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Come Back to Our Valley

It is March and the mud that clung to and dirtied everything for the early settlers began to dry up at times. An end to the wind, the cold, the snow and especially the mud could be seen as they looked forward to April.

Last week I wrote about roads and had an idea how to pursue that topic this week but the name of Otto Mears is so intertwined with many of the roads in southwest Colorado that I felt who he was and how he fit might just be appropriate this week.

Most of us who know about Otto Mears think of the railroad that came to Mancos in 1892. Long before that, however, Mr. Mears played quite a hand as roads were developed.

He was born in May of 1840 in Russia where his father died when Otto was only a year old. His mother passed away a few years later and an uncle took him in. Otto was picked on incessantly so when Otto was nine years old his uncle sent him to live with a relative in England. That relative simply paid for his passage to America.

The relative in New York shipped him off to an uncle on his father's side who lived in California. This meant going to the Isthmus of Panama and traveling for fifty miles on horseback until he arrived at the Pacific Ocean. The uncle he was to meet in San Francisco had gone to Australia, so a kind lady took him in. He began selling newspapers. By chance he met a man from Walkerville, California who owned a store and took Otto with him when he returned to Walkerville. That was in 1851. Otto learned the merchanting ropes and with good money in hand returned to San Francisco. His first night there he was robbed of all his money and didn't even have money for breakfast. He found a job and later became a baker. Then in the spring of 1861, the Civil War broke out and he joined the First Regiment of California Volunteers. He stayed in the army for a little over three years. His mustering out pay was $200 in gold.

In 1867, after making good money in Santa Fe and even owning his own store in Conejos, he decided to take out a charter for $5 and build a toll road. The first road was over Poncha pass. The next road was from Saguache to Lake City. Next he built a toll road from Lake City to Silverton. He ended up with 12 toll roads, the closest to Mancos being from Rico to Ridgway.

In 1889, Otto decided to take on the great venture of building a railroad to carry silver and gold ore from the mines in Ouray to the mines in Telluride and Rico and then on to Dolores to Mancos and end up at the smelters in Durango. Only a few years after the railroad was complete, the price of silver plunged. All too soon his railroad went into receivership. Otto went back to California where he continued making money and later died there. That picked-on Russian kid left behind many roads in Southwest Colorado that later became scenic highways.

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