Since Jan. 12, rocks have been raining down on Highway 550 on the north side of Red Mountain Pass in southwestern Colorado. Cold nights and warm days created a freeze/thaw cycle that pried loose a huge chunk of the rocky mountainside, which then broke into thousands of boulders. In order to stabilize the rocks to keep them from shooting through windshields at terminal velocity, the Colorado Department of Transportation closed the road for more than two weeks.
The so-called Million Dollar Highway is one of two transportation arteries into the small town of Silverton, Colo., and its closure essentially cut tourism in half during that time, dealing a huge blow to the meager mainstay of the former mining town’s economy. Quality of life has declined, too, as some residents have had to make a 400-mile round trip to go to the doctor or run other errands. (Map)
It’s a reminder of how important transportation is in shaping our communities and the lives of those who live there. Be they roads, airports, subways or rail lines, transportation rules: It can give life to a community or neighborhood. And it can take it away.
Unlike many cities that popped up solely to service the railroad, Silverton, located in a mountain-ringed park at 9,318 feet in elevation, was born of minerals. The ancient, collapsed volcano in which it sits is infested with veins of silver, gold and other metals, which captured the interest of prospectors in the 1860s. It was the arrival of the railroad in the early 1880s, however, that provided a strong link to the outside world and the farms, smelters and lumber to the south, transforming the isolated mining camp into a somewhat civilized city. And the extension of the rail lines further into the mountains solidified Silverton’s status as the mining hub of southwest Colorado’s San Juan mountains.
While many hardy pioneers were involved in “settling” this rugged landscape, it’s no accident that one of the most renowned is Otto Mears, a Russian-born Jew who was orphaned as a youngster and sent to America. He is known as the Pathfinder of the San Juans for his ability to build road and rail, linking up towns and mines across inhospitable terrain. Perhaps his most famous accomplishment was the toll road that has evolved into the nasty northern side of Red Mountain Pass.
Anyone who has driven Red Mountain on a good day knows how scary it can be. In winter, it can be deadly. Massive, potentially car-crushing avalanches can whack almost every section of the 23-mile stretch between Silverton and Ouray when conditions are right. A single slide, the East Riverside, has killed six motorists over the years — a minister and his two daughters and three plow drivers. Dozens of others have had close calls. The West Riverside slide, right across the gorge, left a wall of snow 30 feet deep on the highway in January of 2005, requiring explosives and some pretty hefty bulldozers to clear it.
While the northern route in and out of Silverton is easily the most treacherous, the southern arteries — one by rail, one by road — have their own challenges. Back when the train, which runs most of its route at the bottom of a steep, deep gorge, was the major year-round supply route, it commonly got cut off for days, weeks and, in one case, 90 days, by a series of huge avalanches covering the tracks. Beginning in the 1930s, the highway, which today bypasses the gorge by traversing two mountain passes at over 10,000 feet, began providing an alternative route, eventually replacing the train. But it, too, gets battered by snow slides — a Trailways bus was nearly knocked off a cliff by the Champion slide back in the 70s — and rockfall.
In the days of multi-week closures, Silverton was somewhat self-sufficient. It had a dairy, bakeries, breweries and the newspaper had its own printing facility. When those supplies ran low, courageous, cabin-fever-addled residents skied to Durango or Ouray, hauling the necessities back by sled over 60-foot high piles of avalanche debris. The mines generally could continue running during the shut downs, meaning the economy could keep churning along. Long closures of the transportation arteries were an inconvenience, but certainly not an existential threat.
After World War II, however, as Americans began their long love affair with the automobile, that all started to change. Once-self-contained small towns withered into satellites of a few quasi-urban service hubs, newly-paved highways serving as their umbilical cords. Silverton’s isolation kept it somewhat self-sufficient — it still has its own school, for example, even though enrollment is minute — but many services were gradually shipped down the hill until, in 1992, the last big mine shut down, hundreds lost their jobs, and the population plummeted by half. Silverton became reliant on the highways for almost everything.
These days, residents must drive over the passes to get to a hospital or to run most errands — a trip of 50 miles or more one way, south to Durango or north to Montrose. Mail comes from Montrose, and in a medical emergency you’re likely to be taken to Durango. Without the mine, the economy is almost totally dependent on tourism, which in turn relies on tourists getting into town. Ironically, the train, which was in danger of disappearing altogether in the early 1980s, grew in importance when the mine shut down. Nowadays it delivers some 1,000 tourists to town on nearly every summer day. It runs only in summer, but even then the train has been kept at bay by forest fires and mudslides.
Over the last decade or so, a small but important winter economy has emerged on the back of Silverton Mountain Ski Area, the small town-run ski hill and backcountry ice climbers and skiers. That’s put more dependency on the highway, which can be daunting to drive: It’s not uncommon for a visiting motorist to make it over one set of passes, terrified, only to go to the Sheriff’s office and beg someone to drive their car back to the lowlands, for a fee. And that’s in the summertime.
During winter, the highway in both directions closes on occasion due to avalanche danger, if only for a few hours during which road crews can do mitigation work (i.e. shooting explosive charges into avalanche loading zones to cause the slide to release, thus reducing the potential of it happening again). As a result, Silverton residents are perhaps more keyed into weather and road conditions than anyone in the lower 48. When storms approach, they make mad dashes north or south to stock up, racing back into the “Walls of Kong” before the roads shut down. The roads in both directions can sometimes shut at the same time, occasionally for days, cutting off the outside physical world altogether (necessitating, in one instance, deliveries of milk, cigarettes, booze and mail, via helicopter). But that’s increasingly rare. These days Red Mountain Pass can go a whole winter without closing for more than several hours at a time.
So when Red Mountain Pass shut down for weeks, as it did in January, it’s a big deal. Mail and other products coming from the north had to go around the mountains, and then up from the south, extending the typical 120-mile round-trip into 440 miles. Plenty of potential tourists didn’t make the trip at all. Bookings were down for Silverton Mountain Ski Area and the town’s hotels; restaurants suffered; various establishments said expected business was cut in half. During a season when the few businesses that remain open are just hanging on, the impact is huge. It's also a reminder of the crippling dependence on the fragile lifeline to the “outside.” For the last several years, local economic development folks have struggled to get a more robust information highway — in the form of fiber optic lines — into Silverton. Surely that will help, but without more reliable ways to get humans and real goods in and out of town, it may not be enough. Hopes or fears that Silverton will follow in the upscale and economically vibrant footsteps of other former mining towns like Telluride or Aspen run up against the fact that the town has, and never will have, an airport or other reliable form of mass transit to ferry telecommuters or the rich back out into the “real world.”
Silverton’s an extreme example, but certainly isn’t alone. Over the years, communities have been made or broken, based on where a highway is placed. Just as old railroad towns perished when the highways came along and bypassed them, so did many once-glorious Route 66 towns sputter and nearly die when the Interstate was built around them. Big new suburban roads enable sprawl, while urban light rail increases density and prompts revitalization of long blighted urban neighborhoods in places like Denver. In Los Angeles, studies have confirmed that new public transit has finally pried many residents’ hands from the death grip on their steering wheels. Atlanta was recently shut down by a small snow storm because folks there are so reliant on cars (light rail and subways tend to do a lot better in snow and ice).
Transportation, in other words, is huge. It can shape communities, economies and even culture (e.g. Los Angeles). Transportation decisions and development can trump the best-laid economic development efforts and land-use planning. And that, in turn, makes transportation agencies — all those DOTs around the West — incredibly powerful. They often have the biggest budgets of state or county governments, wield more influence, and are the most heavily lobbied of all.
Nowhere is that more true than in Silverton, where it’s wise to remain on the good side of the town plow drivers; where so many aspects of life depend on the highway and the people who control, maintain and plow them day after day; where CDOT and its orange trucks are like deities, their power over daily life eclipsing all other agencies and entities.
All other entities, that is, besides nature.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He tweets @jonnypeace.