Silverton, Colorado: Still a refreshing taste of the Old West

Notorious San JuansI recently returned from a book tour in the San Juans to promote my books “Notorious San Juans” and “Notorious Telluride.” One of my favorite stops on the trip was the alpine settlement of Silverton.

Once at the heart of Ute territory, the area was overrun by miners and those who supported them in 1874. Over half a dozen mining towns sprang up in the area, including Howardsville, Animas Forks, Gladstone, Poughkeepsie, and others; Silverton is the last living outpost. Its population has remained fairly static since its earliest days – at around 500 residents. It caters to a brisk tourist trade, due mostly to the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway, which brings loads of tourists up on a daily basis during the summer.

Silverton today is what Telluride was back in the 1970s – an out-of-the way and spectacularly beautiful mountain town that still retains its Old West flavor. My friend Barbara and I stayed at the Grand Imperial Hotel, which was a real hoot. When we arrived and entered the lobby, we were greeted by the sight of a group of re-enactors, dressed in Wild West clothing, clanging around the lobby in their spurs. Barbara and I gaped; I really had a sense that I had entered a time warp. The Grand Imperial’s lobby still seems to have some its original furnishings as well, including an antique (albeit lumpy) sofa and a beautiful old piano.

Grand Imperial Hotel, Silverton, Colorado

Grand Imperial Hotel, Silverton, Colorado

My business there was to visit the museum and stores and see if they were selling my books, which they were. I had a great time signing books and chatting with proprietors, all of whom were a delight to meet.

View of Silverton, Colorado from Hillside Cemetery

View of Silverton, Colorado from Hillside Cemetery

While in town, I was hoping to find the grave of one of the characters in “Notorious San Juans,” Max Dallavalle. We headed up to Silverton’s Hillside Cemetery and poked around. There we encountered a local woman who knew a lot about the cemetery, and she directed us to the Dallavalle family plot. This, however, was not the same Dallavalle family; or if they were related, they didn’t have Max and his baby daughter Eunice buried with them.

Max Dallavalle was killed by his wife and another man in 1912 during a fight in the Dallavalle home at the corner of 15th and Cement Streets in Silverton. During the trial his wife Rosa told the Court that she had been abused for years by her husband. After I researched and pondered the case, I tended to believe her story, perhaps because Rosa and her accomplice, Victor Pangranzi, both tried to take the blame in order to save the other. We’ll probably never know the whole truth about why Max was killed.

Swansea Gulch and Kendall Mountain, Silverton, Colorado

Max Dallavalle’s body was found at the base of Swansea Gulch, shown here, near the Lackawanna mine at the base of Kendall Mountain.

There is a Villa Dallavalle Bed and Breakfast in Silverton and several folks told me to go visit Gerald Swanson, a descendant of the “other” Dallavalle family. Unfortunately, I had another event in Telluride the next day and we didn’t have time. They do have a terrific website though (http://www.villadallavalle.com/index.html). Maybe I’ll stay there during my next visit, which I look forward to very much.

Another wild story from Silverton was when members of the Cooks & Waiters Union 16 went on a rampage against Chinese residents in May of 1902.  Newspaper reports were annoyingly vague about exactly what the attackers did, but at least some men were beaten and possibly killed; all the Chinese residents in town were robbed and run out of town. This event angered even the anti-Chinese newspaper editors of the region, who, after months of Chinese-bashing, decried this event, calling it “white-capping,” a term unpleasantly reminiscent of the KKK. This type of action, of course, was not unique to Silverton but was repeated in cities and towns across the West, including a similar event in Denver when the Chinese section of town was burned by out-of-control whites. The treatment of the Chinese in the Old West was not the prettiest chapter in U.S. history.

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