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Regional History

A Gem In The Rockies

The early history of Telluride, Colorado lies with the nomadic Ute Indians who would summer in the valley where deer, elk, and bighorn sheep were plentiful. The tribes would migrate to lower, more hospitable climes in the winters. This centuries-old pattern changed when the first Europeans discovered the San Juan Mountains 1700s. Even though there may have been the occasional trapper or frontiersman in Telluride’s valley, there were no permanent residents here until gold was discovered in the region. The first claim was staked by John Fallon in Marshal Basin in 1875 and the early settlement of the box canyon followed. Telluride is not the town’s original name. The town was founded in 1878 as Columbia not knowing a town in California had already adopted this name. To avoid confusion, the U.S. Postal Service forced a change in name.

No one is sure exactly how the distinctive name of ‘Telluride’ came about, but it can be speculated that the name came from the chemical compounds known as tellurides. A telluride is a combination of metals or minerals such as gold, silver, zinc, lead, etc. and that of tellurium. While there are ample deposits of these minerals in the surrounding mountains, the ironic twist is that there are very little gold tellurides in the area. One has to guess that after the postal service snafu, the residents wanted to find a name as unique as the place it represents.

One local legend has the name originating from the send-off phrase “to hell you ride” in reference to the town’s once rough and tumble reputation, although there is no specific proof despite the reputation being well earned. Robert Leroy Parker, better known as Butch Cassidy, robbed his first bank in Telluride in June 1889. Cassidy was a periodic resident of Telluride from 1884 to 1889. Along with three other accomplices, the robbers made off with approximately $21,000 from the San Miguel Valley Bank. Butch then went on to lead a now infamous life of crime never to see Telluride again.

Getting to, and more importantly, getting ore out of Telluride was difficult. Otto Mears opened a toll road that helped commerce in the region, but it wasn’t until the establishment of the Rio Grand Southern Railroad in 1891, also founded by Mears, that the success of the town began to flourish. The bustling town was home to thousands of residents throughout the region with a melting pot of cultures and nationalities. The mining boom created a vast amount of wealth in Telluride. By the turn of the century, there were more millionaires per capita in Telluride than in New York City. The mines of the region produced over $375 million dollars of gold in today’s adjusted dollars.

Local entrepreneur, L. L. Nunn, joined forces with George Westinghouse to build the first alternating current hydroelectric power plant near Telluride in Ames, Colorado. The plant supplied power to the Gold King Mine 3.5 miles away. It served as the first long distance transmission of alternating current power and powered an AC induction motor that was a patented design by Nikola Tesla. AC, opposed to DC or direct current power, is what is used with our modern power grids. Nunn and his brother Paul went on to build power plants throughout the country. To further develop his research, Nunn went on to establish and fund several educational institutions that still exist today.

After many decades of successful mining, the yields on gold and silver started to decline. With the crash of silver prices and the advent of World War I, the mining boom went bust. Mining shifted to other minerals and metals, but it could not sustain the economy Telluride once had. Miners and their families slowly started to leave the Telluride Valley for places like Moab where uranium mining was booming. Telluride became a ghost town.

After the miners left, those who remained discovered the power of white gold – snow. Entrepreneur Joe Zoline envisioned a ski resort on the slopes of the mountains surrounding Telluride. Five lifts and a day lodge opened in winter of 1972. Six years later, Ron Allred and Jim Wells purchased the resort and started the transformation of the resort into a world-class destination with lift upgrades, new terrain, the development of Mountain Village, and the free public transportation system the gondola. Then in 2004, Chuck Horning bought the ski resort and is its current owner. Telluride and Mountain Village have become diverse and culturally rich outside of skiing. During the summer there are festivals and events nearly every week from Mountainfilm in May to Blues & Brews in September; earning it the title of the festival capital of Colorado. Arts, music and theater abound in the small resort towns, drawing world-renowned artists and crowds from around the world.