Durango's earliest residents were the Ancestral Puebloans, over 2,500 years ago. These ancient people enjoyed rich, fertile soil and abundant wildlife resources before moving to the mesas in the south and west of Durango, an area now encompassed by the Mesa Verde National Park. For thousands of years, they made their homes in rock shelters and pithouses, but the Puebloan culture mysteriously disappeared by the 1300s. Centuries later, the Ute Tribe arrived to hunt and fish in the lands around Durango, sheltering in the abandoned cities left by the ancient Puebloans.
Durango The Boomtown
It was soon discovered that fish and game were not the only riches in Durango. In 1860, a prospector discovered flakes of gold in the San Juan Mountains north of present-day Durango. People flooded the Animas Valley hoping to strike it rich. Prospectors, miners, farmers, and families established homes in the valley, making their livelihood by supplying the mining camps with their necessities. Although the American Civil War from 1861-1865 slowed growth in Southwestern Colorado, the arrival of the railroads fed rapid growth after the war’s end.
Drawn into the San Juan Mountains by the mineral wealth of silver and gold ore, the rails of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad reached Durango in August of 1881. From then on, the pace of growth was phenomenal. Just one year earlier, Durango’s importance was on paper only. In 1880, railroad officials drafted city plans for Durango, laying out the rails, a depot and rail yards as well as Main, Second and Third Avenues. Within one year of the railroad’s arrival, Durango had 134 businesses which included doctors, saloons, and many newspapers. One of its first newspapers, the Durango Record, was run by a fearless crusader, Caroline Romney. The outspoken Romney championed Durango as “the new wonder of the Southwest” and rallied for women’s right to vote.
Durango's Railroad Impact
Durango emerged as the center of industry and commerce for the Durango and Rio Grande’s San Juan Extension. Of primary importance to Durango’s growth was the completion of the Silverton Branch, which traveled 45 miles from Durango to Silverton through the Animas River Valley’s mountains and mining camps. “Silver by the ton” was the primary reason that railroad was constructed at such a feverish pace.
Silverton had dozens of mining camps, yet the town remained isolated and dependant upon toll roads and pack animals to haul ore over the rugged Continental Divide. A railroad meant more ore could be hauled out with greater speed, so it was with speed that the Silverton Branch was built. During the winter and spring of 1881 – 1882, crews blasted through mountains and built bridges across swollen rivers to lay the tracks that reached Silverton by July 1882. The amazing 8 month feat was recognized in 1968 by the American Society of Engineers as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
During and after this period, the town of Durango flourished. Trimble Hot Springs built its first hotel. Within a few years, Durango’s finest Victorian building, the Strater Hotel, opened “strictly first class in all appointments.” It was in 1888, brothers-in-law Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason discovered Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde.
Much of the film Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid was filmed along the Animas River and Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Durango The Destination
The turn of the century was the beginning of the tourist economy as travelers began to discover Durango and the Animas Valley as a vacation destination. In addition to interest in the Silverton Branch and the scenery of the area, the creation of Mesa Verde National Park in 1906 greatly increased travel to Durango. During the Great Depression, however, Durango suffered along with the rest of the country. With the onset of World War Two, Durango supported the war efforts through farming and mining activities. During the 1950s, as the town was again in an economic boom, Fort Lewis College was opened in Durango and went from a two-year agricultural school to the four-year college it is today. In 1965, Purgatory Ski Resort opened in the mountains north of Durango. The opening of Fort Lewis College and Purgatory Resort helped to solidify Durango’s longstanding identity as a vacation destination for guests of the Rocky Mountain state.
Today, Durango is a haven to outdoor enthusiasts. Hunting, biking-- both mountain and road, hiking, fishing, skiing, rock climbing, and snowmobiling entice exuberant visitors to the Durango area year after year.