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The Journey to Telluride
by Charlotte Bell

You’ve probably been on the road awhile, but as you turn onto Colorado Highway 16, you feel a surge of energy—a second wind. You drive at a saunter as the road requires, but with a one-pointedness that draws you inexorably forward. It’s not that there aren’t distractions. Through your dusty windshield you take in the crisp, royal blue sky, the emerald-studded redrock, the rushing San Miguel River—is it up this year?—maybe even the silhouette of a soaring hawk. Anticipation, like a magnet, draws you forward, so that you drink in the passing scene, but stay your course.

Maybe you’re wondering if you remembered to turn off the stove, or if your dog will be okay with your neighbor just this once. Maybe you’re reminiscing about your last trip here or wondering about that band you’ve never heard of that’s playing Thursday night.

Then you feel your body shift slightly as you round Society Turn. Your reveries disappear as Ajax Mountain steps aside to reveal Ingram Falls. Ahhh, Telluride.

Telluride is rather inconveniently located in a box canyon not too close to anywhere of any size. The tanned, weathered complexions and hardy gait of longtime residents bespeak the inherent demands of living at 8,700 feet, the town’s elevation. In the winter, heavy snows can make the town inaccessible. With less atmosphere to filter its rays, the sun can begin to burn bare skin in a matter of minutes. When the summer sun slips behind the mountains in the early evening, the temperature can drop as much as 60 degrees. One evening in 1995, it snowed in June.

In other words, you have to want to live in Telluride, but there are plenty of reasons for that as well. It’s as stunning a locale as you’ll find. It’s a small town that enjoys cultural visitations—in the form of its many summer festivals and winter ski patrons—that most towns ten times its size can only wish to experience. In the summer there’s a happening almost every weekend, events as diverse as the Balloon Rally, the Wine Festival, the Film Festival, the Mushroom Fest, Chamber Music and Jazz festivals, the Airmen’s Rendezvous, Writing Workshops and, of course, the Bluegrass Festival.

Before Telluride became a ski and festival mecca, the surrounding San Juan Mountains were known for their plentiful minerals. Rather than the slow, level growth most small towns enjoy, Telluride went from boom to bust and back. Ute Indians who revered, the mountains as sacred, originally occupied the area. White men first set foot in the valley in the late 1800s.

Led by rumors of gold, John Fallon arrived in 1875 and recorded the area’s first lode claim. As word got around, prospectors began streaming in and soon two mining camps were formed—San Miguel and Columbia, which later became Telluride. Two legends account for the name: One says it comes from the name of the ore, “tellurium;” the other claims it comes from the phrase, “to hell you ride,” which was said to be another word for “good-bye” for anyone heading into these mountains.

Within ten years of its incorporation, the town had a population of 5,000. Telluride had all the markings of the rough-and-tumble wild West—gambling halls, bordellos, dance halls and saloons—along with churches, a school and two newspapers. It was a regular boomtown.

The burgeoning mining industry brought in big bucks, and the town’s notoriety attracted the likes of Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch, who chose the Bank of Telluride as their very first mark—to the tune of $24,000.

Another Telluride first happened when L.L. Nunn came to town. At the time, Gold King Mine was powered by steam at a cost of $2,500 a month. Nunn, the mine’s legal adviser, believed that the mine could be more efficiently powered by the latest technology of the time, alternating current. He contacted George Westinghouse, who was working with Nikola Tesla, the inventor who developed alternating current. A power plant was built, and Telluride’s Gold King Mine became the first place on Earth to utilize this new system.

The town flourished for the next 40 years until labor disputes and high costs caused mine closures. Despite its isolation, Telluride could not escape the Great Depression, and in 1929, its bank folded. The population plummeted to 512. Telluride had officially gone bust.

In the ensuing 30-some years Telluride treaded water, until California developer Joe Zoline brought the idea of building a ski resort to the Town Council and the Chamber of Commerce in 1969. The ski resort was approved by a 181-30 margin, and the first lifts opened in 1972. Telluride officially began mining a new kind of gold—tourism.

As the ski area gained notoriety tourists enchanted by the spectacular surroundings and charm of the town began migrating into the area. The population quickly rose to 1,000. Within two years (1969 to 1971) the price of an acre of irrigated farmland near Telluride rose from $34.58 to $10,000. In a year’s time the price of a lot in town rose from $100 to $1000.

Again the face of Telluride was shifting. Longtime residents forced out of town by rising taxes were replaced by big-city tourists wanting to leave smog, traffic and corporate life behind.

While the ski area was able to sustain the town during the winter, residents realized that the lean summer months had to be utilized intelligently in order to ensure year-round survival for local businesses.

When the town began its latest boom, which continues today, at least three things had survived—the area’s incomparable beauty, the strength and hardiness of its inhabitants and the annual Fourth of July celebration. The first of Telluride’s celebrated summer events, the festival paved the way for the town’s summer survival.

The Independence Day celebration began in 1899. A three-day party of grand proportions, the event soon became was legendary throughout the area. True to the town’s tradition as a mining community, the event was a robust party designed for miners and their kin to cut loose and get physical. There were drilling contests, firemen’s races, Navajo fire dances, band concerts and, of course, fireworks. Telluride’s Fourth of July tradition continued into the next century, celebrating the boom and surviving the bust.

Telluride resident George Greenbank remembers the festival in its mid-20th century period. “When I was a kid, growing up in Delta, my family had known about Telluride.  My grandmother was from Telluride, so we'd always come up here on the Fourth of July. Telluride was a ghost town—practically—it had a mine and there were still people living here, but there wasn't much going on the whole year long.  But on the Fourth of July. the firemen would have a big barbecue.  There'd be games in the streets, there'd be a big fireworks display and everybody from western Colorado came, crowds of 5,000-10,000 people. 

“This was in the ’60s, and it was just a super friendly place.  When I was 16 and came to my first Telluride Fourth of July by myself, I really fell in love with Telluride, and it grew every year from the early ’60s until I moved to Telluride.  We'd meet our friends in Telluride for the Fourth...The important thing that was happening in the ’60s was that people from the whole region could use Telluride as a meeting place, like this magic event that's happening right now [Telluride Bluegrass Festival].”

Along with the Telluride’s late -1960s demographic shift came a change in the timbre of the Fourth of July event. The celebration changed from an All-American macho drunk to an unembarrassed display of hippie debauchery. In 1973 the town voted to scale the festival back to one day.

Among the event’s highlights that year were Jeep rides to Tomboy, ski races, games and bluegrass music. Inspired by a 1972 trip to the National Flatpicking Championships in Winfield, Kansas, members of Fall Creek Band—Fred Shellman, J.B. Matteoti, John “Picker” Herndon and Kooster McAllister—wanted to bring the high, lonesome sounds to Colorado’s high country. They got themselves and another local bg band, Black Canyon Gang, booked for the Fourth of July celebration.

Marikay Shellman remembers Telluride’s introduction to the idea of bluegrass in the San Juans. “The first inkling that we were going to do something like [the Telluride Bluegrass Festival] was just the Black Canyon Gang and Fall Creek.  It was the Fourth of July.  It was down by the river here in the park.  We pulled power from Dick Unruh’s house and there were around 200 people. I was nine months pregnant and instructed not to have the baby until after the Festival. It was just those little bands, Fall Creek and Black Canyon Gang—just a really simple little thing.

“It was so small that I suggested to Fred that maybe we should have some backstage food.  That's where that all started was, "Hey let me just get sandwiches and snack stuff."  The first year we really didn't have much of anything, because it was just kind of tied in with the Fourth of July thing. There were big fireworks..I silkscreened the T-shirts in my kitchen for backstage....The first year there were just hand-silkscreened posters.  I don't have any idea how many people were there.  I was so pregnant, I had the baby eight days later. ”

By 1974, bluegrass had earned its own weekend. That year the first Telluride Bluegrass Festival and first Telluride Film Festival joined the World AerobaticHang Gliding Festival (initiated in 1972) as the town’s key to year-round prosperity.

Charlotte Bell is a yoga teacher, freelance writer, oboist and Festivarian since 1983. She is currently writing a book titled Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life that will be published by Rodmell Press in 2007.

[History segment adapted from “Mountains, Music and Magic” by Beth Tweedell.]

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