Boom and bust

Businesses adapted to “Magic City of the San Juan” in 1880s

You’ve got to know the territory,” advised Professor Howard Hill in Meredith Wilson’s “Music Man.” Certainly, Durango’s business history proved that adage from its birth back in September 1880.

Durango’s first woman newspaper editor, the feisty, progressive, and ever-loyal Caroline Romney, wrote on Jan. 10, 1881: “Next to the town, the Record owes allegiance to southwestern Colorado, a land not only ‘flowing with milk and honey,’ but seamed with silver and gold and floored coal. To other agricultural, pastoral and mineral resources, the Record will devote due attention…” To Romney, the “Denver of the Southwest” has an unlimited future.

Romney realized that business, and businessmen and women, were the backbone of the community – and she was not alone in that belief. The first municipal election in May, 1881, placed three prominent merchants in office, and that trend continues in subsequent elections.

Such enthusiasm and civic responsibility, of course, did not guarantee business success. Competition was brutal in those early years. As early as November 1880, Silverton’s La Plata Miner reported that the “Magic City of the San Juan” already contained among other businesses, the following: seven hotels and restaurants, two blacksmiths, six saw mills, two bakeries, two meat markets, eleven saloons and five general merchants and clothing stores. Furthermore, town lots were selling fast, with prices ranging up to $1,000, which must have pleased the Durango Trust, the community’s parent.

Durango also had coal seams at its doorstep, along with a smelter nestled at the foot of Smelter Mountain to work the gold and silver ores form throughout the region. It must have pleased local boosters, as well, when the Eastern press called Durango “a more picturesque, attractive site would be hard to find, even in Colorado.”

All this activity brings up the question of why some of these businesses succeeded and others failed sooner or later. Besides the railroad, only one survived long past the town’s centennial.

Why? One of the main reasons was over-enthusiasm for the future. Excited boosters forecast a 10,000 population within a few years – and maybe as high as 25,000 would come in the near future. The town struggled to reach 3,317 by the 1910 census.

That did not stop businesses from opening to be ready for the coming millennium of growth and prosperity. The numbers of merchants in 1880-81 expanded for a while, then slipped back to reality. The losers moved on to another job or town, a pattern that would be repeated recur in the years ahead.

That future based on Romney’s forecast of mining never achieved what Durangoans hoped. Resources of mining are always finite, and an end of the boom must come. Durangoans also got excited about tourism and were not far off in their expectations. It would not be until after World War II that they would finally be realized.

Agriculture faced the same problem the community did: isolation. There were no urban markets nearby. Nor could the local farmers and ranchers grow or feed anything that was not available throughout the region.

Competition already came from mail catalogs, which offered more variety and lower prices. All told, these were issues and problems that Durango merchants have faced now for more than 125 years, producing many failures and some successes.

Duane Smith is a Fort Lewis College history professor.