Durango in La Plata County, Colorado — The American Mountains (Southwest)
Trails to Rails
Routes to Southwest Colorado 2
From 1872 until 1882, when the railroad reached Silverton, Stony Pass was the vital link between the San Juan mining districts and supply towns to the east.
A practical but tough route from Del Norte ran up the Rio Grande over Stony Pass and down Cunningham Gulch to Howardsville. The first wagon road was built over the pass in 1872 to transport mill machinery from Pueblo. It fell into disrepair by 1875, so pack or foot travel over the pass was preferable. At Lost Trail wagon cargoes were shifted to pack trains.
Taking a wagon down the 20-degree descent into Cunningham Gulch required snubbing (wagon tied to a rope wrapped around a tree or post), back teaming (placing part or all a team at the rear to brake), or dragging logs behind the wagon.
Snow, often from October to June, forced travelers to go at night or early morning when snow crust could support their weight. For heavy laden animals a trail had to be packed or excavated. Mail carriers used long skis. Risk of frostbite and death by exposure was high.
In 1879 the wagon road was rebuilt a mile north from the old road summit and upgraded
Countless tons of supplies were carried into the mountains. Tons of ore was hauled from the mines down to the smelters.
A team of ten oxen could pull two wagons loaded with 16,000 lbs., more than six times the amount ten pack mules could carry.
Winter shortages caused desperation. Tons of supplies waited in warehouses for spring shipment.
A lot of extremely heavy equipment had to be moved in winter on sleds, pulled by tough, long-legged mules.
Stagecoaches also carried mail and express freight, averaging 8-10 mph. "Stage” was the distance between stations.
Horses were changed at swing stations about 10-20 miles apart. Meals and beds were available at home stations about 50-90 miles apart.
Stage service was provided from railheads, and gradually, as the rails moved across the state, so did the points of origin. Stagecoaches remained the chief means of travel throughout sparsely populated areas well into the twentieth century.
Unpleasant features of stagecoaches included dust, continual jolting, bad water, and diseases from other passengers.
Railroads, although expensive to build, were much more efficient and reduced freight cost
In 1877 La Veta Pass (9,383 ft.) was the first railroad crossing of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.
When the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG) arrived in 1881, Durango became the most important supply center in Southwest Colorado.
Besides D&RG, Silverton gained three more railroads, shortlines to mining districts north of it. Otto Mears built two and later bought the third. They had steeper grades and tighter curves than any other common-carrier mountain railroad in North America except the Uintah.
Mears also built the Rio Grande Southern Railroad.
Motor Vehicle Roads
The Ford Model T was a special stimulus for good roads. The affordable automobile was first produced in 1908.
The first autos reached Red Mountain Pass from Ouray in 1911 and Silverton from Durango by 1912.
The only route east of Durango across the Continental Divide was a rough wagon road over Elwood Pass with grades up to 25%. During 1913-16 the state built a new road over Wolf Creek Pass with 6% single-lane grades and turnouts.
After Congress passed the Federal-Aid Road Act in 1916, the wagon road from Durango to Silverton was upgraded and rerouted in 1918-20 and Ouray to Red Mountain Pass in 1921-24; both were widened to two lanes and paved in the 1950s.
Trails, roads and railroads were essential for mining towns. They provided communication as well as a way to bring in food, coal, hay, supplies, and equipment, and haul ore out. Limited access in winter was a serious hardship.
The initial spartan life in mining towns involved hotels, saloons, and general merchandise stores. The arrival of women and children brought demands for schools, churches, other shops and a variety of luxury items such as books, musical instruments, and china.
Most surprising was the early rise of large scale tourism.
Left, top: Dave Woods dominated the freighting business in Southwest Colorado. History Colorado
Left, middle: James Carr wagon train. History Colorado
Left, bottom: Blockades occurred frequently, requiring excavating tunnels through dense snow slides or trenching through drifts. Photo on July 6, 1888, between Ouray and Silverton. History Colorado
Right, top: Very rough early road. SJCHS
Right, middle: The new Colorado Highway Department rebuilds the road between Ouray and Silverton in 1918. Colorado Department of Transportation
Right, bottom: Concord stagecoaches, made in Concord, New Hampshire, could haul fifteen passengers and were considered the best for mountain roads because of their light, strong wheels and leather suspension straps. History Colorado
Erected by Durango Railroad Historical Society.
Topics. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: Industry & Commerce • Railroads & Streetcars • Roads & Vehicles.
Location. 37° 16.137′ N, 107° 52.93′ W. Marker is in Durango, Colorado, in La Plata County. Marker is at the intersection of Main Avenue and East 5th Street, on the left when traveling south on Main Avenue. Touch for map. Marker is in this post office area: Durango CO 81301, United States of America. Touch for directions.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. A different marker also named Trails to Rails (here, next to this marker); Durango - Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (within shouting distance of this marker); Bradshaw Circle (about 300 feet away, measured in a direct line); Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory (about 400 feet away); Main St., Durango circa 1890 (about 500 feet away); The Newman Block (approx. Ό mile away); Jack Dempsey (approx. 0.4 miles away); Old Main Post Office Professional Building (approx. half a mile away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Durango.
Credits. This page was last revised on July 24, 2020. It was originally submitted on July 23, 2020, by Duane Marsteller of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. This page has been viewed 69 times since then and 7 times this year. Photos: 1, 2, 3, 4. submitted on July 23, 2020, by Duane Marsteller of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. • Andrew Ruppenstein was the editor who published this page.