Red Mountain Pass: A beautiful but nervewracking road
August 7, 2010
The most intimidating paved Colorado highway may well be that on the north side of Red Mountain Pass. This section of U.S. 550 is narrow and has tight curves, precipitous drops, and few guardrails. The shoulder drops 300 feet straight down into the Uncompahgre Gorge, cut through by the Uncompahgre River. It is spectacular!The mountain views and the rich mining history of the area make it one of the “must sees” of Colorado. Ouray, at the base of the pass, is appropriately called the “Gem of the Rockies” and the “Switzerland of America.” The road that crosses the pass connects the towns of Ouray and Silverton.The topographic maps of the area show three Red Mountains, named 1, 2, and 3. Red Mountain Number 1 is not visible from the summit of the pass, but the other two are. Oxidized iron creates the red-orange color of these peaks, which present stunning photo opportunities, particularly at sunset.The Red Mountain Mining DistrictProspectors first entered the Red Mountain area in September 1879. In 1883 they established a mining town on the north side of Red Mountain Pass, naming it Ironton.The Red Mountain Mining District covers both the north and south sides of Red Mountain Pass. In the 1880s it was one of the most prolific districts of the area, boasting nearly 40 mines known worldwide for their silver production. This district produced $30 million worth of silver, lead, zinc, copper, and gold. At today’s prices, that would amount to $250 million. The Yankee Girl and Guston Mines, both discovered in 1881, were two of the richest mines in the area.The Million Dollar HighwayBefore the railroad reached Ironton, most travelers going south from Ouray used Otto Mears’ toll road. Mears took over the road from the Ouray and San Juan Wagon Road Company on April 1, 1880. Using techniques learned in other road construction projects, he completed it in 1884. Pack trains of mules and burros used this road to move all the supplies the town of Ironton needed and carry out the ore from the nearby mines. It was not easy. Travel on the road was tough because of steep grades, sharp curves, narrow trails, precipitous drops, and a rough roadbed.With the advent of automobile travel in the 1920s, the 12 miles of Mears’ toll road that ran south of Ouray through the Uncompahgre Gorge became part of the “Million Dollar Highway” at great redesign costs. Cutting the road into the cliffs of the Uncompahgre Gorge was no easy task, and the project was very expensive. This part of the highway has changed little since its completion in 1924!OurayNorth of Ridgway at the northern base of Red Mountain Pass is the town of Ouray. Mount Abrams, to the south, and the Amphitheater formation, to the east, tower 5,000 feet over the town. Unlike many mining camps, Ouray never experienced a large fire. Because of that, it has many well-preserved, historic structures, including hotels, opera houses and a courthouse.Most believe that prospectors first arrived in the valley in 1875, traveling from Silverton to the south. Ouray incorporated a year later, and by1880 more than 2,500 people lived there. In 1887 the Denver & Rio Grande Railway completed a line to Ouray and opened a depot there the following year.A narrow gauge railroad excursion came to Ouray in the same year, allowing the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad to promote its “Around the Circle” tours. The route traveled from Pueblo to Salida, then over Marshall Pass to Gunnison. It then continued to Montrose and turned south into Ouray. From there, travelers rode stagecoaches up the Uncompahgre Gorge along the route of Mears’ toll road to Chattanooga at the base of Red Mountain Pass. They then rode the Silverton Railroad to Silverton. In Silverton, they changed trains and rail lines to ride the Rio Grande to Durango and continue over La Veta Pass to Pueblo. These tours became very popular over the years.