Silverton is a touristy town. A stroll down main street will take you past store after store filled with t-shirts, magnets, coffee cups, and shot glasses (apparently a lot of people collect shot glasses because we see them everywhere) all printed with some sort of Silverton or Colorado related graphic. There are western themed restaurants, motels with names like “The Prospector”, and storefronts plastered with rates for jeep and OHV rentals. Touristy towns are often looked down upon. People say things like, “oh that place is so touristy,” but then they go there anyway and buy a sweatshirt with the words Colorado scrawled across the front, and a gigantic moose silkscreened on the back. I know you know what I am talking about. Don’t deny that you have on of those in the back of your closet! I have a hard time faulting a town for being too touristy. Especially when the alternative is decline and despair.
Tourism is the backbone of the economy in Silverton. You can say that about a lot of towns, but here it really is all they have. As a former mining town that once boasted a booming population and over 3,000 operating mines, today all that is gone, leaving the 500 year-round residents with nothing but tourism to keep the town afloat.
And from what we saw it’s working for them. Main street is bustling with folks ducking in and out of stores and patronizing the restaurants and coffee shops. It’s not all t-shirts and shot glasses either. In between the stores selling trinkets are shops with beautiful silver and turquoise jewelry, local galleries filled with paintings and photographs, and the coolest train history store.
A huge number of visitors arrive in Silverton via the historic Durango & Silverton Steam Train. The train chugs up the mountain and pulls into town several times a day. The passengers pile out and get two hours to explore around town before hoping back in for a ride back down the mountain. We happened to be in town one day when two trains arrived, backed up the tracks on a side street, and parked so the passengers could stroll around town for lunch lunch and souvenir shopping. Tim saw his opportunity and quickly went to the front of the trains for a really cool photo op before everyone else ran over with their cameras.
One of the coolest things we did in downtown Silverton was visit the San Juan Historical Society Museum. I never used to think of myself as a museum person, but lately I’ve discovered how much I love a good small town museum. It’s a great way to learn about the history of an area. Also the perfect activity for when unsettled weather prevents you from hiking in the mountains. The museum in Silverton blew us away. Really…if you’re in town and have a few hours to spare this is a must visit. First of all, it’s only $7/person which means you’ll have plenty left over for lunch at the Pitts BBQ (and maybe even a souvenir shot glass). Second of all, it’s huge! What we thought was just a small one building museum turned out to be a multi-building, multi-story, underground tunnel, jammed full of stuff, kind of museum.
The museum starts in the jail house. This is not the original Silverton jail (you can see that one elsewhere in town). This jail was built in 1902 and contains two floors. The bottom served as quarters for the jailer and his family. It also had a room off the kitchen for the “insane” prisoners with a small pass through cut-out for delivering meals.
The second floor was where the prison cells and a medical room were located. The steel bar encased cells were small and cramped, but the room was full of windows, which made this jail more luxurious than most.
Down in the basement of the jail we found a display of minerals from around the area.
This sample of gold is rare and sought after by collectors. Most gold is found mixed in with other elements, and on the rare occasion that it’s not, they call it “Free Gold.”
From the mineral room we moved onto an underground tunnel containing all kinds of mining memorabilia. When we first arrived, the museum curator told us that much of the old mining collection was donated by former miners who are passionate about preserving and sharing the history of mining. We could tell. The variety of collectables was astonishing.
The tunnel took us to the basement of the second building. Here we found more more mining history, including an actual mine car track with actual mine cars. There was also a replica mine shaft that traveled all the way up the three story building with tunnels and diagrams.
The next two floors of the building contained a mish mash of historical artifacts from all over Silverton. There was everything from a collection of old door knobs, to a beverage list from the Silverton Northern Railroad.
Even though I took about a million pictures (many that didn’t make it into this post), I still didn’t even come close to capturing all that the museum has to offer. This is great example of how a museum can really bring the history of a town alive. We applaud the San Juan Historical Society for creating this amazing space for us to enjoy. And as usual, we say to Silverton, we will be back!