Located in some of Colorado’s most rugged mountains, San Juan County is a long way from anywhere. The county’s only town, Silverton (population 637), is located 49 miles from Durango and 60 miles from Montrose along the treacherous million-dollar highway.
Last week, El Pomar vice-president Peter Maiurro and I had the opportunity to visit this oft-overlooked corner of southwest Colorado. There we met with Silverton’s mayor, Chris Tookey, and town administrator, Jason Wells. In addition to hearing about the town’s storied past, we had a chance to learn about dedication to community and the importance of place.
The rugged mountains surrounding Silverton are mirrored by the town’s equally rugged existence. Founded in the late 19th century, Silverton drew settlers from across the globe seeking fame and fortune in the surrounding mines. Miners faced daily challenges; they battled mine accidents, avalanches and, like many mining encampments, persistent violence.
Today, life at nearly 10,000 feet in elevation still poses challenges. In the past 20 years, the town has seen its main industry (mining) wither, its town hall burn, and its population dwindle.
What remains is, from the outside, a somewhat hollow shell. A number of the town’s historic structures are abandoned and the population has settled at around 600 hardy residents. When the town’s economic engine, the Durango-Silverton railway, closes for the winter, the majority of the town’s businesses go into hibernation.
That is what you see from the outside. The portrait from the inside is very different. How do you capture the thriving, albeit hard-fought, sense of community? By talking and spending time there. Over the course of our visit, Peter and I learned about the town’s numerous nonprofits including: the Silverton Historical Society, the Silverton-San Juan Ambulance Association, Silverton Community Radio, and, as a fitting homage to the town’s rough and tumble past, the Silverton Gunfighters Association.
The sheer number and overall diversity of Silverton’s nonprofit community illustrates the effort and dedication it takes to keep a town running high in the San Juan mountains. Moreover, it is telling of the dedication of the town’s residents to their community. Life in Silverton is not easy. With over 300 inches of annual snowfall and an always-tenuous economic situation, it takes real dedication to live here year-round.
As members of El Pomar Foundation’s regional staff, we have an opportunity to visit a lot of incredible rural communities. What always strikes me, and what was reinforced in Silverton, is how much place matters in the lives of rural citizens. Certainly, I feel proud of my background and my hometown. Yet, the depth of commitment and the strength of the ties to place that I have seen in my regional travels never cease to inspire me.
Life in the mountains is tough. But the dedication of Silverton’s citizens to overcome the challenges of high-mountain living has shown me that there truly are places worth fighting for.
The Durango-Silverton railway