Rugged roads and ‘Million dollar highways’
Editor’s note: Rick Spitzer is the author of “Colorado Mountain Passes: The State’s Most Accessible High Country Roadways,” which is for sale at The Bookworm of Edwards for $21.95. Parts of the book will be serialized in the Vail Daily every Sunday this summer. =======Molas PassOrigin of Name: May be an adaptation of the Spanish word mulas, meaning mules.Elevation: 10,910 feetNearby Cities: Durango/SilvertonPoints of Interest: The Colorado Trail, SilvertonCounty: San JuanHighway: U.S. 550/ San Juan SkywayMilepost: 64GPS: 3744’16″N by 10741’53″WTopo Map: Snowdon PeakGetting There: From Durango, drive north on US 550 for 41 miles. From Silverton, drive south on US 550 for 7 miles.========Some of the clearest air in the United States makes the view at 10,910-foot Molas Pass exceptional. There are days when so few visibility-reducing chemicals and particles are in the air that you can see for more than 170 miles. Many San Juan peaks, towering over 13,000 feet, pierce the skyline.Where U.S. 550 crosses Molas Pass, it is also designated as the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway and the Million Dollar Highway. The Colorado Trail crosses the road just north of the pass. The Animas River Gorge, the route of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&SNGRR) lies hidden to the east, and Coal Bank Pass is located about 7 miles southwest on U.S. 550. Silverton lies 7 miles to the south.Looking out across some of the areas near Molas Pass, you would think you were above timberline. In reality this was once a heavily forested area called Lime Creek. In 1879, a fire ravaged the area. Even though many community groups have planted thousands of trees since then, little of the 26,000-acre forest has returned yet, due to the high elevation and resultant slow growth of the trees.GeologyMany geologic forces have formed the view from Molas Pass. Shallow oceans once covered this area of Colorado, leaving behind sediments. The shoreline fluctuated, and layers of silt, sand, and limestone formed the benches of the Hermosa Formation to the west.About 70 million years ago, volcanoes in this area erupted, forming the top layer of Sultan Mountain. The 100 miles of the backbone of the San Juan Mountains have volcanic features. Cooling magma beneath the earth’s surface created the deposits of lead, copper, gold, and silver that later drew miners to this area.About 15,000 years ago, massive glaciers a half-mile thick carved the mountains and valleys of the area. They ground out U-shaped valleys and acted as giant conveyor belts, transporting and depositing ridges, called moraines, on the sides and ends of the valleys. The glaciers have melted away, but evidence of their existence is visible all around Molas Pass.Otto Mears, Pathfinder of the San JuansOtto Mears was born in Kurland, Russia, in 1841. He traveled to San Francisco as an orphan, sold newspapers, and worked in California’s gold fields. He fought for the Union in the Civil War and served under Kit Carson in the Navajo campaigns. The Army discharged him in Las Cruces, New Mexico, prior to his move to Colorado.Mears owned stores and a mill in Conejos and Saguache, towns in southern Colorado. Because he needed to transport his wheat over Poncha Pass to the flourmill in Nathrop and then to Leadville, he decided to improve a road north over Poncha Pass to Lake County. Former Colorado territorial governor William Gilpin met Mears and suggested that he design the grades on the road so that they would be gradual enough for a railroad to use, while initially operating it as a toll road. The route soon became very successful. In 1871, Mears sold it to the Denver & Rio Grande (D&RG) Railroad.With the gold and silver discoveries in the San Juan Range, another of his toll roads became a vital link to the west. Mears had seen that the railroad was headed his direction through the Royal Gorge so he capitalized on that activity. He built a new road that ran from Salida, over Marshall Pass, to Gunnison and sold that route to the D&RG. This route allowed the D&RG to be the first railroad into Gunnison and the Crested Butte mining camps.In 1881 he built another line from the town of Ridgway to Telluride. Two years later he completed a toll road from Ouray to Ironton up the Uncompahgre Gorge and placed the toll booth at the location of Bear Creek Falls, 580 feet above the canyon floor, making it impossible for anyone to travel up the road without paying a toll.Reportedly, this road cost $1,000 a foot to build and Mears charged $5 for each wagon team. In 1887, he founded the Silverton Railroad Company and built tracks from Silverton up Cement Creek to Red Mountain Town and Ironton, along the route of the toll road that he had previously built. Eventually the county purchased the road from Mears, transforming it into what is now U.S. 550, the “Million Dollar Highway.”The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad hired Mears as a track builder in the San Juans. The lines he laid for them followed many of his toll roads. Otto Mears and investors in Denver also constructed a narrow gauge line, called the Rio Grande Southern Railroad, which served the western area of the San Juans. Soon Mears owned the railroads he built, eventually owning four separate lines around the Silverton area.The Rio Grande Southern Railroad passed through the mining and lumber towns of Telluride, Ophir, Lizard Head, Rico, Dolores, and Hesperus. It reached Rico in 1891 and eliminated traffic on the Rockwood and Rico Wagon Road, finally reaching Durango from the west in 1893. The route avoided some of the more rugged terrain of the mountains and the Uncompahgre Gorge. It connected the D&RG on the north at Ridgway and on the south at Durango. The trains were mixed, meaning that they carried both freight and passengers. This route is still considered as one of the most incredible railroad lines ever built.In 1896 the United States debated its policy about silver coinage. Maintaining silver coinage would help Mears because silver would come from his silver mines and be transported over his railroads. He traveled to the East Coast to join the debate and while there he formed the Mack Motor Company that built Mack trucks.He did return to Colorado, but later moved back to California. Mears built nearly 450 miles of roads in the San Juans, roads that coursed through some of the most rugged and spectacular scenery in Colorado. He could truly be called an empire builder. Otto Mears was only five feet tall, but his stature had nothing to do with his drive. He died in 1931.