Isolated in Colorado’s rugged San Juan mountain range, Telluride’s past began with the Native American Ute tribe and mining. The Utes found it first, using it for their summer camps. With access to the San Miguel River and an abundance of wildlife, the area made it easy for the tribe to flourish, which it did until fur trappers and Spanish explorers arrived in the late 1700s.
When the Explorers Came to Town
Spanish explorers gave the San Juan Mountains their name when they came upon the landmark while searching for a way to reach their landholdings located along the Pacific Coast. Despite the Spanish finding the Telluride area and naming the mountain range, these early explorers did not settle it. At the time, fur trappers were the only people who spent time in the San Juan Mountains. When gold was discovered in 1858 in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, the nation made Colorado an official state.
A Mining Town
The first mining claim made near Telluride happened in 1875. Prospector John Fallon found valuable materials in Marshall Basin, which is just above the town. The claim area was abundant in gold, silver, iron, zinc, lead and copper. As people came to cash in on the valuable materials, they called the town Columbia, but because Columbia, CA, already existed, the mining town in Colorado had to find a new name.
No one knows for sure how Telluride received its name, but there are several theories. One theory is that the early settlers named it after the mineral tellurium, a non-metallic substance that often accompanies gold. However, tellurium was never found in the Telluride valley. The other theory derives from the famous sendoff that people used to give to fortune seekers who went in search of it in the San Juan Mountains, which was “To hell you ride.”
In 1890, the Rio Grande Southern railroad arrived, and a number of immigrants arrived with it. People from Germany, Cornwall, Italy, China and Scandinavia came to the area to mine their fortunes. During these years, living was hard while dying came easy. Because of this, many of the gravestones in the Lone Tree Cemetery bear names like Sven, Giovanni and Lars.
Telluride Joins the Wild, Wild West and Dabbles in Science
Telluride’s wealth from mining attracted criminals like Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch. In 1889, these men became bank robbers when they brought their guns to the San Miguel National Bank in downtown Telluride, stealing $24,000 in mining money.
The small town turned into a science experiment in 1891 when LL Nunn and Westinghouse used Nikola Tesla’s electrical current discovery to send about 2.5 miles of powerline from a hydroelectric plant located in Ames to the Gold King Mine. These lines were brought to the town, making Telluride the country’s first town to be powered with alternating current electrical power.
Telluride’s mining boom ended when silver prices crashed in 1893 and World War I began. In fact, during the 1960s, it was practically a ghost town with less than 600 people living there.
Saved by the Ski Industry
In the 1970s, Telluride was saved by the ski industry. Several locals, directed by Bill Mahoney Sr., joined forces with entrepreneur Joe Zoline to construct the area’s first ski resort by Gold Hill. The ski resort revitalized the town’s economy. This change of direction turned Telluride into a destination, a place where people wanted to go on vacation.
Later, Ron Allred and Jim Wells, two of the state’s natives, along with the assistance of the Benchmark Corporation took over the ski part of the community. The duo decided to build a resort village that included a first-class ski area and other tourist attractions.
To achieve their vision, they installed snowmaking machines and lifts. They also developed beginner terrain. In 1996, Telluride built the Gondola, which is a free transportation system. It was the first one like it in North America, and it connects Telluride to Mountain Village. The transportation system is a major area attraction, one that draws people to the destination.
The ski town today features a mix of beginner, intermediate, advanced, groomed and ungroomed terrain, making it an appealing destination for those of all ski levels. Not only is Telluride a place where skiers come to play, but it is also a town that offers entertainment for people who don’t.