The county seat (1874, 9,318 feet) has been preserved by its economic poverty and geographic isolation as a quaint mining town used as a set for many films, including Naked Spur, Ticket to Tomahawk, and Maverick Queen. After a false start with an 1860 gold humbug, the town blossomed in the 1870s. The Greene Smelter (1874) briefly made Silverton the smelting capital of southwestern Colorado until the railroad arrived in 1882 and carted off Silverton's rich ores to the San Juan Smelter in Durango. By shifting to gold and other metals, Silverton survived the 1893 silver crash. Mining fed the town and the county until 1991, when the Sunny-side Mine closed. Afterward the mining industry hit rock bottom, but Silverton still prides itself on being “the mining town that never quit.”
Many of the remote mines above Silverton are accessible only by foot, mountain bike, or four-wheel drive. Even the Denver & Rio Grande, which built the Durango-Silverton line, refused to build up the Animas River to Animas Forks, up Cement Creek to Gladstone, or up Mineral Creek to Chattanooga and Red Mountain. So Otto Mears, a leading entrepreneur of the San Juans, undertook that gamble, with three baby lines that crawled up to timberline mining camps and enabled Silverton to puff itself as the “Narrow Gauge Capital of the World.” Tourism is the mother lode today, and the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad disgorges some 2,000 summer tourists daily. Motorists reach Silverton from Ouray and Durango by U.S. 550, the “Million Dollar Highway” (see Ouray County, OR26).
Silverton, snuggled into a picturesque mountain valley surrounded by snowcapped mountains, has a National Historic Landmark designation. The commercial district, which has seen little new construction since 1910, includes several livery stables. Of the notorious red-light district on Blair Street, some of the former bordellos survive, most notably the Welcome Saloon (1883; 1909), 1161 Blair, and the Shady Lady Bar (c. 1900), 1154 Blair. “Chippies” from Blair Street sometimes toured outlying mining towns if business was slow, riding up to boarding houses in tram ore buckets. Fines levied on bordellos, bars, and speakeasies sustained the town coffers, so Silverton did not levy the heavy property taxes which led people in other mining towns to demolish their buildings during hard times to avoid payment. Hospitable landmarks include the Alma House (1902), 220 East 10th Street, which Bridget Hughes opened as a miners' boarding house. Built of rough local granite blocks with a frame, dormered second story, it was restored in the 1980s as a bed and breakfast, as was the Queen Anne Style Wingate House (1886, Emma Harris), 1045 Snowden Street.
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