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As murmurings of a civil war sizzled in the Eastern United States of America, 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 eventually called “Baker’s Park.” Fourteen years later, in 1874, the site laid the groundwork for the town of Silverton, which became the center of numerous mining camps.

In July 1882, the first train operated by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad rolled into Silverton from Durango, located 55 miles down the Animas River. Over the following year, Silverton boomed to a population of 2,000, boasting 400 buildings, including two banks, five laundries, 29 saloons, several hotels, and a bawdy red-light district on the Notorious Blair Street.

From the onset of this burgeoning mountain town, an imaginary line ran down Greene Street, dividing the town between the law-abiding, church-going residents on the west side and the gamblers, prostitutes, variety theatres, dance halls, and saloons on the east side. In a three-block stretch, Notorious Blair Street was home to saloons, gambling halls, and houses of ill-repute, with names like Mikado, North Pole, and the Laundry, where they “cleaned you out.” Gamblers, like Wyatt Earp, played faro within their walls.

In its earliest days, the street grew infamous for loud music and rowdy dance halls. Although illegal, gambling and prostitution were tolerated as long as the “ladies” stayed behind that invisible line down the middle of Greene Street, separating them from the more “respectable” part of town. As the center of indecency, Blair Street was so notorious that citizens on the street’s south end asked the town board to rename their more respectable residential section “Empire Street.” To this day, half of the street is called Blair, while the other half is called Empire.

Young and single, many miners were immigrants from all around the world. Some trickled into the mountains as Civil War veterans and survivors looking for a new life out West. When they weren’t working in the rugged alpine in search of precious metals, they spent their time unwinding at the 29 saloons. Not unlike the present, they wet their whistles over pints of beer poured at local breweries. Between 1881 and 1915, Silverton celebrated at least a dozen breweries introduced by German immigrants with names like Fischer, Schultz, and Noll, who saw brewing beer as an art. Not to be outdone, the Italians quickly got into the action crafting wine, importing grapes by the boxcar from the San Luis Valley. Silverton also had several bottling factories, including the Standard Bottling Works on East 13th Street. There was even something for the teetotalers with Silverton’s signature bottled soda pop.

Charles Fischer opened the first known brewery on the Western Slope of Colorado in 1883. Rocky Mountain Brewery was nestled in Howardsville, the first county seat of La Plata County, located seven miles northeast of Silverton. Fischer opened the Silverton Brewery in 1901 in a fine stone building along the banks of Mineral Creek at the base of Sultan Mountain. The new brewery was managed by William Schultz, who later bought the business from Fischer in 1907.

The Silverton Brewery operated until 1919 when the United States government enacted Prohibition. Silverton locals moved their libation production into basements around town, focusing their efforts on wine and whiskey. Government officials once showed up in Silverton and confiscated 2,600 gallons of mash, which they promptly took to the end of town and tossed into a pasture. The cows found the surprise treat tasty and feasted happily, growing so intoxicated that their milk had to be thrown away three days in a row. Boozy milk and other lesser spirits had their heyday until Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Of the 1,568 operating breweries in the U.S. in 1910, only 750 breweries reopened in 1933. The Silverton Brewery did not survive the shutdown. Its stones are immortalized in the Christ of the Mines Shrine on Anvil Mountain overlooking the town that’s finally figured out the balance between debauchery and refinement.

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