History of the City of Durango
The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad Company formed Durango along the banks of the Animas River in September 1880 to serve the San Juan mining district. Lots of silver (and later, even more of gold) was being discovered in the mountains ever since gold fever struck in 1872 and resulted in the settlement of mining towns like Silverton, 50 miles north. Durango had a more tolerable climate and a good supply of water and coal for operating the smelters to pull precious metals out of the ore.
The railroad company chose a site south of the town of Animas City for its depot. It bought up the land in the eventual downtown Durango area using various different names to conceal what it was doing. The land was purchased for less money this way. When the train steamed through Animas City on its way north in 1881, it didn't even stop there!
What's in a Name?
Durango, Colorado, was named after Durango, Mexico. As the story goes, Colorado's former territorial governor A. C. Hunt was traveling through Durango, Mexico at the time when the name for the new town was being decided, and thought the two regions looked similar. The word Durango originates from the Basque word "Urango" meaning "water town" or "well watered place." There is also a Durango, Spain. The three Durangos are sister cities and have exchanged gifts and formal visits of their officials.
Native Americans had camped along the banks of the Animas River for thousands of years. Archaeologists have found evidence that this area experienced a population boom in the latter part of the 8th century - about 1,200 years ago. Some think more people lived here then than now! By the time the Ute Indians settled here, centuries later, these ancient Ancestral Puebloans had mysteriously disappeared from their last homeland - including the area now called Mesa Verde National Park. The Ute Indians sheltered in the abandoned dwellings and enjoyed the ample fishing and hunting opportunities the area offered.
When the Spanish explorers Dominguez and Escalante passed through on August 9, 1776—while the American War of Independence was beginning on the East Coast—the Animas River had already been named (El Río de las Ánimas).
Back to our story about Durango… Hundreds of gold miners had camped out in this area in 1860, but within a year of its founding in 1880, Durango had a population of 2,400 and really began to grow. People arrived from many countries to work in the smelters and mines and on the railroad. By the turn of the century, Durango had become a vacation destination, with the creation of the San Juan National Forest in 1905 and Mesa Verde National Park in 1906. The population of the city of Durango doubled to 4,686 by 1910.
By the middle of the 20th century Durango had many of the amenities that residents enjoy today, including the airport with its long 9,201-foot runway located on the Southern Ute Reservation about 12 miles south of the city on 420 acres the city purchased in 1946, Fort Lewis College (which relocated to Durango in 1956, onto 193 acres the city provided for a token sum of $8,400; FLC became a four-year college in 1962), and the Purgatory Durango Mountain ski resort which opened for business in 1965.
Today tourism is an important aspect of Durango's economy (along with recreation, natural resources development, education, government and business) and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad continues to run on the spectacular narrow gauge railroad that was carved through the mountainsides along the Animas River Valley more than a century ago.
To learn more, open these free e-books and/or search the Historical section of the public access catalog of City records:
- Interesting Historical Facts About Durango (PDF) (12 pages)
- Durango...Your Hometown: A primer for 3rd graders and up (PDF) (32 pages)
- Money-Saving Lessons from Durango Municipal Court Case Records (PDF) (32 pages)
- Nine Ways the City of Durango Supports Bicycling, and Nine Durango Biking Laws (PDF) (12 pages)
- Historical List of Officials of the City of Durango, Colorado, from 1881 to current (PDF) (15 pages)
- Historical Chronology of City Councilors, Mayor, and Mayor Pro Tem, 1881 to current (PDF) (15 pages)
- Durango's Mayors: A brief but comprehensive chronology (PDF) (64 pages, illustrated in color)
- A Biographical Walking Tour of Greenmount Cemetery (PDF) (20 pages) – and the accompanying map and index (PDF) (separate file, 2 pages)
- Buildings of the City of Durango: A quick historical tour guide (PDF) (4 pages)
- Municipal Elections of Durango, Then and Now (PDF) (16 pages)
- City of Durango Employee Awards History: Employee of the Year and Supervisor of the Year (PDF) (3 pages)
The history of Durango is the history of the West in microcosm. The history of the West is the history of westward expansion, and thus of the New World. History is the study of persons and the effects of the decisions they have made.
History of the City Charter
Durango, Colorado, county seat of La Plata County, is a home rule city with the council / manager form of government. According to the Colorado Constitution, "home rule" means that the citizens have "the full right of self government in local and municipal matters." By the overwhelming vote by its citizens in the election of September 3, 1912, Durango changed its governing officials from aldermen to commissioners and became the fourth city in Colorado to adopt a home rule charter. Its switch to home rule was preceded only by Denver in 1904 and Colorado Springs and Grand Junction in 1909.
Establishing Home Rule
Actual changes in the city's form of government didn't happen until 1913 and 1915; the 1912 home rule charter election started the ball rolling. The first municipal elections to select commissioners under the terms of the charter were held in April of 1913. The next month, Durango switched from having nine aldermen (a mayor and four pairs of elected council members who represented the four wards of the city) to having just three commissioners, each representing the whole of the city. The presence of two council members constituted a quorum. The three commissioners elected a mayor from among themselves.
This bare-bones commissioner form of government didn't last long; in the general municipal election on April 6, 1915, citizens voted by a large majority to change the city charter to move to a commissioner-manager form of government and to increase the number of council members from three to five. Thus Durango became one of the first municipalities in the nation to have an appointed city manager, rather than an elected mayor, as its chief administrator to manage the day-to-day operations of the city. Durango's City Council selected Andrew Hood as its first City Manager on July 6, 1915. Hood was an undertaker by profession; his company, Hood Mortuary, is still in business in Durango today at the north end of East Third Avenue.
The city's second charter election, on November 7, 1978, further refined Durango's council-manager form of government: council members henceforth were called councilmen rather than commissioners. The council members chose among themselves the mayor and mayor pro tem - as they still do today.