The history of Durango is one of stories, as is the history of The Strater Hotel. Stories are how we, as people, pass along our traditions, our perspectives and our histories. At The Strater Hotel, we believe that history is always “in the making.” So, even by reading this, and perhaps visiting us or living here, you will pass along your part of the living history that is Durango and The Strater Hotel.
Durango, Colorado sits in the midst of some of the world’s most beautiful mountain scenery, a richness that is matched only by its colorful history – the Durango History.
Indeed, the hills were filled with silver and gold, and miners by the scores began to flock to the area in the 1870s. The town of Durango itself was the child of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad Company, established in September of 1880. Company management planned and laid out the charming downtown that remains today, though when the railroad first “arrived” in town on August 5, 1881, Durango was dubbed the “Smelter City” and “the new city in the wilderness,” as it was host to the region’s growing smelting, mining, and agricultural economy.
With the then state-of-the-art rail transportation and the “quick money” made by the area’s miners, enterprising merchants, saloon gals, ranchers, and farmers soon settled into the valley, giving a balance to the city’s economy and culture. The newcomers built churches, schools, and many of the fine buildings and Victorian homes still standing today.
Durango was designed to be the most “up-to-date” city in Colorado. Nothing could compare to it, if her boosters had anything to say about it. Signs of progress began to appear everywhere in the late 1880s and early 1890s, including a grand hotel (the four-story brick Strater Hotel), electric lights with a home owned electric company, the telephone, an electric trolley, and a three-story sky scraper with an electric elevator (Newman Building – 800 Main).
But the area’s rich history actually predates the development of Durango by at least 1,300 years. The mild climate, fertile soils, and abundant wild game first attracted the ancestral Puebloan culture around 700 AD. Some of the most spectacular and well-preserved Puebloan ruins in the United States are found within a 100-mile radius of the Strater Hotel. The government has declared many sites protected for the sole purpose of studying the ancient inhabitants of this area. The most famous site containing ruins of the complete Ancestral Puebloan development is, of course, Mesa Verde National Park. However, to the south are the Aztec Ruins, Chaco Canyon, and the Salmon Ruins that display the Ancestral Puebloan culture in its various stages of life.
History of the City of Durango
The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad Company formed Durango along the banks of the Animas River in September 1880 to serve the San Juan mining district. Lots of silver (and later, even more of gold) was being discovered in the mountains ever since gold fever struck in 1872 and resulted in the settlement of mining towns like Silverton, 50 miles north. Durango had a more tolerable climate and a good supply of water and coal for operating the smelters to pull precious metals out of the ore.
The railroad company chose a site south of the town of Animas City for its depot. It bought up the land in the eventual downtown Durango area using various different names to conceal what it was doing. The land was purchased for less money this way. When the train steamed through Animas City on its way north in 1881, it didn’t even stop there!
What’s in a Name?
Durango, Colorado, was named after Durango, Mexico. As the story goes, Colorado’s former territorial governor A. C. Hunt was traveling through Durango, Mexico at the time when the name for the new town was being decided, and thought the two regions looked similar. The word Durango originates from the Basque word “Urango” meaning “water town” or “well watered place.” There is also a Durango, Spain. The three Durangos are sister cities and have exchanged gifts and formal visits of their officials.
When the Spanish explorers Dominguez and Escalante passed through on August 9, 1776—while the American War of Independence was beginning on the East Coast—the Animas River had already been named (El Río de las Ánimas).
By the turn of the century, Durango had become a vacation destination, with the creation of the San Juan National Forest in 1905 and Mesa Verde National Park in 1906. The population of the city of Durango doubled to 4,686 by 1910.
By the middle of the 20th century Durango had many of the amenities that residents enjoy today, including the airport with its long 9,201-foot runway located on the Southern Ute Reservation about 12 miles south of the city on 420 acres the city purchased in 1946, Fort Lewis College (which relocated to Durango in 1956, onto 193 acres the city provided for a token sum of $8,400; FLC became a four-year college in 1962), and the Purgatory Ski Resort which opened for business in 1965.
Today tourism is an important aspect of Durango’s economy (along with recreation, natural resources development, technology, education, government and business) and, of course, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad continues to run on the spectacular narrow gauge railroad that was carved through the mountainsides along the Animas River Valley more than a century ago.