La Plata County (1874) takes its name from the La Plata (Spanish for silver) Mountain Range, where Spaniards discovered silver in the 1700s. Other minerals also lay in the rugged, snowy mountains in the northern part of the county, while the broad mesas and river valleys in the south fostered agriculture. Water resources include the Animas, Los Pinos, La Plata, and Florida rivers and their tributaries, and Electra Lake, Lemon Dam (1964), and Vallecito Reservoir (1941, WPA). The San Juan National Forest occupies nearly all of the northern half of the county, and the Southern Ute Indian Reservation occupies much of the southern half, with a narrow band of land in between containing Durango, the county seat. This prosperous town of more than 13,000 and its growing suburbs house about half the county's 33,000 residents.
An 1870s gold rush first brought in settlers, but development awaited the 1881 arrival of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. Not only gold, but silver, coal, oil, gas, vanadium, and uranium have helped make this the richest county in southwestern Colorado. Agriculture and recreation, including hunting, fishing, and skiing, provide the modern-day economic base.
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