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

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.

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.

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.

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