"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.”
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.