Column: Trail Tales

San Juan Freighters

By Ken Reyher

[October 2019 | San Juan Silver Stage]

The 1880s are often considered the glory years of the San Juans. By the beginning of that decade, more than 7,000 mining claims had been filed in the area bordered by Durango, Creed, and Telluride. People poured in, and unlike earlier strikes in California, Nevada, and Denver, many of the miners brought their wives and children. Housing was crude and in perpetual short supply. Families lived in tents or two-room wooden shacks made of rough-cut green lumber that shrank as it dried and had to be covered on the inside with old newspapers to keep the wind out.

Most pressing, though, was the problem of food and supplies. By 1882 the railroads had reached both Silverton and Montrose, but from these two supply towns, everything had to be loaded into freight wagons and taken into the mountains by either oxen or mules. It wasn’t cheap. Freight from Montrose to Ouray and Telluride could equal as much as 20 percent of the value of the cargo. A 100-pound sack of flour, that sold for $4.50 in Montrose, had another dollar added on in freight by the time it reached the citizens of Telluride. Nearly every item needed by the mines and the citizens had to be hauled in. To compound the problem, once deep snows arrived, most camps and towns were isolated from serious freight runs until the following spring. This meant that an entire winter’s supply of food, coal, and other necessities had to be hauled in before cold weather. Trying to determine how much was needed proved difficult. As late as 1887, from 20 to 30 new people a day, every day, passed through the town of Dallas on their way to Ouray or Telluride.

A similar migration moved north out of Durango. The newcomers all had to be fed, housed, and kept warm. Sometimes by late winter, coal supplies were being rationed, and in some cases, emergency shipments of food were brought in by mule pack trains. Meanwhile, the railheads continued advancing deeper into the San Juans, and by 1890, even Telluride had access to rail transport. The need for the big mountain freight wagons was at an end, but for a decade, they had moved incredible tonnages of supplies and mining equipment in and had hauled out the ore that made the San Juan rush possible.