History of Silverton
Like most of Colorado's boom towns, Silverton was founded by gold and silver prospectors looking to strike it rich. The precious metals were first discovered along an Animas River valley deep in the San Juan Mountains in 1860, when Charles Baker and few prospectors ventured into Ute Indian territory in search of wealth. However, a harsh winter and America's looming Civil War forced them to abandon their finds for a later date.
Prospectors came back to the high mountain valley in 1874 and set up a town site along the Animas River, much to the protest of the Utes. However, settlers kept arriving in the new town of Silverton and mining camps popped up all around the area. By 1883, Silverton had a population of 2,000 with saloons, banks, hotels and all the other comforts of the Wild West, including an infamous red light district.
With the import of eager settlers and export of rich gold and silver ore, it wasn't long before the railroad came to town. Despite the 9,000-foot elevation and multiple mountain passes in the way, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad built a line north from Durango into Silverton, opening it in 1882. That rail line still exists, now carrying tourists between the two towns.
One of Silverton's more legendary chapters was the battle between the "family-friendly" side of town and the "lewd" side of town on Blair Street. When the town started in 1874, mostly miners filled the Animas River valley, so the presence of saloons, brothels and theaters wasn't abnormal or unwanted.
However, over the next decade the families of the miners filtered into Silverton and there was growing pressure to "clean up" at least part of town for the law-abiding, God-fearing families. An imaginary line was drawn down Greene Street that divided the two halves of Silverton and the two eventually co-existed in peace — as long as they didn't interfere with one another.
Silverton still is surrounded by gold and silver deposits in the San Juan mountains but a slow precious metals market and low demand forced the closure of the area's mines in the early 1990's. The town shrunk greatly in size and it is the only incorporated community in San Juan County, drawing tourists instead of prospectors.
Only one mine is now maintained — the Old One Hundred, five miles east of town — and one gold and silver ore processing plant still stands — the Mayflower Mill.