Old Mining Towns
in Colorado, USA

Copyright 2011 by Ronald B. Standler

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction

  2. Some Historic Towns
    1. Central City, seat of Gilpin County

    2. Leadville, seat of Lake County

    3. Ouray, seat of Ouray County

    4. Telluride, seat of San Miguel County

  3. Links to other webpages on Colorado history


Colorado east of I-25 is largely farming and ranching country. The western edge of Colorado (e.g., Grand Junction) is — like the neighboring state of Utah — mostly desert. Central Colorado is mountainous, with several peaks reaching more than 4270 meters (14,000 feet) above sea level.

Even today, there are few major roads in Central Colorado, because of the enormous expense of constructing a road in the mountains. There are only two major east-west highways in Central Colorado:
  1. I-70 runs east-west from Pittsburgh to I-15 in Utah, passing through Denver and Grand Junction in Colorado.
  2. US50 in Colorado runs from Grand Junction east to Pueblo, CO and continuing east to Washington, DC.
There are several major north-south highways in Central Colorado:
  1. US24 runs from I-70 west of Vail, CO south to Buena Vista, CO, then turns east to Colorado Springs and eventually joins I-70.
  2. US285 runs from Denver south to Alamosa, CO and continuing to US90 in Texas.
  3. US550 runs from Montrose, CO south to Durango, CO, and continuing to Farmington, NM.

There were many railroads in Central Colorado, mostly built in the 1880s to transport ore from mines to smelters, as well as to connect mining towns. In particular, the Denver and Rio Grande Railway is famous for its narrow-gauge lines in the mountains. Most of these railroads were abandoned in the 1930s to early 1950s.

The Central Colorado area is now famous for skiing (Vail, Breckenridge, Aspen, etc.), and three towns (e.g., Central City, Black Hawk and Cripple Creek) have casinos for gambling. Tourism is now a major industry in Central Colorado.

Many of these old mining towns in the late 1800s had an "opera house". The term "opera house" did not mean that operas by Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, or Wagner were performed there. Instead, the term "opera house" in Colorado meant upscale, respectable entertainment, such as vaudeville. Some of these opera houses in Colorado had businesses on the first floor, and an auditorium for entertainment on the second floor.

This webpage is only text and links. I doubt that I will find the time to travel to Colorado and take photographs.

Central City, CO

Gold was discovered here in the year 1859. Central City was built to accommodate miners. In 1874, a fire destroyed many of the wood buildings, newer buildings were mostly brick or stone. Around 1910, many of the gold mines closed as they were no longer profitable. Central City is on state highway CO119, 8 miles north of I-70.

Central City Links

Leadville, CO

Leadville is on the US24 highway, about 31 miles south of I-70.

Leadville boasts of being the highest city in the USA, with an elevation between 10,152 and 10,430 feet.   But the town of Alma, CO is higher at 10,587 feet.

Leadville Links

Ouray, CO

The town of Ouray was incorporated in 1876.
Jerry Clark writes in his history of Ouray:
Unlike other mining towns, Ouray never experienced a large fire that consumed a large portion of the town. As a result, a significant number of 19th century commercial buildings remain in town. Some of them, and their construction dates, are listed below:
narrowgauge.org last revised 17 Nov 2010, visited 12 Aug 2011.
Ouray is located on US550, between Montrose and Durango, CO. The twelve miles of US550 south of Ouray is called the "Million Dollar Highway", because of its high cost in the mid-1920s — the road here is narrow and hazardous to drive.

Ouray Links

Telluride, CO

Telluride was founded in 1878 when mining was the major industry. A ski resort opened in 1973, which offers golf in the summer. Unlike most towns in the Colorado mountains, Telluride has an airport, which has scheduled passenger service to/from Denver and Phoenix. A larger airport is located about fifty miles to the north, in Montrose. Also unlike most towns in the Colorado mountains, since 1978 Telluride has a hospital.

Telluride is 50 miles from Ouray by road, because there is a mountain between these two towns.

Telluride is of interest to me, because the first alternating-current (AC) electrical supply in the world was installed at Ames Station to power a motor at the Gold King mine near Telluride. Ames Station is a hydro-electric plant — water flowing in a river turns the generator shaft. In the year 1891, a Westinghouse generator produced 3000 V rms at a frequency of 133 Hz. The mine was 4.2 km (2.6 miles) from the generator. The Ames Station proved that AC electricity was less expensive to transmit long distances than direct current favored by Thomas Edison. The original Westinghouse generator from the year 1891 was replaced in 1904 with General Electric generators, which continue to operate today. The Ames building was originally wood, but was enlarged and constructed of stone in the year 1905.

Lucien Lucius Nunn studied at Oberlin College, Göttingen University, and Harvard College. In 1880, Nunn moved to Telluride, where he was a lawyer, a real estate salesman, then owned the town's newspaper and bank, and also owned several gold mines. One of the mines (Gold King) was unprofitable because it was too expensive to deliver coal by mule to the mine and all of the nearby trees had already been cut down for fuel, which motivated Nunn to build the electric generator at Ames Station. After his success at Ames Station, Nunn turned to building electrical power generating plants in five states plus Niagara Falls. (L.L. Nunn's brother, Paul, became Chief Engineer of Ontario Power.) L.L. Nunn founded the Telluride Power Company, which had eight generating plants in 1911 ("Bridal Veil Falls" was the second plant, after Ames Station). Telluride Power Company was purchased in 1912 by Utah Power & Light. Finally, in 1917 Nunn founded a pre-college school at Deep Springs, California. Nunn died in 1925, after a ten-year battle with tuberculosis.

Ames Station Links

Telluride Links

General Links

Ghost towns:
Old opera houses:

this document is at   http://www.rbs2.com/colorado.htm
webpage created 12-13 Aug 2011

my history subhomepage

my personal homepage