The ‘Pathfinder of the San Juans’ was orphaned at age 3.
A chance meeting between two men on a mountain pass in 1867 shaped the development of southern Colorado. Former Territorial Governor William Gilpin was riding over 9,010-foot Poncha Pass in the rugged San Juan Mountains when he came upon a young merchant shoveling flour into a wagon. The wagon had overturned on the rough path, spilling the load. Gilpin recommended the young man get a $5 permit and build a good-quality toll road over the pass. The merchant, Otto Mears, did just that, and then built a network of toll roads and railroads that transformed southern Colorado. For this he earned the title “Pathfinder of the San Juans.”
Otto Mears was born in Kurland, Russia, on May 3, 1840, to an English father and a Russian mother. Orphaned at age 3, he joined the large family of an uncle. He didn’t fit in well with his foster family and was sent to an uncle in London, then to a relative in New York in 1850.
A year later he was sent to live with yet another uncle, this time in California. The trip required a sea voyage to Panama, a horseback trek across the isthmus and another sea voyage to San Francisco. By the time Otto arrived, his uncle had moved to Australia, and at age 11 Otto was left without family or money.
He went to work selling newspapers to earn his room and board, eventually gaining experience as a clerk. Time spent in mining camps taught him that people who sold goods to the miners often had more success than the miners. When he came of age, he became a U.S. citizen.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Mears enlisted in Company H of the 1st Regiment, California Volunteer Infantry, along with 100 other men, mostly miners. They marched across the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico in the summer of 1862, seeing only minor combat. His unit was later assigned to serve under Kit Carson during the Navajo campaign, during which Mears was a baker. He mustered out in Las Cruces, New Mexico Territory, on August 31, 1864.
Mears went north and worked at several stores in Santa Fe before moving on and opening his own store in Conejos, Colorado Territory. Due to strong demand for flour and lumber at nearby Fort Garland, he planted wheat and built a gristmill and a sawmill. In 1866 he moved his operation again, this time to the area of present-day Saguache, where he added freighting to his growing list of enterprises.
A drop in the price the military was willing to pay for his flour prompted Mears to begin shipping his goods north to the Arkansas River Valley, on the way to newly discovered ore bodies in what would become Leadville. This led to his encounter with Gilpin on Poncha Pass. He built that toll road and in 1870 incorporated the Poncha Pass Wagon Road Co., which was very profitable. Mears was adept at attracting investors, and in 1874 he established the Saguache & San Juan Toll Road Co. and built a road from Saguache to Lake City.
Mears played another key role in the development of the area in the early 1870s. The San Juan Mountains belonged to the Utes, but with the discovery of rich mineral deposits came demands to remove the Indians from their homeland. Mears had become fluent in the Ute language and served as interpreter during 1873 negotiations leading to the Brunot Treaty, which opened the San Juans to exploration and settlement. Mears became a close friend of Chief Ouray and later became Ute commissioner.
Over the next 10 years Mears built an extensive network of toll roads throughout southwestern Colorado until his system totaled more than 450 rugged miles. Some of his roads crossed mountain passes that exceeded 11,000 feet. His most spectacular accomplishment was the road from Ouray to the booming mines on Red Mountain and on to Silverton. Built in 1883, this road followed the rugged Uncompahgre River gorge and was a testament to Mears’ determination. Much of the road skirted a narrow ledge hundreds of feet above the canyon floor that had to be blasted out of rock so hard that construction costs sometimes exceeded $1,000 per foot. The tollgate stood above 253-foot Bear Creek Falls. This road was critical to the development of the rich Red Mountain mines and today is called U.S. Route 550, the “Million-Dollar Highway” between Silverton and Ouray.
Not content to concentrate solely on toll roads, Mears also became a major power in Republican politics and contracted to deliver mail to the remote mining towns, using dog teams in the winter. In early 1876 the snow was so deep that his employees refused to work, so Mears delivered the mail himself from Lake City to Silverton and Ouray on skis.
By the early 1880s it became obvious that railroads were the key to prosperity for Colorado’s mining camps. The narrow gauge Denver & Rio Grande reached Silverton in 1882 and planned branches to Ouray and Lake City. Access to a railhead allowed mine operators to ship lower grade ore, and Mears decided to expand from toll roads to railroads. In 1887 he began construction of a narrow gauge line from Silverton over 11,018-foot Sheridan Pass (now called Red Mountain Pass) to the mining camps on Red Mountain. He called this line the Silverton Railroad, but it was popularly known as the Rainbow Route, a name coined by Mears’ friend David F. Day, publisher of the Solid Muldoon newspaper in Ouray. The railroad was completed in 1889 and immediately returned a handsome profit.
Laying out railroad routes through the San Juans also called for daring engineering, and Mears hired Charles W. Gibbs for the job. Gibbs developed elegant solutions to many problems on Mears’ railroads, but none were as famous as the Corkscrew Gulch turntable on the Silverton Railroad. The descent from the top of Sheridan Pass to the station at Ironton was so rugged there was no conventional way to turn a train, so Gibbs designed a unique turntable on the main line, a solution so radical that Gibbs presented a paper describing the installation to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Mears then began construction of his masterpiece, the 162-mile Rio Grande Southern. The line ran from Durango northwest through the rich mining towns of Rico and Telluride, over 10,250-foot Lizard Head Pass to the new town of Ridgway, which Mears established as the railroad’s headquarters, 10 miles north of Ouray. Requiring 142 major bridges and trestles, the RGS opened in 1891 after just a year and a half of construction. The line was an immediate success, and Mears considered extending it to California.
In 1893 an economic perfect storm prompted a radical drop in the price of silver in a matter of weeks. Mines throughout the Mountain West closed, and the nation fell into a deep depression. Railroads depended on production from the mines, and all suffered. Mears lost control of the RGS but maintained control of the Silverton Railroad and his toll roads and worked to regain his losses. By 1895 he had gathered enough backing to construct the Silverton Northern, which ran from Silverton to Eureka. Crews extended the line to Animas Forks in 1904.
Colorado continued to press for support of silver coinage without success, and Mears went back East for several years at the end of the 1890s, where he built the Chesapeake Beach Railway and served as president of the Mack Brothers Motor Car Co. Returning to Colorado, he invested in mines and in the 1910s leased and then purchased another narrow gauge railroad, the Silverton, Gladstone & Northerly. Unfortunately, the continued instability of mining caused many small railroads to founder, and the Silverton Railroad ceased operations in 1921, followed by the SG&N in the early ’20s.
By then Mears was in his 80s and had retired to California. He died June 24, 1931, in Pasadena at age 91. His ashes were mingled with those of Mary, his wife of 54 years, and scattered in his beloved San Juan Mountains.Today most of that area’s highways and many of its celebrated 4WD trails still follow road and rail routes pioneered by Otto Mears.
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.