After leaving Durango, I drove around the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway, making my first stop in the town of Silverton. I arrived about 10:45 and walked around the cute town. It was still sunny, but I could see dark clouds and rain over the route I’d just driven. I put my leftover momos and garlic naan, from dinner the previous night at the Himalayan Kitchen, on the dashboard to warm in the sun. This town would be my favorite of the three on the San Juan Skyway, the others being Ouray and Telluride.
When the first buildings of Silverton appeared in 1874, the hamlet lay 125 miles from the nearest post office. Though railroad service commenced in 1862, snowdrifts often blocked the tracks for weeks on end. To compound the isolation, Silverton’s climate and topography made farming almost impossible. Residents had to wait for food shipped from elsewhere. But the area’s rich mineral deposits — not just gold and silver but also iron, lead, zinc and copper — assured the town’s prosperity for years to come.
The nineteenth century miner had a hardscrabble life. Twelve hours a day, six days a week, he spent underground, drilling holes into solid rock, filling them with explosives, blasting the stone into rubble, and hefting the pieces into ore cars. Even when tools improved, there were many miseries and perils: tight dimly lit spaces, dust that suffused his lungs (and often killed him), and ever-present threats of cave-ins. He made only $3-$4/hour, likely more than he’d make anywhere else, but it was a perilous occupation.
At one time Silverton was served by four railroads, which were vitally important to the development of mines, hauling out ore and bringing in coal and supplies. They made mining lower grade ore profitable. They provided lifelines to the people living in the communities.
Ironically, Silverton’s remoteness proved to be an asset, for it preserved the town’s scenery and Victorian character, spurring its development as a tourist destination in the mid-20th century.
When men started bringing their wives and children to Silverton in 1874, the residents had some incentive to keep at least some of the town respectable. From the beginning, an imaginary line ran down Greene Street, dividing the town between the law-abiding, church-going residents and the gamblers, prostitutes, variety theaters, dance halls and saloons. From its earliest history, Blair Street developed as the red light district. In 1883, a Grand Jury brought 117 indictments against “lewd women.” Although fines were levied, prostitution and gambling were generally accepted as long as they didn’t migrate into the respectable part of town. Fines were generally used as revenues to support the growing community.
I first walked down Greene Street, the “respectable” side of town.
Adelaide’s Antiques was built in 1901 and was primarily used as a hardware store until 1982.
The Storyteller Indian Store was originally the Posey & Wingate Building of 1880, making it the oldest commercial brick building in western Colorado. It has served as a hardware and clothing store, beer hall and First National Bank of Silverton from 1883-1934.
The Funnel Cake Factory was built in 1875 as Alhambra Saloon.
Rocky Mountain Gifts was built in 1884 as St. Julien Restaurant and served as a saloon for many years. Next door, Fetch’s, built in 1883, mostly served as a saloon with gambling on the basement and main floors.
The Grand Imperial Hotel/Ortega’s Old Town Indian Store was built in 1882 as Grand Hotel. The main floor housed a variety of businesses including saloons, clothing stores, and newspaper offices. The second floor was once used as a courthouse.
Prior to World War II, Romero’s served as Silverton Barbershop. After WWII, Silverton Veterans of Foreign Wars moved in and established a club.
After walking up and down Greene Street and popping into its cute shops, I ventured over to the notorious Blair Street.
In its heyday, Silverton’s Blair Street was lined with bordellos and saloons. The streets were raucous and bawdy with the hardworking miners who were happy to escape the darkness of the mines. Nowadays, the street is fairly quiet except when the train from Durango comes in.
The oldest portion of Natalia’s/The Scarlet House composite structure was built in 1883, and known as the infamous 557, one of the first dens of iniquity on Blair Street. Enlarged in 1886 to add the right-hand segment, the building was most widely known as Mattie’s Place, or the Welcome Station. The ground floor has been a saloon, movie theater, and restaurant.
The Shady Lady Saloon was likely built in the late 1890s. Its premises were occupied by “Mamie Murphy” and “Kate Starr,” but the best-remembered madam was “Jew Fanny,” considered a good friend by Silvertonians from all walks of life.
The Old Town Square contains some of the oldest buildings in San Juan County.
The front portion of Professor Shutterbug’s contained the oldest bordello on Blair Street.
The other cabins in the Old Town Square include the original San Juan County Courthouse from Howardsville and miner’s cabins from Eureka.
The Bent Elbow Hotel, Restaurant and Saloon was erected in 1907 and was originally known as the Florence Saloon, operated until 1918.
One of the newer buildings on Blair Street, the Old Arcade was built in 1929, and has been used at various times as a pool hall, a saloon, and a gambling house.
The Villa Dallavalle Inn was one of the first substantial buildings on Blair Street, built in 1901 by John and Domenica Dallavalle. It housed a saloon and boardinghouse for years.
The Old Town Jail is not the oldest jail in the community, but this wooden version was the first substantial prison built by the town of Silverton in 1883.
I made my way back to Greene Street, where I walked to the end and back to my car.
The Town Hall was built in 1909 using native stone. It was restored in 1976 with the assistance of a grant from the National Park Service.
At the end of Greene Street is a Museum, County Jail, Mining Heritage Center. The Courthouse was built in 1907. Newly renovated, it is still in use.
Back in my car, I ate my leftover momos and garlic naan, which had warmed up nicely on the dashboard, and headed north on the San Juan Skyway toward my next destination, Ouray.
*Saturday, May 19, 2018*
Information above is from various signs along the road and a pamphlet of a Downtown Silverton Walking Tour.
“PHOTOGRAPHY” INVITATION: I invite you to create a photography intention and then create a blog post for a place you have visited. Alternately, you can post a thematic post about a place, photos of whatever you discovered that set your heart afire. You can also do a thematic post of something you have found throughout all your travels: churches, doors, people reading, people hiking, mountains, patterns, all black & white, whatever!
You probably have your own ideas about this, but in case you’d like some ideas, you can visit my page: photography inspiration.
I challenge you to post no more than 20-30 photos and to write less than 500-800 words about any travel-related photography intention you set for yourself. Include the link in the comments below by Wednesday, March 6 at 1:00 p.m. EST. When I write my post in response to this challenge on Thursday, March 7, I’ll include your links in that post.
This will be an ongoing invitation, every first and third (& 5th, if there is one) Thursday of each month. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂
I hope you’ll join in our community. I look forward to reading your posts!
the ~ wander.essence ~ community
I invite you all to settle in and read a few posts from our wandering community. I promise, you’ll be inspired!
- Carol, of The Eternal Traveler, posted some great photos of the Black Creek Pioneer Village in the suburbs of Toronto, Canada.
- Meg, of wordsandimages, went out into the town of Stanthorpe armed with intentions to find “signs, green, shop displays, vibrant colours, people, … houses, and … a richness of street art.”
Thanks to all of you who shared posts on the “photography” invitation. 🙂