A Gripping Tale, the History of Telluride, Colorado

history of telluride colorado

As you plan your ski trip to our little box canyon here in the San Juan Mountains, you might be asking yourself; what is the history of Telluride, Colorado? Well, it’s a riveting tale filled with robberies, ground-breaking construction and even nation-wide firsts. Take a look below to learn more about the fascinating history of Telluride.

1800s to early 1900s: A History of Telluride’s Mining Era

Telluride’s story begins with the Ute Indians, who were the first to inhabit the Telluride Valley. They camped along the San Miguel River hunting primarily elk and deer. In 1873 they signed a treaty with the US government, and in 1878 the town of Columbia was founded. “Columbia” was later changed to “Telluride”, a name that is rumored to come from the metal, Tellurium. Another speculation has been that the name derived from the phrase “To-hell-you-ride”, a reference to the treacherous mountain passes travelers were forced to take to reach Telluride’s remote location.

A booming mining industry followed the discovery of gold, silver, copper, zinc and lead in Telluride’s surrounding mountains. Young men began moving to town for the prospect of a better life, where they worked in the mines some 12 hours a day. The first railroad came to Telluride in 1890 at which point roughly 2,000 people already resided in town. At its mining peak Telluride was home to as many as 5,000 local residents, and land at the time cost about a buck per acre. The mining era continued apace through the turn of the century, at which point there were 204 active mines in the immediate area. In 1891, Telluride became the first town to have alternating current (AC) electricity in the world. The end of the 1800s was also punctuated by the 1889 robbery of the San Miguel Valley Bank by the infamous Butch Cassidy. He is estimated to have made away on horseback with about $20,750 in cash, which is more than half a million in today’s currency. This was the first bank he ever robbed.

1950s to 1960s: The Evolution of Telluride, from Mining to Skiing

In the 1950s the mining industry had significantly declined and the town’s population decreased into a ghost town. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that Californian Joe Zoline discovered the land that would one day become one of the world’s best ski resorts. In 1968, Zoline bought Adam’s Ranch and Gorrono Ranch, site unseen, in what is now Mountain Village. He enlisted the help of the now legendary Bill “Senior” Mahoney to cut runs, design trails and help obtain the land-use rights for the resort. Mahoney’s name and legend live on in the highest run on the Telluride Ski Resort, coined “Senior’s”. It descends from the top of the hike-to terrain known as “The Peak”, which stands a massive 13,150ft above sea level.

1970s: Telluride Ski Resort’s History, the Beginnings

Telluride Ski Resort’s history officially begins in 1972, when the resort opened its doors with just five lifts in what is now Mountain Village. Back then, skiing into Telluride required skiing backcountry style down what is now the Plunge and Coonskin areas, before taking a bus back around the mountains, up and over into what is now Mountain Village. It was not until 1975 that Coonskin Lift 7 was constructed and Telluride became directly connected via lift access to the ski resort. The original Lift 7 is still standing and in use today, albeit refurbished, renovated and maintained. In 1978 the resort was purchased by Ron Allred, for whom the spectacular mountaintop Allred’s restaurant is named.

1980s to Present Day: Telluride’s Growing Recognition and Expansion

As the town began to grow, Telluride gained in notoriety and recognition for its spectacular views, world-class skiing and local culture. The Telluride Ski Resort installed its first high-speed quad in 1986. The following year, Mountain Village was founded, before it was officially incorporated in 1995. The free gondola opened in 1996, providing stunning aerial transportation between Telluride and Mountain Village. It is still the only free gondola of its kind in the country. It was in 2012 that Condé Nast first named Telluride the #1 Ski Resort in North America, a title it has claimed numerous times since with Condé Nast, Ski Magazine, USA Today and others.

Today you can enjoy Telluride’s history by strolling Main Street, Columbia Ave, Oak St. and more to see preserved buildings dating back to Telluride’s mining era. Incredibly, Main Street’s present-day skyline is much the same as it was back in the late 1800s. Also be sure to take note of Telluride Ski Resort’s history tucked into the names of the trails and runs of the resort, many of which are named for old mines (such as Tomboy, Zulu, Black Tusk, etc.) and ladies of the night (take Stella, Misty Maiden and the Madame Big Billie). If you’re desperate for even more stories you’ll want to take a look at the iconic Telluride Historical Museum to take a deeper dive into the history of Telluride and explore their latest exhibits.

Telluride Today, An Unforgettable Place

Telluride is a place with a fascinating story, both tumultuous and thrilling. We hope you learned a bit about the history of Telluride and all the players and hard work that went into making it the sensation it is today. Of course the best way to learn more about it is to come out and experience it for yourself! Whether it’s a hike or a festival during the summer months, or snowshoeing and ski laps at our world-class ski resort in the wintertime, you are sure to make memories to last a lifetime in these mountains! Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us for inquiries about lodging and accommodation, recreational activities or local’s recommendations on what to do in Telluride. We love this special place, and we are sure you will too!

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