Durango, Colorado: Small-Town Life in the West

Life in La Plata County highlights the beauty of the American West as well as the challenges facing small towns today.

| September/October 1989

  • 119-056-01m.JPG
    The Needle Range of the San Juan Mountains. 
    PHOTO: BRANSON REYNOLDS
  • 119-056-16.jpg
    Roadside scenery between Bayfield and Durango. 
    BRANSON REYNOLDS
  • 119-056-13.jpg
    The Southern Ute Bear Dance is a popular local event. 
    BRANSON REYNOLDS
  • 119-056-14.jpg
    Engine No. 481 returns from Silverton. 
    BRANSON REYNOLDS
  • 119-056-08.jpg
    Guide Joe Herara leads a party of elk hunters into the La Plata Mountains.
    BRANSON REYNOLDS
  • Kayaker
    Kayaking the Animas right through Durango is popular.
    BRANSON REYNOLDS
  • 119-056-12.jpg
    Elk hunters head into the La Plata Mountains.
    BRANSON REYNOLDS
  • Man Driving Horses
    Bill Fletcher at the La Plata County Draft Horse School.
    BRANSON REYNOLDS
  • River rafters
    Rafters offer tourists a wild ride on the Animas River.
    BRANSON REYNOLDS
  • 119-056-10.gif
    Ouray, once head chief of the Ute tribes, is remembered in the Colorado county that bears his name.
    THE GRANGER COLLECTION
  • Bike Race
    Off-road bicyclists at Durango's Iron Horse Bicycle Classics.
    BRANSON REYNOLDS
  • Stanton Englehart
    Artist Stanton Englehart: "I see virtually no concern for aesthetics anywhere."
    BRANSON REYNOLDS
  • 119-056-04.jpg
    Mayor Lynn Shine: "Prospective immigrants should…find out if we meet their lifestyle needs, then look for a job, and only then decide…to move here." 
    BRANSON REYNOLDS
  • Fitzgeralds
    The Fitzgeralds: "We need to create a new system...that will allow us to live in and with nature without destroying it."
    BRANSON REYNOLDS
  • Sheriff Bill Gardner
    Sheriff Bill Gardner: "This is a fine, safe place to live."
    BRANSON REYNOLDS
  • 119-056-05.jpg
    In La Plata County, the majority of drilling takes place on national forest and Bureau of Land Management lands that "patch" between private parcels of land.
    BRANSON REYNOLDS
  • Leonard Bird
    Professor "Red" Bird: "Because of our spectacular physical surroundings, Fort Lewis College tends to draw students who are independent and interested in the life of both the body and mind."
    BRANSON REYNOLDS
  • Thies Family
    The Thies Family: "You can't be materialistic and make it here."
    BRANSON REYNOLDS
  • 119-056-03.jpg
    The "Gable House," one of Durango's historic East Third Avenue homes.
    BRANSON REYNOLDS
  • La Plata County
    La Plata County, Colorado covers 1,692 square miles and comprises a dozen small towns, the three largest of which are Ignacio, Bayfield, and Durango.
    DON OSBY
  • 119-056-01.jpg
    Hot-air balloons descend during Durango's "Snowdown" winter festival.
    BRANSON REYNOLDS

  • 119-056-01m.JPG
  • 119-056-16.jpg
  • 119-056-13.jpg
  • 119-056-14.jpg
  • 119-056-08.jpg
  • Kayaker
  • 119-056-12.jpg
  • Man Driving Horses
  • River rafters
  • 119-056-10.gif
  • Bike Race
  • Stanton Englehart
  • 119-056-04.jpg
  • Fitzgeralds
  • Sheriff Bill Gardner
  • 119-056-05.jpg
  • Leonard Bird
  • Thies Family
  • 119-056-03.jpg
  • La Plata County
  • 119-056-01.jpg

It's been a quiet week here in Durango, Colorado, my hometown. I'd like to tell you about the place. But first I must confess my bias. I love southwestern Colorado and hope to remain here the rest of my days.For that reason, and others perhaps less selfish, I'm protective of Durango's small-town ambience and La Plata County's natural beauty, the two qualities that make this such a special place to live—and the very qualities now being threatened by insidious change. I watched one small town I loved grow until it became a buzzing metropolis in which I no longer desired—or could afford—to live, and I'm in no hurry for the same thing to happen here.

In light of my antigrowth bias, it would be impossible for me to write a Pollyanna review of Durango and La Plata County that ignores or minimizes its growing pains. So, to help temper my tantrums, I've recruited the comments of nine other locals. While some of their views agree more or less with mine, others differ sharply. My caveat thus stated, let's have a look around.

La Plata County, Colorado, comprises a dozen small towns, the three largest being Ignacio (pop. 667), headquarters of the Southern Ute Indian tribe; Bayfield (pop. 724), a quiet little ranching and bedroom community; and Durango, the county seat and a lively tourist town (pop. 12,600, plus nearly 4,000 college students, September through April).

Located in extreme southwestern Colorado, Durango (elevation 6,512 feet) got its start in 1880 when the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad began construction of a branch line up through the rugged San Juan Mountains to the high-country mining camp of Silverton, 50 miles to the north. From Silverton, more than $300 million in gold and silver ore was eventually freighted over the narrow-gauge rails to Durango, where it was smelted before being moved on down the line.



In its early days, Durango had all the color and action the gun-and-gallop movies have led us to expect from a true Old West town: cowboys, Indians, gamblers, gunfights, murders with prompt justice served up by legal (or at least popular) neck stretchings, saloons, brothels, even a high roller's "boulevard" of gingerbread Victorian homes (East Third Avenue, recently designated a national historic district).

Today, during the summer months, the original coal-burning, steam-driven, narrow-gauge train still rattles along the same tortuous route up through the San Juans to Silverton (pop. 794, elevation 9,318 feet) and back. But nowadays, the train is called the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, and its cargo isn't ore but tourists, some 173,000 of them in 1988.

lulabelle
7/16/2016 10:49:47 PM

HannahM - Your comment seems confrontational. Where do you happen to live? You should reconsider your negative energy here, it may make you feel better. Just a thought.


HannahM
6/27/2016 11:13:54 AM

Gee, I bet you feel only slightly similar to how the Native inhabitants felt when almost their entire population was murdered so tourists could take over and live there. But those outdoorsy folks, they're the real criminal here.







Mother Earth News Fair Schedule 2019

MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR

Next: February, 16-17 2019
Belton, TX

Whether you want to learn how to grow and raise your own food, build your own root cellar, or create a green dream home, come out and learn everything you need to know — and then some!

LEARN MORE






Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 64% Off the Cover Price

Money-Saving Tips in Every Issue!

Mother Earth NewsAt MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet's natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. You'll find tips for slashing heating bills, growing fresh, natural produce at home, and more. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.95 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.95 for 6 issues.

Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
International Subscribers - Click Here
Canadian subscriptions: 1 year (includes postage & GST).


Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter flipboard
Free Product Information Classifieds

}