Otto Mears - Forgotten Hero
450 miles of the most spellbinding roads in Southwest Colorado were built largely due to the life’s accomplishments of one man: miles of twisting narrow wagon roads through the most rugged terrain of the Rocky Mountains. The Million Dollar Highway, pictured to the right, is one of these awesome thoroughfares.
In 1843 Otto Mears was a 3 year old orphan living in Russia. In 1849 (age 9) he was put on a sailing vessel to join an uncle in California. Speaking only Russian, he arrived in San Francisco only to learn his uncle had left for Australia.
He sold newspapers for a time, learned the tinsmith trade, milked cows and worked for a local store merchant.Though he had saved every penny he had earned, he was robbed while asleep one night sharing a hotel room with 12 other men. In 1859, he left to work the gold fields of California and Nevada until he joined the Civil War’s First Regiment of California Volunteers in the Spring of 1861. He served 3 years in the army under Kit Carson until he was discharged. While in the army he assumed the extra duty of making bread and was paid a pound of flour for every pound of bread he made. He sold the extra flour to the Indians and by the time he was discharged, he’d pocketed $1,500. Together with his discharge money of $400, he opened a store in Saguache (pronounced sahWatch) in the San Luis Valley. In order to enlarge the store, he constructed the first lumber mill in SW Colorado. To satisfy the demand for flour, he planted 200 acres of wheat. Not satisfied with harvesting by hand and threshing with sheep, he brought in the first mower, reaper and threshing machine and built the first grist mill as well. By harvest, the local Government’s purchase price had dropped from $20 per hundred pounds to $5. He decided to freight his crop to the gold camp of California Gulch (Leadville, Colorado) 100 miles north. There were no roads over Poncha Pass and his wagons floundered in the mud and rough terrain, spilling the wheat. A lone rider came by on horseback and suggested that Mears build a toll road across the pass. Taking the suggestion to heart, and after he sold the wheat for $12 a hundred, he continued onto Denver and obtained the right to build a toll road. One had only to specify the terminal points of the road, pay $5 for the charter and a franchise was received for twenty years. Mears’ first road consisted of 50 miles over his wheat wagon route from Saguache to Nathrop where it connected with the road that ran from California Gulch to Denver. From collecting tolls and freighting cargo for others, he recouped his road construction expense in a few months. He then built a second road from Saguache to Lake City, the first silver boom town of Southwest Colorado and the site of the Meeker Massacre, Northeast of Silverton. He later extended this road onto Silverton.
In 1875, Mears was granted the contract to deliver mail to Ouray. In the winter the mail was transported by dogs pulling toboggans and the mailman on snowshoes or skiis. Mail consisted of anything and everything: tobacco, coffee, sugar, dry goods and ladies’ hats and the mailman was under strict orders not to ride atop the toboggans.To facilitate transportation from Silverton to Ouray, Mears worked eight years to complete what is now the Million Dollar Highway.The first eight and a half miles from Ouray cost $40,000 a mile to build. The roadbed on this section was blasted out of solid rock on a thousand foot-high shelf. The name came about when the state took over the road in the 1920’s and spent over a million dollars rebuilding 6 miles of the road.
The 450 miles of toll roads constructed by Otto Mears cost $325,000. His freighting business (the original UPS) earned this sum many times over. When the deep snow in the winter made supplies scarce, a ton of hay or a sack of flour could easily cost $100 each. Otto Mears was active in the packing and freighting business from 1875 until 1890 when the railroads began to monopolize with their cheaper freight charges. By pack trains, transportation from Silverton to Del Norte and onto to Pueblo by wagon cost $80 a ton. By train, it cost $8 a ton. The reduced cost created a bonanza for the miners and the entire region.With the inception of rail, the quantity of ore hauled increased from a few tons to hundreds of tons and traffic in the form of livestock, farm produce, coal and lumber grew accordingly. Many of the railroad tracks were laid over the toll roads of Otto Mears. The Denver and Rio Grande paid Mears $40,000 for his right of way over Marshall Pass. From 1887 through 1891 Otto Mears himself built three railroads: The Silverton Railroad, the Silverton Northern Railroad, and the Rio Grande Southern, the latter of which was a spellbinding engineering accomplishment running 172 miles from Durango to Ridgway. The entire mining industry and the development of Southwest Colorado owes a great debt to this one man. Otto Mears died at the age of 91 in Pasadena, California.
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