Once Upon a Valley Floor

A Pivitol Primer
By: Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer

Directions for starting an animated discussion in Telluride: Stand in any coffee shop and say “Valley Floor.” In seconds, half-a-dozen passionate people will surround you, promoting their notions for what should become of the largely undeveloped land that extends three miles west of town.

But that’s not what this article is about. Beyond its property lines and price tags, the Valley Floor is defined by stories and memories of the people who settled there. So, as they say, …

Once upon a time
In 1868, young Frank Brown came West to find his fortune. He began as a trapper in Southwest Colorado. He loved exploring, and he signed on as a drover with Hayden’s survey party. In 1874, the survey mapped the region that would become Telluride, and Brown fell in love with it-both its beauty and its promise of riches. In 1876, he left his pregnant wife in Del Norte for the winter and settled in San Miguel Park, just a few miles west of present-day Telluride. The valley there was wide, thick with willows and dotted with groves of deep green spruce and tall cottonwood trees.

Brown and two other fellows, J. H. Mitchell and Thomas Lowthian, created a mining camp there on the banks of Mill Creek, across the highway from the present-day Texaco. A water wheel on Mill Creek powered a sawmill, which prepared the timbers to build approximately a dozen log cabins nearby. The settlement was small in size, but big in vision. They named it “San Miguel City.”

Though the threesome started the “city,” they were not the first people in the region. As one early settler recalls, the Utes visited the valley to hunt deer, wild turkeys and grouse and to fish the abundant river. But, as Christian J. Buys writes in Historic Telluride in Rare Photographs, “The Utes’ demise happened fast and unfairly. By 1868, they had signed a treaty with the United States that ‘granted’ them about one-quarter of present-day Western Colorado, including the-unbeknownst at the time-mineral-rich San Juan Mountains.”

Within four years, the Ute’s title was “extinguished.” According to Buys, they unwillingly surrendered four million acres of the San Juan Mountains to the United States “for a yearly annuity of $25,000, mostly in form of goods.” The 1874 Brunot Agreement removed the Utes from the southwestern Colorado Territory, only permitting them to hunt upon said lands, “…so long as the game lasts and the Indians are at peace with the white people.”

But even during the Ute’s early tenure, the valley had other visitors. Fur traders traversed the land, and in 1872, while it was still reservation, Lon Remine had illegally begun to placer mine. He’d come to the remote valley on the lam-he feared he’d killed a man in a barroom brawl in Creede. His flight on foot took him over Dallas Divide, around Last Dollar Mountain and along the San Miguel River till he came to the Valley Floor. The Utes befriended him and told him of Spaniards who had mined the valley years before. Rumors of hidden Spanish treasure lingered for decades. Though the Spanish cache was never found, Remine and his contemporaries did find treasure in the river: Reportedly, they panned enough gold to earn about $15 per person per day. The gold rush was on.

A Tale of Two Cities
Like Remine, the new settlers came over Deep Creek Mesa on what eventually became Last Dollar Road, the only way into the valley at the time. If they were lucky, they’d have a team of oxen to pull their wagon. That’s how Brown brought his wife and first son to their new home in 1877. That same year, Charles Sharman surveyed San Miguel City, and by 1879, approximately one hundred hearty folks had moved there.

As other people moved into the valley, Brown tried to sell them homesites. His grandson, Joseph Brown, recalls that the asking price was $15. Most folks balked. They walked a few miles up the valley where land was free and closer to the ore-rich mountainsides. This new camp, Columbia, eventually prospered and was incorporated in 1878-a unanimous decision by all 28 voters. To avoid confusion with Columbia, California, however, the national postal authorities insisted upon a name change. On July 26, 1880, the U. S. Postmaster General signed an authorization for a post office in Telluride, but it was about ten years before the new name caught on.

Like many men coming West, Brown had intended to become a miner. Indeed, mines began punctuating the box canyon walls. Meanwhile, on the Valley Floor, over 300 men feverishly worked the gravel for surface gold in the San Miguel River. When panning didn’t deliver enough, they turned to placer mining-a method using high water pressure to sluice gold from the riverbank. These mines were never as profitable as anticipated, but with high hopes, the miners began to carve up the valley. By 1877, hydraulic mining had begun in earnest. Near Keystone Hill, three miles west of Telluride and near the end of the Valley Floor, was the most active operation of all.

Many miners were getting lucky, which drew ever more people to the area. But Brown quickly went broke mining. He had a patent for a mine in Ophir, but his partner skipped town with the ore. By 1879, Brown recreated his Ohioan heritage and became a dairy farmer-one of the first to ranch on the Valley Floor. He cut the tenacious willows from the valley and put the land to hay.

By 1880, the Gold King Wagon Road, now called Boomerang, provided a new access to the valley from the south, and the population grew to five women and 200 men. To build homes and keep the mines in timbers, the hillsides of the valley were denuded of trees-but San Miguel City was thriving. As George A. Crofutt wrote in his Grip-Sack Guide of Colorado, published in 1881, “The location of the town in the centre of San Miguel Park is quite pretty. It contains several good stores, a hotel, two stamp mills, and one concentrating works. The mines in and about the town are both gold and silver lodes and placer mines.”

One of the city’s men, L. G. Dennison, wrote an account of his 1880 entry into San Miguel. There he met Brown, who was serving as San Miguel City’s first postmaster. Dennison writes, “Mails were carried on snowshoes in the winter and on horseback in the summer, via Silverton.”

He also recalls meeting Remine, “an old hermit” who “lived in a dugout in the hillside…with a fence on top of this dugout to keep the burros off the roof.” He asked Remine for permission to build a cabin on his land. With permission granted, Dennison built a cabin with no doors and no windows, just some rope “zig-zagged across the doorway to keep the burros out.”

As the earliest settlement in the valley, San Miguel City hosted the first school. In 1881, Charles Jeffs began teaching eight to ten students in a private residence. But the tides in the valley were a-changing. As the mines above Telluride proved increasingly lucrative, the newer town began to boom. By 1885, Telluride boasted 850 people. That same year, when San Miguel City was finally platted, its population had diminished to 175.

Say Moo, Choo Choo, and Rah Rah Rah
The boom was a bonus for Brown and other ranchers. Profitable mine business up valley meant profitable agricultural business down valley. In The Valley Floor Anthology, local historian (and a bit of local history himself) William “Senior” Mahoney recalls that “there was a big slaughter house out there where the Town sewer lagoons are today.” People needed to eat, and, as Joseph Brown quips, “they just had to have their milk.” He estimates his grandfather ran 70 to 80 cows. To process the milk, Brown built a stone house with creek water flowing around it to keep the building cool. Inside, the milk was poured into large pans to let the cream rise. Once it was skimmed, his wife hand-churned part of it into butter-50 to 100 pounds a week.

Frank’s sons were on the milk route to Telluride. They’d load a milk wagon with 10-gallon cans, stirring them with a dipper from time to time to keep the cream from separating. “People would come out to meet them with their pans, whatever they had, and they would pour the milk into them,” says Joseph Brown.

Even more valuable than the milk, however, was the hay grown on the Valley Floor. As Joseph Brown recalls, “Grandpa would take a lot of his stock, as much as he could, down to the Norwood country in the fall…because they…sold it for the horses and mules in the mines.” It was $50 a ton. “My dad says they used to cut four tons to the acre here on the Valley Floor,” Joseph says. “They did it by hand to start with.”

The train brought new people and prosperity to the region, and those new folks were looking for ways to amuse themselves. According to some old-timers, one popular pastime for the gentry was to dress up, hitch the horse to the buggy, and ride down the Valley Floor to the top of Keystone Hill, three miles west of Telluride, then turn around and come back. To this day, the intersection there is dubbed “Society Turn.”

Another popular diversion was the race track at San Miguel, located just east of the present-day Texaco. In his memoir, Dennison recalls, “They had a half-mile track and grandstand, seating several hundred, where horse races, roping, broncho [sic] riding, and Indian races and chicken-picking events were held.” The races happened all summer, with special competitions held around the Fourth of July. Prizes ranged from $400 for winning the five-mile relay race to $75 for winning the 300-yard pony race.

One of the most unusual contests was “chicken-picking,” a specialty of the Navajo Indians, who were invited from their reservations. As Dennison recalls, “…On their reservations they bury a live chicken in the ground, leaving the head and neck out, four or five in a row. They get back a good distance to get their ponies on the run, and bareback, lean over so they could nearly touch the ground with their hands and try to pick a head. We did not use live chicks, so they would bury a sack of money with the top of the sack sticking out of the ground.”

Life and Times After the Turn of the Century
After the turn of the century, San Miguel City was still home to nearly two dozen families. Kids who grew up there remember it fondly. In 1906, twelve-year-old Oda Collins and her family moved there to work in the dairies. She attended school in San Miguel, graduated from the eighth grade in a class of four girls, then went up to Telluride for high school.

Oda met her future husband, Bob Alexander, when he came to work for her mother on the dairy. Her mother had remarried Al Thompson after Oda’s dad passed away, and the Thompson dairy was one of at least four on the Valley Floor at that time. In 1918, Oda and Bob were married in San Miguel. The couple dairied on the Valley Floor until 1927.

Oda remembers how hard life was, but she and Bob made it fun. She would time him as he hand-milked the cows. “I did 19 in an hour, that was my best,” Bob recalls in a 1990 interview with Pera.

Alta Cassietto, who also grew up in San Miguel in the 1910s, recalls childhood pastimes in the same interview. “Much of the Valley Floor was grazing land with cattle. We used to go mushroom hunting along the railroad track. And we would go out close to Lon Remine’s cave to have picnics, and we would tease him.”

Cassietto remembers another use for the race track: school track meets. “I ran some myself in sixth grade,” she says. “I did a good broad jump.” And Carlie McKnight, another Valley Floor dairy farmer, recounts an additional unlikely use: as a landing field for Telluride’s first air mail delivery, around 1912.

Life on the floor in the 1920s had its share of excitement. “They had a nine-hole golf course on the west end there, and it operated up until the Depression,” says Mahoney, who, as a child, used to watch them play. And with prohibition, bootlegging became popular. “They called it white mule,” Mahoney recalls.

Cars came to the valley in the mid-1920s, and many of the dairies had “horseless milk wagons,” as McKnight calls them. There were tough times, too, like the year all 40 of the McKnight cows ate larkspur and died. But the toughest times were yet to come.

Depression, then War
The mines in Telluride had already begun to slow down, but the Depression pounded some nails into the coffin. “1929 killed everything,” recalls Mahoney. “It killed the landscape and everything else.” As Buys writes, “Over five decades of placer and hard-rock mining took a fearful toll on the pristine alpine environment. At one end of the valley the huge Pandora mills pumped out piles of toxic sludge. At the other end, destructive placer mining gave Keystone Hill the appearance of a giant gopher colony.”

Most people picked up and left with no thought of ameliorating the damage they’d done. In The Valley Floor Anthology, Mahoney recalls what it looked like when he first came to the region as a child. “In the 1930s, they didn’t have tailings ponds; it all ran down river. The river ran grey year-round. Cornet Creek ran its own course to Boomerang. We used to swim in holes out there. On the north and south sides were dairy farms.”

That was the world that McKnight was born into. His father’s dairy was located on the north side of the valley toward town. The old building that still stands (barely) at the entrance to town was built by his dad in 1957. “When I was growing up, Lon Remine was still alive,” McKnight says. “His house was a waste dump. There was a fence around his house [350 feet long and 6 feet high, says Mahoney] that was one continuous wind chime. He was a junk collector. He had bed springs, pots and pans, mugs, bed rails-anything he could find that was metal went on that fence. And there were three dairies on the Valley Floor. Thompsons, ours and Adams,” he says. “And before the Second World War, things got tight. That’s when most of the dairy businesses here went out of business.”

World War II surprised the valley residents. “The Second World War happened on a Sunday,” McKnight recalls. “We didn’t listen to the radio often-we had to tune into Salt Lake or Denver, and you couldn’t get any reception a lot of times. We didn’t know about the war until I went to school the next day.”

The war changed the look of the valley in several ways. More people left for bigger cities, where the war had created many job openings. And much of Telluride’s physical history up and left, too, says Mahoney. “All the scrap iron from the mines was cleaned up and sent to the war.”

And that crazy Lon Remine-well, he contributed, too. “When the war started, some guy came from Montrose, a junk dealer, and he spent two weeks dismantling that fence and that fence went to the war effort,” recalls McKnight.

And then it was quiet again in the valley. Most of the land was eventually bought by Idarado Mining Company with the intent to use the space for tailings residue from the mill at the east end of the valley.

Jack Pera, born in Telluride in 1937, remembers in The Valley Floor Anthology, “You didn’t have the traffic noise that you have now, so things were quiet…. In the spring especially and the summer, the frogs, the noise they would make on the west side of town was unbelievable, so loud! There were still a few people then that lived at San Miguel in some of the houses that were left.”

In a recent interview, Pera says, “The Valley Floor was static in my lifetime. Nothing going on. There was a guy, Ed Vizena, who ran the dairy. So there were a few cows grazing, but did anyone play out here? No. We didn’t do that. No one ever went on the property, hardly. There was no reason to. The sewer ran into the river at Etta Place where the town dump used to be, so nobody would fish below there. It was one polluted son of a gun.”

The dairies have been gone since the 1950s. The railroad is gone. San Miguel City is gone, save for Brown Homestead. But if you look on the north side of the valley in the spring, you will see evidence of the pioneers who settled the town: a lilac in bloom or a clump of rhubarb springing from the hill.

The land has changed hands, purchased in 1978 from Idarado by San Miguel Valley Corporation, and plans ranging from tailings ponds to high-end resorts have come and gone. There are still cows in the summer, though, grazing on leased land. There are still stories being created around the Valley Floor, though the most recent ones include legal battles and environmental impact statements. Any day of the week, you can read about it in Telluride’s papers. What happens next? We’ll leave that for the historians of 2100.