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Brown, Molly
Gunnison, John
Marshall, William
Mears, Otto
Moffat, David
Nunn, Lucien
Palmer, William
Tesla, Nicola
Utes


 

 

Otto Mears

"Pathfinder of the San Juans"

As one studies Colorado history, you can not help but cross the name of Otto Mears. He is given mucho credit for enabling development of the San Juan region of Colorado. Mears was a road builder, and his 450 miles of improved roadways opened up the high mountains for the mining industry of the time. He was a true genius at finding paths through the peaks and chasms, solving hard problems and finding solutions where others had failed.

In addition to wagon roads, Mears built railroads and eventually owned four separate lines around the Silverton area. He acquired land, mining claims, dabbled in politics, and even served as interpreter, negotiator, and friend of the Utes. A true entrepreneur, Otto had a knack for making money. Best of all, he was a hard working, honest man. This was much different from most railroad barons of the time. One story is that a miner invited Mears home for dinner. But, the miner neglected to inform his wife. So, when the famous Mears arrived at the small cabin the miner's wife was obviously flustered. She still produced a wonderful home-cooked meal, and upon leaving, Mears pulled a baseball size nugget of gold ore from his pocket and presented it to the gracious hostess along with the suggestion “if you always keep that, you will never be poor.”

 

HISTORY

Otto Mears was born in Russia and his parents died when he was two years old. At age 10 he was sent to America to live with an Uncle. But, he never could locate the Uncle and perhaps there never was one. Finding himself on the streets he sold newspapers to survive. This was the beginning of his entrepreneurial schooling.

Eventually Mears joined a volunteer military group during the Civil war. As it happened he was discharged from the service in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The adventurous Mears set off to discover his fortune and ventured up the Rio Grande into Colorado. After a few years running a store in Conejos, CO, he moved into wheat farming in the San Luis Valley near the town of Saguache, where he became increasingly aware of the difficulties traveling in the region. A boom was going on in Oro City (later Leadville) and Mears wanted to ship flour there. The problem was he first needed to have the wheat that he grew milled into flour and he could not easily get the wheat to the flour mill located over Poncha Pass in Nathrop, CO. A light bulb went off in Mear's head and he proceeded to improve the road to Nathrop himself. 

While he was out working on the road, former Territorial Governor William Gilpin just happened to drive by and he and Mears began to chat. The Governor suggested that Mears apply to the legislature for a charter to operate a toll road and thus recoup his expenses. He also advised Otto to make the grades on the road gradual enough for a railroad to use.

Mears took the Governor's advice and soon owned and operated his first toll road over Poncha Pass. It became the principle route into the San Luis valley and was very successful. Eventually he sold the roadway to the Denver and Rio Grande railroad and they used it to construct their railroad into Via Groove and the San Luis Valley. 

The Poncha Pass venture worked well for Mears so he continued to develop toll roads into the mountains. He invested in roads to Lake City when that town began to boom. From Lake City he traveled into Ouray and Silverton. This was the beginning his many adventures in the region.

For some unknown reason, Mears decided to bid on a government contract to deliver the mail to Ouray and Silverton. He was awarded the job and was paid $4,500 to deliver the mail 3 times a week. All went well until the severe winter of 1875-76 set in. Snow was so deep that wagons and horses could not be used for travel. He tried using dog sleds but they were also ineffective. Eventually, he was forced to have his men carry the mail on foot using snowshoes. After a few trips through the snow, his staff of carriers all quit on him and Mears had to carry the mail from Lake Fork to Ouray himself, a monumental effort. As was true to his character he continued to get the mail through. When his contract was up for renewal he said thank you, but no thank you to the mail business.

In 1879, Mears anticipated the need for a better path across the mountains west of Salida and into the Gunnison country. He could see the railroad working up the Royal Gorge and began to predict their next move. Mears was familiar with the area, and built a new road over Marshall Pass, a logical extension of his existing road over Poncha Pass. As predicted, he later sold the rights to the D&RG, who used the pre-built roadway to beat other railroads into Gunnison, and won the prize of the Crested Butte mining areas for themselves.

Next Mears went west again into the Ouray area and saw the desolate condition of the mining areas around Telluride. He started a toll road from Dallas (eventually Ridgway) around the mountains to Telluride in 1881. 

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Mears toll booth at Bear Creek c1884

In 1883 he did the road from Ouray to Ironton up Uncompahgre Gorge. This became one of his most famous roadways. Otto placed the toll booth for this road over Bear Creek Falls 580 feet above the canyon floor making it all but impossible to weasel around it and not pay the toll. 

The Ironton road reportedly cost $1,000 a foot to construct along the more difficult areas and therefore Mears charge a $5.00 toll a wagon team. Folks complained about the high toll but generally Mears was setting the rate based on the real construction cost, plus a high, but justifiable, profit. Eventually the county raised funds to purchase the road from Mears and today this is the route of Colorado State Highway 550, the "Million Dollar Highway."

Mears had over 200 miles of road to his credit when his dreams began to cloud with with steam. Railroad steam that is. He started the Silverton Railroad Company in 1887, and built tracks from Silverton up Cement Creek to Red Mountain Town and Ironton, along the route of a toll road that he had previously designed.

srr locomotive 100 otto mears c1900 dpl prn.jpg (144357 bytes)
Mears standing by number plate SRR c1888

In the years 1890 and 1891, Mears developed the Rio Grande Southern railroad from Ridgway to Telluride, Dolores, and Durango. This was one of Mears finest achievements and is still known as one of the greatest railroad engineering marvels ever built.

The Silverton Northern railroad was next in 1895 and then the Silverton Gladstone and Northern in 1899.

Political ambitions may have captured Mears in 1896 when he took time off to go to the east coast. Mining was slow and there was an important U.S. policy debate regarding Silver Coinage that could help Mears by raising the demand for Silver. After all, Mears owned silver mines and the railroads that supported them. During this time he helped form the Mack Motor Company that eventually built those famous MACK trucks. It was not long before the call of the wild pulled Mears back west to his railroads around Silverton.

Mears finally left Colorado for good around age 70 and he headed for California, where he spent his last years until his death in 1931. His son-in-law, James Pitcher ran things around Silverton in Mears absence.

 

 

References: 28, 45, 48

 

 

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