Roaring into the 1920s on the Million Dollar Highway
By Susan H. Jones | Winter/Spring 19-20
In the Roaring ’20s, the United States suddenly emerged as a rich and powerful nation. Images of flappers in short skirts, wild new dances, and the drinking of illicit alcohol in speakeasies dominate our perception of the era. Inventions including telephones, radios and automobiles were financially within reach for more Americans, helping to create major societal changes. In Durango, the automobile may have had the greatest influence during the 1920s on the place we know today.
Durango was established in 1880 by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. The railroad connected the remote new town with the outside world, via Denver, and with the mining camps around Silverton. Once the railroad was completed to Silverton in 1882, people happily abandoned the stagecoach, wagon and carriage for the faster and less expensive train. It could convey people, bring ore to Durango smelters, and transport food and supplies into Silverton. Much of the track was even laid on the toll road. The railroad was designed to reach Silverton year round, although in many years snow and avalanches closed the route for weeks at a time. When a flood in the fall of 1911 washed out more than 20 miles of track in the Animas Canyon, people in Silverton recognized the need for an alternate route into the remote mountain town.
Railroad builder and entrepreneur Otto Mears completed the first part of the road that became known as the Million Dollar Highway, between Silverton and Ouray, in late 1884. The first stagecoach ran over it in 1885, and it became a public road by 1900. The State of Colorado provided funding for a wagon road between Silverton and Durango in 1893. The road was technically completed in 1905 but was extremely rough, especially for “newfangled” automobiles. By this time, there was an automobile club in Colorado and over 200 cars in Denver alone, but automobiles were an expensive novelty, out of reach for most Americans. The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad remained the transportation mode of choice.
In 1914, war broke out in Europe. The United States entered the war in 1917, which affected transportation in the San Juans. The U.S. government poured money into the D&RG railroad to insure that defense metals flowed out of Silverton. When the Great War ended, in November 1918, the people of Durango and Silverton struggled to return their lives to “normal.” Soldiers returned home, the specter of the Spanish flu retreated, but the expected prosperity never returned. Metal prices plummeted from wartime highs, causing many mines to shut down. Facing collapse, the hard-rock mining industry, which employed over half the population, left Silverton, never to return. The railroad lost its government backing and slipped into receivership, emerging as the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad in 1921. Southwest Colorado was suffering and did not experience the postwar boom enjoyed by other parts of the country.
The roar heard in the San Juans in the 1920s was that of the automobile. The price of a Ford Model T with the bare minimum of features dropped to around $300. The number of automobiles in Colorado alone was over 30,000 by 1920. That same year, mining revenues peaked then drastically declined in the San Juans. Durango and Silverton realized that automobile tourism could offset the lost income. Both towns starting distributing maps and brochures proclaiming the beauty of the San Juans and encouraging tourists to visit. Newly mobile American tourists obliged, driving their Model T’s through the area on upgraded roads like the Million Dollar Highway, and the economy changed to depend on them.
The Million Dollar Highway got its name in the early 1920s. Some say it was so named because it cost a million dollars to build, but Otto Mears’ financial records do not support this claim. Others say it got its name because there was a million dollars worth of gold and silver recovered when the road was built—but again, no financially viable ore was found. Still others say it got its name because the views were worth a million dollars, which is certainly true, especially in the winter. However, the truth is that when the three contractors—the State of Colorado, the U.S. government and the U.S. Forest Service—compared notes, they realized that the cost of their three projects to upgrade the road to an automobile road totaled $1 million. Someone suggested that “We have ourselves a million-dollar highway,” and the name stuck.
Once the Million Dollar Highway was complete, a ceremony was held, on July 4, 1924, to dedicate the road. Durango, Silverton and Ouray hoped the road would be open year round, but Roaring ’20s technology did not allow the road to stay open through the winter. They did learn quickly, in the 1920s, that guardrails only thwarted the efforts of plows pushing snow off the road.
This winter, enjoy the splendors of the San Juans as you drive along the highway, our legacy from the Roaring ’20s.