A trip to Silverton: Saturated in Colorado mining history and architecture

Story and photos by Carolyn White
Cedaredge, Colo.
This sturdy wagon was the equivalent of an early dump truck.

Up until a year ago, George Foster, owner of the historic Grand Imperial Hotel in Silverton, Colo., was still poking flues and pulling clinkers, or ashes, from the 140-year-old building’s original coal stoker.

“It took over an hour, (each) morning and evening, to clean it,” he said, which meant endless trips up and down the steep staircase that leads to the chilly, windowless and somewhat creepy basement. (Servants quarters can still be seen there.) “If I didn’t, we’d run out of hot water upstairs. I was black for 25 years from both cleaning and fixing augers. If something broke, the temperature would drop down below 30 degrees. Now, we’re totally on propane. It’s great. I won’t even walk into that stoker’s room now. Keeping it running encompasses your life. My hands and clothes were always dirty.”

It’s clear that, regardless of the assorted challenges that come with maintaining an older building, Foster is proud to be a part of the Imperial’s long history.

Built in 1882, the grand Victorian has arched windows, a Mansard roof, skylights, sitting rooms and plenty of antique furnishings and paintings.

Foster has been there nearly every day since buying it 30 years ago, and is constantly on the move as he greets patrons in the dining room, cooks in the kitchen, serves, tends the bar, sells T-shirts and runs up and down three (additional) floors of stairs.

“I like the small-town atmosphere, and the people who come to vacation,” he said. “They like the area, too, and want to be here.”

Originally from Missouri, he moved to Colorado with his parents in the 1960s, and helped them run a “place that was even bigger than this (the Imperial is 30,000 square feet) and included a lodge with 14 rooms, plus 16 cabins.”

In addition, Foster once ran a campground in town, but sold it in mid-1980.

“The mines were closing down, and Silverton Mountain — our extreme ski area — hadn’t been built yet, but I wanted a hotel,” he said. “I got the Imperial because the man who owned it beforehand was sick of running it.”

With a great deal of experience already in managing a property — but short of the necessary down-payment — he called his dad for help, and 27 years later, the Imperial is completely paid off.

“In summertime, we’re hopping, since the Silverton-Durango train brings an average of 200,000 people to town each season,” he explained. “Often that figures to 200 people disembarking three times a day. It would be impossible to make a living here without the train.”

Dan Lindsay has been the night shift manager of the Grand Imperial for the past 16 years. His favorite part of working there are the tourists, who walk the block from the train depot to spend the night, before making the return trip the next day.

“I love meeting them,” Lindsay said. “They come from all over the world.”

As for his least favorite chore?

“That would have to be pushing snow off the roof,” he said. “You have to put cones out, and then someone must stand on the sidewalk to act as a warning system. Clearing off the back of the building, the roof and the sidewalks takes half a day.”

Established in 1874, Silverton, Colo., is located at 11,300 feet above sea level, between Ouray and Durango, in the southwest corner of the state.

“San Juan County (of which Silverton is the only town) is comprised of slightly over 3,000, patented mining claims,” according to Judy Zimmerman, former county tax assessor. “We have the highest mean, or average, elevation in the nation.”

In other words, it can get cold there, occasionally dropping to 30 below in January, and “there are only about 14 frost-free days per year.”

Silverton also has the distinction of being the least-populated area in Colorado.

“It is seventh in the United States, and two of those are missile sites,” Zimmerman adds with a chuckle. “Off the top of my head, I think that the island of Molokai is another … and it’s a leper colony.”

Currently an employee of the San Juan County Historical Society Museum (which is located by the courthouse), Zimmerman pointed out that until the 1990s, mining remained one of the major trades. The museum — which was built by volunteers and funded by donations, as well as grant money from the Colorado State Historical Society — displays well-documented proof of the harshness of the high-mountain environment, as well as the difficulties men faced when working underground. There were no carbide lights or electric lanterns in the early days, so miners found their ways through tunnels with only candlelight. Using a twisted piece of metal, a man would rig a candle holder to the rim of his hat (no helmets here), and when he stopped to work, he’d remove the holder and hook it to a nearby rocky ledge.

Visitors get a good idea of how dim and cramped the spaces were underground as they walk through an eerie, semi-lit, re-creation, complete with rocks, lanterns, hoses, shovels, drills … and a “potty car”, which consisted of an empty ore cart, a rough board covering, and a carved hole.

Miners not only had to deal with long hours, dirty and back-breaking work, discouragement, extreme cold and extra-long winters, but loneliness as well, since the ratio of men to women was a whopping 18-to-1.

Usually young and single, they often landed on the notorious Blair Street, which was once home to 34 saloons and bordellos.

Those who chose to burn off steam through brawling, drunkenness, robbery or other offenses ended up in the county jail, which was primarily used between 1874 and 1902.

With its four 6-foot, square cells, shared bath tub and cast-iron radiator, it more than likely provided inmates with better living conditions than what they actually had at their tent camps or shacks. And since it was located right above the sheriff’s quarters, no doubt they got fed better, too, since his wife did the cooking.

“We have no jail now, though,” Zimmerman said. “The town is too small.”

Church-goers tended to “turn the other cheek” to the bawdy side of the town, as long as the mischief was confined to that area.

For those who wanted to play but had to maintain low profiles (such as senators and congressmen), rumor has it that a tunnel system was built underground, which allowed gentlemen to go back and forth unnoticed.

“You can see part of it in our basement,” Lindsay said. Leading the way down a myriad of dark halls under the Grand Imperial, he shined a flashlight into the bricked-in remains.

“Too bad they didn’t just leave it open. It would have been neat to use in the wintertime,” he added, joking.

The tunnel’s actual significance is open to debate; Others swear it was used as a way to dump and distribute coal under the buildings along Greene Street.

Snow lovers have recently rediscovered Silverton, in part “thanks to Silverton Mountain, which opened 10 or 12 years ago,” concluded Foster. “We’ve been getting a lot more skiers, snowmobilers, snow-shoers, ice-climbers and snowboarders. They like to hang out here in the evenings. I’ll drop down a screen in the dining room and show movies then, too. It’s really laid-back. Even Shawn White (two-time Olympian gold medalist in snowboarding) lived and trained in Silverton for a year.”

Asked how he gets by in a town of only 600 people, who endure well over 200 inches of snow each year, he replied, “everybody knows everybody. My hotel staff is my family. That can be both the best and the worst thing, though. Lots of ups and downs when there are 120 days of straight business. It’s intense. It gets really intense.”

“Snow is about the only thing we grow here,” said Zimmerman, smiling, “besides rhubarb. It’s the one agricultural item Silverton has, and we’re very proud of ours. It was transplanted by the miners, and you can find it in every alley. We even have a festival for it each July.”

Silverton also has frequent mountain marathons, music and movie festivals, brass band and barbershop quartet concerts and assorted parades throughout the year. For more information on things to do in Silverton, call the Silverton Chamber of Commerce at (800) 752-4494, or go to


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