The early history of Telluride, Colorado lies with the nomadic Ute Indians who would summer in the valley where deer, elk, and bighorn sheep were plentiful. The tribes would migrate to lower, more hospitable climes in the winters. This centuries-old pattern changed when the first Europeans discovered the San Juan Mountains 1700s. Even though there may have been the occasional trapper or frontiersman in Telluride’s valley, there were no permanent residents here until gold was discovered in the region. The first claim was staked by John Fallon in Marshal Basin in 1875 and the early settlement of the box canyon followed. Telluride is not the town’s original name. The town was founded in 1878 as Columbia not knowing a town in California had already adopted this name. To avoid confusion, the U.S. Postal Service forced a change in name.
No one is sure exactly how the distinctive name of ‘Telluride’ came about, but it can be speculated that the name came from the chemical compounds known as tellurides. A telluride is a combination of metals or minerals such as gold, silver, zinc, lead, etc. and that of tellurium. While there are ample deposits of these minerals in the surrounding mountains, the ironic twist is that there are very little gold tellurides in the area. One has to guess that after the postal service snafu, the residents wanted to find a name as unique as the place it represents.
One local legend has the name originating from the send-off phrase “to hell you ride” in reference to the town’s once rough and tumble reputation, although there is no specific proof despite the reputation being well earned. Robert Leroy Parker, better known as Butch Cassidy, robbed his first bank in Telluride in June 1889. Cassidy was a periodic resident of Telluride from 1884 to 1889. Along with three other accomplices, the robbers made off with approximately $21,000 from the San Miguel Valley Bank. Butch then went on to lead a now infamous life of crime never to see Telluride again.
Getting to, and more importantly, getting ore out of Telluride was difficult. Otto Mears opened a toll road that helped commerce in the region, but it wasn’t until the establishment of the Rio Grand Southern Railroad in 1891, also founded by Mears, that the success of the town began to flourish. The bustling town was home to thousands of residents throughout the region with a melting pot of cultures and nationalities. The mining boom created a vast amount of wealth in Telluride. By the turn of the century, there were more millionaires per capita in Telluride than in New York City. The mines of the region produced over $375 million dollars of gold in today’s adjusted dollars.