Today, the town of Telluride, Colorado, is known as one of the world’s premier skiing destinations and the perfect vacation spot for enjoying an abundance of fabulous outdoor activities all year around. It’s the go-to place for everyone who is looking for a luxury stay in one of the most beautiful places in the world. However, that’s not how the town started out, and there’s a rich and vibrant history behind Telluride.
The Earliest Known Settlers
Long before this beautiful area ever became the town of Telluride, the Native American Ute tribe called the area along the San Miguel River home, and this tribe was able to thrive thanks to the plentiful hunting of deer and elk. Because of its pristine natural beauty, the people of this tribe felt that this area was sacred, and they referred to it as, “The Valley of Hanging Waterfalls.”
Along Came Spanish Explorers
The Ute tribe was able to enjoy this paradise right up until Spanish explorers arrived in the late 1700s. After displacing this Native American tribe, these explorers nearly drove the beaver population into extinction in an effort to get their hands on their pelts. Before departing the area, they named the San Juan Mountains in honor of the explorer Juan Maria Rivera.
The Discovery of Gold Leads to Telluride Being Officially Named
While gold was first discovered in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains in 1858, the first mining claim wasn’t made in Telluride until 1875. That claim soon turned up not only gold but also silver, iron, lead, zinc and copper. The town got really busy with hopeful miners after that, and it was originally named Columbia. However, it was soon learned that another mining camp with this same name already existed in California, so the name was officially changed to Telluride in 1887.
The reasoning behind the name of Telluride differs depending on who you ask. One theory is that the town was named after tellurium, which is a chemical element that refers to the mix of silver and gold ore that could be found in the area. The second theory behind the name is much more colorful. Because Telluride was once only accessible through a narrow and often-treacherous mountain pass, hopeful miners were often sent on their way with a shout of, “To Hell You Ride,” which sounds just like Telluride if you say it fast. Either way, the name stuck.
Incredible Growth Thanks to the Mining Boom
Telluride grew quickly, and it soon boasted its own bank, a hotel, an opera house and several saloons, brothels and gambling halls. As word spread of the town’s prosperity, more hopeful miners began to arrive with their families, which caused the population to explode with nearly 5,000 people who weren’t disappointed with their decision to relocate. Success was in abundance, and Telluride boasted more millionaires per capita than New York City by the end of the 19th century thanks to some $360 million worth of gold that had been successfully mined right in Telluride.
As if that weren’t enough, Telluride also became the very first town in the entire world to enjoy electric street lamps in 1891. This came as a result of a joint venture between Nikola Tesla, L.L. Nunn and George Westinghouse to build the world’s first alternating-current power plant in Telluride.
Wild West Infamy
Telluride even attracted one of the notorious outlaws of the Old West. Tales of the success of the mining town traveled far, and the thought of easy riches encouraged Butch Cassidy to come to town so that he could rob the San Miguel National Bank in downtown Telluride in 1889. Legend has it that he made off with the entire mining payroll of more than $20,000.
Like many other successful mining towns in the Old West, Telluride’s mines eventually shut down. Everyone left town around 1950, and the town stayed mostly empty for the next 20 years.
The Telluride Ski Area is Born
California entrepreneur Joe Zoline could see the huge potential that Telluride held, and he created the Telluride ski area in 1972. As a direct result, tourists began to flock to Telluride for its fabulous skiing opportunities, and the town soon grew to offer exceptional outdoor adventures during every season of the year.
Past Meets Present
Today, Telluride offers every modern amenity and convenience to its many visitors, but that doesn’t mean it has lost touch with its colorful history. When you visit Telluride today, you may stroll among historical buildings that still hold all of the nostalgia of the Old West, and you’re bound to run across the remnants of mining shacks and old mining equipment when you hike around the area.