The history of the Durango area is limited prior to the mid-19th century when there were only occasional forays of Anglo-Europeans into southwest Colorado for trapping, trading, and exploring. During this period the southwest corner of Colorado was the territory of the Ute Indians, and few individuals ventured into the area. The Spanish were the first to explore the area in the 17th century with an expedition by Dominguez and Escalante. Little is known of this early exploration, but The Old Spanish Trail was used as an early route through the area up until mid-1800s. The historic settlement of southwest Colorado really began in earnest with the lure of mineral wealth on the western frontier beginning in the mid-19th Century.
In spring of 1860 Charles Baker and a prospecting party explored the mountains around Silverton, and reported gold found. A camp was established at Bakers Park near Silverton, and additional miners rushed to the area to explore. Placer gold recovery techniques were not sufficient, and the party broke up with some individuals moving south to the Animas Valley. The first Animas City was established near modern day Rockwood in 1861. With the outbreak of the Civil War many of the party members returned to the east, and fought in the Confederate Army. The historic development of southwest Colorado was slow until the Brunot Treaty of 1873 removed the Utes from the mountains and opened up the area for increased mineral prospecting, full scale mining, and settlement of surrounding areas to support the mining.
Mining activities increased dramatically in the 1870’s, with development of lode mining techniques, and the beginning of large capital investment in the mining of the San Juan Mountains. Placer mining techniques had characterized early attempts to extract the rich mineral wealth of the San Juan Mountains, but most of the rich veins were deep within the mountains and required extensive tunneling, and ore processing. Mountain communities such as Rico, Ophir, Telluride, and Silverton were founded during this period. By the late 1870s and early 1880s surrounding areas became developed as the need to supply the mining communities, created a market for agricultural products, livestock, timber, and other goods. Animas City in present day north Durango, was one of these early communities settled in the late 1870s.
The coming of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad in 1881 provided a means by which goods could be economically moved between the mountain mining communities and supply towns such as Durango and Dolores. Durango was established in 1880 as the railhead for the new line. William Palmer was the main developer of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, hoping to corner the market for transporting ore in the region. As part of his business endeavors he initiated the development of a smelting facility in Durango to process the ore, and in 1880 the New York Smelting Company was born. In addition to the smelting works, Palmer and his associates purchased a limestone quarry, and several coal mines near Durango. The town of Durango developed rapidly in the 1880s as did many “boom towns’ on the western mining frontier. Many of Durango’s early buildings were simple wood frame structures, and in 1889 a disastrous fire broke out that leveled most of the downtown area. When the town was rebuilt, many of the buildings were made of stone and brick, which is one reason the downtown area has endured so well into the present time.
By the turn-of-the-century rural areas surrounding Durango became the focus of livestock raising and agriculture, and some mountain areas were used for harvesting timber and summer range for sheep and cattle. In 1905 the San Juan National Forest was created under the authorization of President Theodore Roosevelt. This marked the transition from an economy based on mining to a more diversified economic base that included timber harvesting, ranching, farming, and mining at a much diminished rate. By the 1910s, the market for silver and gold had declined, many of the larger loads had played out, and much of the mining activity in the San Juan Mountains declined dramatically.