Eileen McGinley is a writer, political
activist and organizer, and volunteer Cub Reporter for KOTO news.
She has recently completed a novel, yet to be published, called Once
Upon The Seventh Time. Eileen lives, works and plays in Telluride.
This piece was written for the application to place the Valley
Floor on The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Most
Endangered Places List in 2001.
A History of the Valley Floor
Since the time of the Utes, the Valley Floor has
been the gateway to the box canyon, and for more than one hundred
years, the Valley Floor has been the lens through which Telluride’s
historic scale and perspective has been viewed. According to Ute elder
Alden Naranjo, a consultant for Native American Ute history, upwards
of 600 Utes camped on the Valley Floor every summer. Their camp began
at what is now known as Society Turn and spread east to the end of
Telluride’s box canyon. It could be said that the Utes and Mother
Nature established the historical boundaries for Telluride.
In 1868 the Utes signed a treaty with the U.S. that
“granted” them about one-quarter of present-day Colorado,
which included the mineral-rich San Juans. Only four years later,
in 1872, prospectors Linnard Remine and his companions—possibly
the first white men to enter the San Miguel Valley since the fur traders—illegally
started placer mining on the Ute Reservation. The gold rush was on.
In 1873, the Utes were forced to cede four million acres of the San
Juan Mountains to the U.S. government for a perpetual yearly annuity
of $25,000, mostly in the form of goods. The Hayden Survey group mapped
the San Miguel Valley in 1874. In the same year, John Fallon found
a rich deposit of gold ore in Marshall Basin. By the summer of 1875
over three hundred men were working the San Miguel River, including
the stretch that runs along what is now known as the Valley Floor.
The first mining camp was situated on the Valley
Floor and eventually grew into a town called San Miguel City. Placer
mining along the San Miguel River led F.P. Brown, Thomas Lowthian
and J.H. Mitchell up to the San Miguel Valley, where in August of
1877 they laid out a camp site in an attractive pine and cottonwood
grove beside Mill Creek. While it’s not exactly clear why this
spot in the valley was chosen other than its access to good water,
it may have been a split-the-difference compromise between the Keystone
placers two miles to the west, and the trail up to Marshall and Savage
basins a mile and a half to the east.
In July of 1877 Brown became postmaster for the first
post office in the new San Miguel Mining District. An intrepid Mrs.
John Carroll hosted the first restaurant. Charles Sharmon surveyed
the town in the fall of 1877. During the summer of 1879 a semi-weekly
mail service was established between Silverton and San Miguel City
by way of Ophir. By 1880 San Miguel City had several goods stores,
a hotel, two stamp mills, and one concentrating works, plus some two
hundred people. That same year James Bishop and Joe White started
a meat market, while Dave Cooper packed meat to the miners in the
But by 1882, San Miguel City’s preeminence
in the valley began to wane. As one early settler remembered, “They
charged too much for lots.”
As a result, most newcomers moved on to Telluride,
a mile or so up the canyon. San Miguel City continued on as a small
community (even up into the present—although it’s now
locally known as the Brown Homestead), but its promise as the valley’s
first real city seems to have failed because of greed, a familiar
story hereabouts. By 1885, when folks got around to filing the plat
of the town site, San Miguel City had 175 people compared to Telluride’s
Miguel City," taken between 1880 and 1890, photographer unknown.
San Miguel City, the first town in the Telluride valley, was located
in the area of Brown Homestead. [Courtesy of The Denver Public Library,
Western History Collection, Call # X-13522]
In 1890, the Rio Grande Southern railroad rolled
into Telluride across the Valley Floor. For the next forty years the
Valley Floor saw a variety of uses under public and private ownership,
as the site of dairies, recreation, and a dump for mine tailings.
(According to some old-timers, in the mid-1900s,
the tailings ponds down at Society Turn were a favorite spot to play
softball, while women and children sunbathed and played on the tailings
sand. As the story goes, these tailings washed down river during the
flood of July 1914, when a cloudburst above Cornet Creek sent a torrent
of water through the Liberty Bell Mine waste dump, through the small
dam at the foot of the canyon, down Oak Street to Colorado Avenue.
The industrious Telluride miners used powerful fire hoses and a sluice
to wash away the debris. The waste ran down the San Miguel River and
some of it collected at the end of the valley.)
Somewhere between the late 1800s and the early 1900s,
the term “Society Turn” evolved to describe the intersection
where State Highway 145 takes a sharp turn south, and a spur takes
you into Telluride. Some old-timers say Society Turn got its name
because every Sunday the gentry used to dress up and promenade their
buggies out to the end of town, at which point “society”
turned around and headed back to town. Today, Society Turn still marks
the beginning of town, and the beginning of the Valley Floor.
In 1930, Joe Oberto began buying up pieces of the
patchwork claims on the Valley Floor with the goal of consolidating
the land into one large parcel. In 1967, the Oberto Family sold the
Valley Floor to the Newmont Mining Company (Idarado) for less than
$300,000. Idarado intended to use the property to dump tailings and
house employees. Telluride citizens opposed the plan, and forced Idarado
to stop dumping tailings.
Idarado sold the Valley Floor to Denver-based Cordillera
Corporation for $6 million in 1983. Cordillera is the parent company
of the current Valley Floor owners, San Miguel Valley Corporation
In the mid-’80s, SMVC presented development
plans for the 880-acre Valley Floor. Their plans depicted a series
of reservoirs, a golf course, and a population of 7,000. SMVC never
pursued these plans.
Between 1991 and 1999, the Town of Telluride and
San Miguel County governments battled SMVC over many issues. Late
on March 31, 1993, one of SMVC’s consultants mistakenly sent
a fax intended for SMVC to the County Planning department—this
became know as The April Fool’s Fax. This fax contained development
plans for the Valley Floor, which revealed SMVC’s intention
to drain the wetlands as a way to increase their developable property.
In September 1999, a district court judge handed a victory to SMVC,
saying the railroad right-of-way belonged to the company and not the
Town of Telluride. The railroad was abandoned in 1953—the right-of-way,
which crosses the Valley Floor, was first conveyed to San Miguel County,
which later turned it over to the town. The judge called the County’s
conveyance of the land to the town an error.
In December of 1999, SMVC revealed updated plans
for development on the Valley Floor. These plans included a large
hotel complex, a gondola link to 41 Mountain Village, an 18-hole golf
course, commercial areas, condominiums, and single homes.
On June 5, 2000, SMVC officials announced they intended
to seek annexation of the Valley Floor into Mountain Village (the
ski company town on the other side of the hill) and pursue development
with that town. This announcement incited the public, as it was judged
to be an attempt by SMVC to align themselves with a political body
that would allow development patterns and building sizes not in scale
with the Town of Telluride. On June 25, 2000, at a packed meeting,
the Telluride Town Council fired back, and directed staff to begin
immediate work on appraisals, legal documents and boundary surveys
of the Valley Floor in preparation for condemnation. The move met
On July 3, 2000, a public demonstration drew approximately
1,500 people to the County Courthouse steps (the courthouse is an
historic building in the center of Telluride) for a Rally for the
Valley, with participants roaring, “Free the Valley.”
As reported by The Denver Post, “Dreadlocks cozied up to designer
pants suits, movie stars linked up with ranch hands, tie-dyes connected
to Ph.D.s, second-home owners gripped tent dwellers, tots hung on
to retired miners. ‘Save the floor. Save the cows,’ chanted
about 1,500 residents of this mountain town who turned out at high
noon to form a human chain in a traffic-snarling protest against the
planned development of the “valley floor”—the 880
acres of scenic meadows and wetlands spotted with black-and-white
cows that stretch along Colorado 145 at the entrance to Telluride.”
Facing growing opposition, SMVC suspended its efforts
to annex the Valley Floor to Mountain Village on August 14, 2000.
The company said it would back away from the political fray and continue
to hold on to the property.
On June 25, 2002, Telluride residents voted 609-
385 in a special election to pursue eminent domain for attainment
of 570 acres on the south side of the Valley Floor to be placed under
a conservation easement in perpetuity. SMVC has said the company is
preparing for a court battle over the future of the Valley Floor.
Nothing stirs the old clay of the heart more than
the three-mile approach from Society Turn to Telluride. It is a vista
that conveys more than the imagination is able to conceive. Through
fences, groves of cottonwoods and spruce, and open meadows, we see
the historic town nested in the natural contour of the alpine valley.
Everything looks right; we feel a balance, a connection, and a touch
of humility. We are transported to a place of beauty within ourselves.
If we lose the Valley Floor, we lose a rare thing
to behold in our fragmented world—a vision of wholeness. We
lose our natural symmetry and sense of connection. And we lose the
main theme of Telluride’s history— man surrounded by nature.
Citations from Art Goodtimes Historic Archives
Russ Collman and Dell A. McCoy, The RGS Story, Rio
Grande Southern, Vol. II, Telluride, Pandora and the Mines Above,
Sundance Publ. Ltd., Denver, 1991.
Colorado Writers Project of the WPA, “Place
Names in Colorado” (S), Colo. Mag #19, 1942.
Ray L. Newburn, Jr., Postal History of the Colorado
San Juans, 1974 (monograph published serially in the Western Express
D. Ray Wilson, Colorado Historical Tour Guide, Crossroads
Communications, Carpenterville, Illinois, 1990.
Frank Hall, History of the State of Colorado, Vol.
IV, Chicago, 1889.
L. G . Denison & L. A. York, Tale of Two Early
Pioneers, Indesign Studios, Odessa, Texas, 1988.
G. A. Crofutt, Grip-Sack Guide of Colorado, Overland,
New Popular Family Atlas of the World/ J.V. Farwel
& Co., Chicago, 1891
1 Alden Naranjo consults with the U. S. Parks and Forest
Services. He was a major contributor to Ute Indian Art and Culture,
from Prehistory to the New Millennium, edited by William Wroth.
2 Historic Telluride, by Christian J. Buys.
3 Ibid. From the Art Goodtimes Historic Archives (his citations are
noted in Appendix).