Once a frontier mining town, Durango draws thousands of tourists year-round for the myriad outdoor recreational activities and scenic beauty. Mountain bikers, rafters, kayakers, horseback riders, rock climbers, hikers, campers, hunters and fishermen are drawn to the two-million acre San Juan National Forest and to the San Juan mountains, the largest range in the Rockies. But the city's biggest tourist draw is a nine-hour historic train ride in a vintage steam locomotive. The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which hauled precious metals in the 1880s, now takes tourists for a 47-mile, open-air journey through mountains and forests and past abandoned mines to historic Silverton and back. Children and train buffs will relish the chance to climb into a locomotive and pore over railroad memorabilia at the railroad's museum. Skiers flock to the Purgatory Ski Resort in winter, which also offers hiking, fishing, rafting and horseback riding in warmer months. Slow down your pace with a stroll past splendidly restored Victorian buildings in historic Downtown Durango and wind up a very active weekend in a local brewpub or saloon.
History of the City of Durango
The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad Company formed Durango along the banks of the Animas River in September 1880 to serve the San Juan mining district. Lots of silver (and later, even more of gold) was being discovered in the mountains ever since gold fever struck in 1872 and resulted in the settlement of mining towns like Silverton, 50 miles north. Durango had a more tolerable climate and a good supply of water and coal for operating the smelters to pull precious metals out of the ore.
The railroad company chose a site south of the town of Animas City for its depot. It bought up the land in the eventual downtown Durango area using various different names to conceal what it was doing. The land was purchased for less money this way. When the train steamed through Animas City on its way north in 1881, it didn’t even stop there!
What's in a Name?
Durango, Colorado, was named after Durango, Mexico. As the story goes, Colorado’s former territorial governor A. C. Hunt was traveling through Durango, Mexico at the time when the name for the new town was being decided, and thought the two regions looked similar. The word Durango originates from the Basque word "Urango" meaning "water town" or “well watered place.” There is also a Durango, Spain. The three Durangos are sister cities and have exchanged gifts and formal visits of their officials.
Native Americans had camped along the banks of the Animas River for thousands of years. Archaeologists have found evidence that this area experienced a population boom in the latter part of the 8th century - about 1,200 years ago. Some think more people lived here then than now! By the time the Ute Indians settled here, centuries later, these ancient Ancestral Puebloans had mysteriously disappeared from their last homeland - including the area now called Mesa Verde National Park. The Ute Indians sheltered in the abandoned dwellings and enjoyed the ample fishing and hunting opportunities the area offered.
When the Spanish explorers Dominguez and Escalante passed through on August 9, 1776—while the American War of Independence was beginning on the East Coast—the Animas River had already been named (El Río de las Ánimas).
Back to our story about Durango… Hundreds of gold miners had camped out in this area in 1860, but within a year of its founding in 1880, Durango had a population of 2,400 and really began to grow. People arrived from many countries to work in the smelters and mines and on the railroad. By the turn of the century, Durango had become a vacation destination, with the creation of the San Juan National Forest in 1905 and Mesa Verde National Park in 1906. The population of the city of Durango doubled to 4,686 by 1910.
By the middle of the 20th century Durango had many of the amenities that residents enjoy today, including the airport with its long 9,201-foot runway located on the Southern Ute Reservation about 12 miles south of the city on 420 acres the city purchased in 1946, Fort Lewis College (which relocated to Durango in 1956, onto 193 acres the city provided for a token sum of $8,400; FLC became a four-year college in 1962), and the Purgatory Durango Mountain ski resort which opened for business in 1965.