In the summers Ute Indians hunted and lived in the Silverton area before the first explorers, the Spanish, arrived. The Utes remained until 1873 when the Brunot Treaty opened the San Juans to settlement. The first permanent white settlers came for diverse reasons, but gold and silver served as magnets to the region. Some also wished to escape cumbersome responsibilities, perhaps even crimes, and turn over a new leaf. Others hoped to earn enough money to send for their families that they might all embark on a better life.
Most of the early settlers came from states east of Colorado, but the middle 1880s saw large numbers come from Europe, Austria, Italy, Serbia, Croatia, Cornwall, Ireland, Wales, France, Germany, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and elsewhere. The mining companies advertised in foreign newspapers, promising jobs and the opportunity to own land. Foreigners, usually the men first, made the exhausting ocean voyage, usually crowded into the lower levels of often dirty ships, then after finally arriving in America crossed half a continent to reach Silverton. Few could speak English, and most left their families in the old country, worked in the mines, saved their money, then sent for their loved ones.
Early day Silverton was rough, turbulent and often violent. The environment was extremely harsh, especially the long severe winters. Mining was a very dangerous occupation with few, if any, safety precautions on the part of the mine owners. Mining casualties were frequent - falling down an open shaft, being blown to pieces in a powder explosion or the mine itself caving in on the workers. Snowslides carried many to eternity. Saloons, alcohol, prostitution, gambling, robbery, there were many opportunities to die violently. Suicides were not uncommon, especially among the prostitutes. Also in the early years of the town there were a few lynchings by the local vigilantes.
The Congregational Church was dedicated in 1881, the railroad reached Silverton the next year, and the Grand Hotel (later the Grand Imperial, still in operation) had its grand opening in 1883. Silverton's population was 3,000, and the town was becoming civilized! Fraternal lodges and various literary societies were organized. In the early 1900s the Carnegie Library, County Court House, County Jail, Town Hall, Wyman Building, Benson Block, Bausman Building, Miners Union Hall and Miners Union Hospital were built.
The worldwide 1918 flu epidemic was devastating in Silverton...more than 150 people died within a three week period in October and November of that year, approximately 10% of the population. In 1921 prices for metal fell and the population dwindled. However, some of the mines continued in operation until the last large mine closed in 1991. In the 1950s Hollywood discovered Silverton and several movies were shot on location, including Ticket to Tomahawk, Great Day in the Morning, Run for Cover, Night Passage, Across the Wide Missouri and Maverick Queen.
The world famous Durango/Silverton Narrow Gauge train now brings thousands of tourists to Silverton in the summer months, and thousands of others traveling Highway 550 stop in Silverton to spend some time getting acquainted with the town, the mountains and the people. Those who have been here remember the little town in the valley, surrounded by majestic peaks.
Text courtesy of The San Juan Colorado Historical Society