Telluride History


Authentic, Inspiring, Singular – just a few of the adjectives that are often used to describe this one-of-a-kind community named Telluride. Founded shortly after John Fallon filed a claim on his Sheridan Mine in Marshal Basin in 1875, the Town of Telluride has lived through many booms and busts. Today, Telluride is not only a beautiful, rugged natural outdoor paradise, but it is also rich in history, sports a world-class ski mountain, boasts a legendary summer festival calendar, and has enough activities to keep even the hardest core athlete enthused. Telluride is a year round destination ideal for those intrepid travelers who appreciate the intersection of mountain-modern sophistication with free-spirited simplicity.

But who were the first residents of Telluride? The history of this spectacular valley developed through several groups before the present day incarnation we know as Telluride today.

The Ute American Indians
The Native American Ute tribe was the first to inhabit the Telluride valley. They made their summer camps along the San Miguel River and hunted elk, deer, and mountain sheep high in the San Juan Mountains. In winter, they migrated to the lowlands and the nearby red rock canyons of the desert for shelter and dry ground. They named the area, “The Valley of Hanging Waterfalls.” The Ute way of life continued for centuries until Spanish explorers and fur trappers passed through in the late 1700s.

The Explorers
The Spanish made their way north through Mexico and established the current day city of Santa Fe, New Mexico in the late 1700s. They traversed the lower Rocky Mountains in search of an overland route to their landholdings on the Pacific Coast and named the mountain range, the San Juan Mountains. The Spanish, however, did not settle in the rugged, high-altitude environment, and it is likely that fur trappers were the only ones to spend extended time in the San Juans. The trappers did not stay long. The demise of the beaver, due to the popularity of top hats made of its precious pelt, sent the fur trappers deeper into the American West. The discovery of gold in the Colorado Rockies in 1858 officially put Colorado on the map.

The Mining Boom
In 1875, Prospector John Fallon made the first mining claim in the Marshall Basin above Telluride. He registered the Sheridan Mine with the Silverton County Clerk, a find that proved to be rich in zinc, lead, copper, iron, silver, and gold. As other mining claims were being explored, the town of Columbia, Colorado, was founded in 1880. It grew rapidly as workers in the surrounding mines needed supplies and services. Hoteliers, merchants, liveries, opera houses, blacksmiths, and ranchers moved in alongside the miners. Brothels and saloons were also an important part of the economy here in Telluride. The doors opened and closed so frequently in the small establishments known as "cribs" on Pacific Avenue, that it is still known today as Popcorn Alley.

In 1887, the town was renamed in order to distinguish itself from Columbia, California, another booming mining town. The name 'Telluride' was chosen as the element tellurium was used an indicator of gold and silver lodes (though, interestingly enough, there was little or no tellurium in the Telluride area). Prospectors flocked to Telluride for its gold deposits, and in 1889, the San Miguel Valley Bank on Colorado Avenue (Main Street) was robbed of approximately $24,000 in mining payroll. Thus began the career of Robert Leroy Parker, alias Butch Cassidy.

In 1890, the Rio Grande Southern Railroad arrived, producing a significant boom to the economy and finally connecting the region with the rest of the country. In 1891, entrepreneur LL Nunn and Westinghouse worked together using Nikola Tesla's discovery of alternating current to run almost 2 ½ miles of power line from a hydroelectric power plant in Ames to the Gold King Mine. Eventually those lines would be brought into town, and Telluride would be the first town in the country to be lit with alternating current.

By the early 1900s, over $250 million in gold had been mined from the surrounding mountains and Telluride's population was close to 5,000.

The Bust
Alas, mining began to wane, mills closed and the population declined. Both Tomboy and Smuggler-Union Mill closed in 1928. New owners reopened Smuggler as Pandora Mill in 1935 and were successful producing gold, zinc and lead remaining open during WWII. It was one of the few gold mines to stay open at this time. In 1953, most of the remaining mines were purchased by Idarado, including Pandora. By retrofitting the Pandora Mill, it tripled the output capacity. But all good things come to an end, and by 1978 Pandora closed, firmly shutting the door on the mining era.

The New Gold is White
There were at least two attempts at making Telluride a ski area as early as 1930 and 1960, but both failed. The third time was a charm! A West Coast entrepreneur, Joe Zoline, overwhelmed with the beauty and ruggedness of the area, was determined to bring his vision for the area to fruition. He oversaw the construction and opening of the first six ski lifts in 1972, and the Telluride Ski Area was born. With the opening of the Revelation Bowl in 2008, the Telluride Ski Area currently boasts over 2,000 acres of skiable terrain and an average of over 300 inches of snow annually.

The Advent of Festival Season
As far back as the mining days, Telluride has celebrated Independence Day with a host of festivities. Men would come down from the mines to reunite with friends, and celebrate America’s birthday. Historic photos show horse drawn floats and brass bands playing, while spectators reveled from both sides of Main Street. The 4th of July parade and celebration has been happening in Telluride since the 19th century!

In 1973, in order to fill time between the parade and the fireworks display, a crowd gathered to listen to an acoustic music performance by the local bluegrass band “Fall Creek Boys”. They played on a small wooden stage in what was then known as “City Park”. This small concert was the impetus for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival which debuted the following year. Music wasn’t the only draw to Telluride that summer. The inaugural Telluride Film Festival otherwise known as “The Show” took place over Labor Day Weekend in 1974. Both of these festivals have grown exponentially over the decades. The remaining weekends in summer have been filled with festivals featuring many musical genres, wine, architecture, yoga, film, baseball etc. With skiing in the winter and festivals in the summer, Telluride has become a year-round destination.