In 1860, Charles Baker and several prospectors entered the San Juan Mountains in search of wealth. They soon found deposits of gold and silver along the Animas River, in an area that was later called “Baker’s Park”. The prospectors stayed through the summer but returned to what is now northern New Mexico for the winter. News spread of the discovery; however, with the Civil War looming and the discovery being located on Ute Indian land, the miners did not return to the San Juan Mountains until early 1870s.
At that time nearly 1,000 prospectors once again ventured into the high country. The Utes protested, yet they could not stop the inexorable wave of miners and settlers that arrived over Stony Pass.
In 1874 Silverton’s town site was laid out and it soon became the center of numerous mining camps. In addition to the miners, Silverton caught the eye of a railroad company in Denver. In July 1882 the first train operated by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad rolled in to Silverton from Durango. By 1883, Silverton boasted of having a population of 2,000 people with 400 buildings – 2 banks, 5 laundries, 29 saloons, several hotels and a bawdy red light district – Notorious Blair Street.
As early as 1874, men were bringing their wives and families to live in Silverton. This influx of families provided an incentive for citizens to keep at least part of Silverton respectable. From the very beginning an imaginary line ran down Greene Street dividing the town between the law-abiding, church-going residents and the gamblers, prostitutes, variety theatres, dance halls and saloons.
In May 1883 a grand jury brought 117 indictments against “lewd women” on Notorious Blair Street. Although fines were levied, gambling and prostitution were generally accepted as long as the practice did not migrate into the more respectable sections of town. Lascivious behavior was not necessarily condemned, as fines were readily used for the growing community.
Due to a slow market and low demand, mining in Silverton closed down in the early 1990s. However, there’s still gold and silver in those mountains and rumor has it that mining will be back one day.
Click here for more information on the ghost towns in San Juan County.
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