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Was Durango born in 1880 or 1881? Gerald Ford has an answer

It’s not easy to appear serene and distinguished when you’re sitting next to a kid wearing a “Bellybuttons Need Love Too!!” T-shirt, but our former president pulls it off. He’s listening to wife, Betty, at the Animas Museum on Aug. 13, 1980. If the T-shirt kid is you, please fess up. (City of Durango archives)

Dear Action Line: Seeing your post (Nov. 13) regarding the Welcome to Durango sign gave me the idea to ask you this question. Why is Durango confused about when it was established? We had family come to town, and between us we bought 10 local shirts. Six said 1881, four said 1880. What gives? Hoping you can find the answer! – Debra

Dear Debra: Give Action Line the ball! This one’s easy. It’s 1881, of course. Next?

Wait. Why is the ball just hanging on the rim?


Well, OK, let’s see what historian and longtime Fort Lewis College professor Duane Smith has to say in “Rocky Mountain Boom Town,” the most complete history of our beloved town.

In the winter of 1879-80, plans were formed to link the pre-existing Denver & Rio Grande Railroad line to the also pre-existing Animas City. But the railroad wanted more than the town could give, and so it formed its own townsite a bit south.

Action Line retrieved the ball off the rim and tossed it to Robert McDaniel, longtime director of the Animas Museum. McDaniel took this question on the dead run, took a few dribbles, and, without looking, threw up a half-court shot that swished. Impressive.

“Easy questions to answer,” McDaniel said. “Charlie Perin (namesake for Perins Peak) surveyed the Durango townsite in September 1880 and the Durango Land & Coal Co. started selling lots. Since I’m (traveling) for Thanksgiving, I can’t check my sources to ensure accuracy of details, but I think the surveying process started on September 13.”

Yep, the surveying did indeed begin Sept. 13, and, according to Smith, “sales began.”

McDaniel retrieved the ball, dribbled between his legs and around his back, then continued by launching a hook-shot three-pointer with his off hand.

“City government wasn’t established until April 1881, however, and none too soon with all the thieves, murderers and other troublemakers causing havoc!” he said. “So, it’s accurate to say that Durango was founded in 1880, even though formal city government wasn’t established until six to seven months after the first lots were sold and buildings constructed.”

As he twirled the ball on his finger, McDaniel added, “As for my opinion ... I believe, and historical evidence tends to support my view, that the story about why Animas City was spurned by the railroad is mostly not true. But that’s a long story for another time.”

Is this guy good, or what?

Former first lady Betty Ford helps to dedicate the new Animas Museum on Aug. 13, 1980. (City of Durango archives)
Was Durango established in 1880 or 1881? Take your pick. (Courtesy of Debra Swindler)

He also certainly recalls a cloudy day when former President Gerald Ford dropped in to help Durango celebrate its centennial. That date was Aug. 13, 1980. Are you going to argue with an honorable, now-dead president? Ford, it should be mentioned, had purchased radio stations KIUP-AM and KRSJ-FM the previous year with partner Leonard Firestone (1907-1996). Yes, THAT Firestone family. With the tires. Leonard had served as Gerald’s ambassador to Belgium.

Ford (1913-2006) not only gave a dedication speech that glorious day (strange it was on Aug. 13, not Sept. 13), but also officially commemorated Hillcrest Golf Club’s brand-new back nine by being first to tee off. He attended the dedication of the new Animas Museum, where his wife, Betty, gave a short talk.

Action Line wouldn’t believe these seemingly tall tales either, but has found pictures and newspaper accounts to prove it. The lack of security seen in dedication photos is a bit startling, a far cry from what a former president would receive today. Even in Durango. One more tidbit: Room 333 at the Strater Hotel is dedicated to Gerald R. Ford because he stayed in that room twice.

So how about the T-shirts? Action Line took a stroll around a couple of downtown shops, and observed that a preponderance of T-shirts said “1881” for Durango’s founding or establishment. Do they need to be reprinted, or perhaps donated to some poor kids in Africa or India, as Americans are wont to do to make themselves feel a bit better about their abundance and profligacy?

Maybe, maybe not.

Fred Kroeger, chairman of the Durango Downtown Development committee, delivers a speech to the crowd gathered at Main Avenue and Ninth Street on Aug. 13, 1980, to celebrate Durango’s centennial. Note Betty and Gerald Ford standing prominently behind Kroeger. (City of Durango archives)

The city itself probably deserves a say in when it was founded, particularly since the welcome sign claims “incorporated 1881,” and to this end a connection was made with Todd Ellison, city of Durango archivist.

“Glad to help!” Ellison replied. “As noted on page 461 of our new book, ‘Durango Doings,’ either year would be correct, depending on which aspect of ‘established’ is being considered.”

Riffle, riffle. Scan, scan. Ah, there it is in Chapter 23.

“Durango Doings” notes the September 1880 formation, then mentions a couple of other important dates:

On March 11, 1881, an election was held “by which the citizens of the Town of Durango agreed to incorporate.” The result was certified by the state on April 27. On May 16 came “the first meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Town of Durango.”

So, you be the judge. Most cities seem to start their histories from when they were formed, not when they were incorporated. For example, Colorado Springs celebrated its sesquicentennial this year (150 years from its founding date in 1871), although it wasn’t incorporated until 1886.

After the big celebration in August 1980, Durango kept the party going for an entire year. The town-to-college Centennial Nature Trail, in sorry shape at the time, was overhauled in 1981. Thus, the name.

The only question remaining, which will become pertinent in just a few short years: When should Durango celebrate its sesquicentennial – 2030 or 2031?

Email questions and suggestions to actionline@durangoherald.com or mail them to Action Line, The Durango Herald, 1275 Main Ave., Durango, CO 81301. Action Line has seen Robert McDaniel’s brother, Gerald, play basketball, but can vouch for Robert’s athleticism only as a top-notch skier and former ski patroller.

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