on a more permanent appearance. Many of the wood buildings on Colorado Avenue (the main street) were replaced by more substantial buildings; it was during this time that many of the town’s brick buildings and civic structures were constructed.
With the tremendous growth came the need for technological improvements. The greatest expense to the mine owners was the cost of coal to power the steam engines used for hoisting and milling. In 1890, Lucien Lucius Nunn, a Telluride businessman associated with the Gold King Mine, found a solution to the mines’ need for inexpensive power. In 1890, Nunn and Westinghouse constructed a commercial AC power plant, based on the pioneering work of Nikola Tesla and by June 1891, the Gold King Mine switched from coal to electricity.
By using alternating electrical current to power motors, ore could be mined much more economically than with the coal-fired steam engines. This method caused power costs for the mine to drop to one fifth the cost of coal per month. By 1894, the Town of Telluride and many of the mines and mills were electrically lighted. Nunn’s development of the first large commercial AC system for power and lighting sparked a nationwide interest in alternating electrical current, and with the founding in 1902 of the Telluride Institute and its pioneering study of electrical engineering, Telluride’s noteworthiness had spread.
Telluride’s historical significance is also derived from its role as a major producer of precious metals and the site of labor struggles. By 1897, San Miguel County was one of Colorado’s principal milling centers, with an average annual gold production of $2 million. In 1900, San Miguel County ranked third in Colorado in gold production and fifth in the production of silver.
However, with the industrialization of mining, miners and mill workers were increasingly dissatisfied with low wages, long hours and poor working conditions. Through the 1890s, the labor unions gained strength. In 1899, the mines established a fathom system, where miners were paid for the amount of work they did, rather than a fixed daily wage. On May 2, 1901, the miners went on strike, and non-union labor was hired to replace strikers. On July 3, violence broke out when about 250 armed strikers surrounded the Smuggler-Union Mine. Three men were killed. Eventually a union contract was signed, establishing an eight-hour day wage for miners. In September of 1903, the mill workers went on strike, demanding a similar eight-hour day. The strike spread to the mines and the militia was called in, at the request of the mine owners.
The labor disputes were eventually settled. However, the costs of mining had risen dramatically, while silver prices had fallen since the Silver Crash of 1893. Disastrous snow slides and fires in 1902 and 1903 resulted in the mines standing idle. Other events that impacted the region included the 1914 flood, which damaged numerous buildings in town, and the 1918 influenza epidemic. By the 1920s, many of the mines began shutting down and Telluride’s boom was over.
By the early 20th century, there was a noticeable decrease in new construction in Telluride, and the last major building constructed downtown was the Sheridan Opera House, in 1913. By the time of the Great Depression, the population had dropped to only 505. Telluride made national headlines again in 1929, when Charles Waggoner, the president of the Bank of Telluride, paid off the bank’s debts through a series of illegal transactions, at the expense of six New York banks. This event rivaled Butch Cassidy’s 1889 robbery of the San Miguel Valley Bank, the first bank robbery of the Wild Bunch.
In the 1930s, the Idarado Mining Company was formed and by 1953, the company had acquired nearly every mine in the region. Lead and zinc became the major products of the mine. However, mineral prices continued to drop while production costs rose. In 1978, the Idarado Mine closed. The mines were designated as a Superfund site and remediation of the mines began in 1992.
In 1972, Telluride experienced the beginning of its second boom. The advent of the Resort Era was initiated by the opening of the first lifts of the Telluride Ski area. During the first phase of growth the mountain stayed small. As the sport of skiing grew in popularity, so did the reputation of the little ski resort. Demand for more terrain and facilities increased, and in 1980 planning began for the mountain’s expansion. The plan included a mid-mountain village as well as an airport. As the resort grew, Telluride received more exposure. This resulted in demands on the town for new construction, and land values increased dramatically. The new construction has provided Telluride with more architectural diversity and its overall character has evolved. However, design review of alterations to historic buildings, as well as new construction, has maintained the character of the historic town.
The street pattern of Telluride has changed little since it was originally platted in 1878. The major streets ran east and west, with side streets extending to the north and south. The main street, Colorado Avenue, was the commercial center and the dividing line between the higher and lower elevations. The higher sunnyside was where the schools, churches, hospitals and more expensive homes were located. The lower riverside of Colorado Avenue was where saloons, warehouses, bordellos and cribs, gambling halls, foundries, railroad tracks and smaller, less expensive housing for the working class miners and laborers were found.
Because of its location on the floor of a box canyon, there is little room for expansion. The streets on the north are limited by canyon walls, and the south side streets are restrained by the San Miguel River. The railroad ran parallel to the river and the tracks served as the terminus at the south end of the streets. The eastern edge of town is bordered by the Lone Tree Cemetery and the western edge opens up to the San Miguel River Valley. The Liberty Bell and Smuggler-Union Mills, along with the small community of Pandora, were located at the far east end of the valley. All of the mines were located above town in the adjacent mountains.
As with many other mining boom towns, Telluride’s architecture evolved through a series of phases. The earliest of these was a settlement phase, which is characterized by the use of log construction and crude facilities including tents. The following phase is the camp phase, which is identified by more permanent building types. The third phase that Telluride experienced is the town phase. This is characterized by more decorated buildings, the replacement of some of the smaller, simpler camp phase structures with large brick or stone buildings and establishment of civic and cultural institutions.
If it were not for the lure of gold and silver amidst rocky peaks and rough terrain, Telluride might not have evolved the way it did. The town is famous not only for its scenic beauty and outdoor recreational activities, but also for its boomtown atmosphere and western charm. From the first crude settlements to a world-class ski resort, the town’s history is rich in struggles and successes.
The above historical information was compiled from the National Register of Historic Places Nomination form for the Telluride National Historic Landmark District, August 1988.