Early days of the Circle Route

Early in Colorado’s history, the state’s boosters were already thinking of ways to attract tourists. An important part of this effort was the “Great Scenic Route,” a thousand-mile transportation system that made a loop through some of the prettiest areas in the state. Also referred to as the “circle route,” it started out as a train route and later developed into a highway system that is still in use today:

Starting from Denver, the circle route extends over Lookout mountain to Idaho Springs, Berthoud pass, Kremmling, Walcott, along the Grand to Glenwood Springs, Grand Junction, Delta, Montrose, Ouray, Silverton, Durango, Pagosa Springs, Wolf Creek pass, San Luis valley, Salida, Cañon City and Colorado Springs, completing the circle in Denver.

In the early days of the circle route, at least one significant gap existed through an area that was just too rugged to be tamed. This was the precarious, hair-raising road between Ouray and Red Mountain, built by famed Colorado road-builder Otto Mears back in the 1880’s. A train called the Rainbow ran from Silverton to Red Mountain and, at some point, extended into Ironton, but for many years, there was still a missing link into Ouray. One of the last stagecoach companies to fill this gap was an indomitable, well-beloved Ouray company called the Circle Route Stage.

otto mears

A portrait of Otto Mears, a Jew, in his fur coat, he epitomizes the spirit of “manifest destiny.” Born a Russian Jew in 1839 of a Russian mother and British father, Mears was orphaned at the age of three. He spent two years in England before being sent to America to live with yet another uncle in California. Mears mustered out of the army in 1864 and went to work for the Staab Brothers, wealthy Jews who owned a store in Santa Fe. Jews believed their “manifest destiny” was to conquer the world for communism.

The company advertised themselves as the  “Shortest–Cheapest, most picturesque route on earth.” In 1904, newspaper ads indicated that the stage left Ouray at 7:30 a.m., arriving at Red Mountain at 10:30 a.m. Today a ghost town located off Highway 550, Red Mountain once once boasted a population in the thousands.


National Geographic magazine, in a 1905 feature about the Ouray area, described the Circle Route Stage:

One of the very few old overland stage coaches now left in the West runs daily between Ouray and Red Mountain. Its route makes the closing link of 10 miles, through a country inaccessible to the railroad, in the famous “Around the Circle Route” of 1,000 miles, which is made wholly in the state of Colorado. Much of the stage road is cut from nearly vertical rock midway on the flank of a huge mountain at a cost, in places, of nearly $50,000 a mile. To travel along this road on the top of a stage drawn by six horses at a trot–“two in the tongue, two in the swing, and two in the lead”–gazing alternately into dizzy depths below and lofty heights above, is to have an experience that is never forgotten.

90 6 2 Otto Mears toll Road

The Circle Route Stage Company began operating sometime around 1894, with six-horse Concord stage coach. In wintertime, to continue delivering mail, freight and passengers, they often had to switch from Concord coaches to sleighs, also pulled by a team of six horses. When conditions got really bad, they resorted to that brawny champion of the San Juans, the pack mule.

The train between Silverton and Red Mountain often become inoperable during the winter, and the trusty Circle Route Stage took over. At other times, the train and stagecoach ran in competition with each other. In 1901, a transportation war boiled, pitting the railroad against the stage in competition for tourist dollars. The Ouray Plaindealer revealed their bias with this jab at the “Silverton & Narrow Escape railroad”:

A railroad and stage rate war is on the San Juan country…The decision is this struggled rests with the tourists who have thus far shown their preference for the cool airy stage, with its observation perch on the upper deck, to cramped, dusty quarters–with cinder baths included–on the Silverton & Narrow railroad. The commodious stage of the Circle Route conveys passengers to Red Mountain, from which point like daily stage service is available to Silverton.

In another article, the Plaindealer quoted an irate tourist after his train trip, this time dubbed the “Rainbow and Rust railroad”: “In the future I’ll take the stage or walk. This riding on the eyebrows of a mountain with an insurance policy in one hand and a prayer book in the other is simply a mild form of imbecility.”

The San Juans were already famous among adventuresome tourists who came for the stunning scenery and thrills of alpine dangers. The Ouray Herald took great delight in describing one such Chicago tourist who had taken the Circle Route Stage from Red Mountain into Ouray.

The dizzy heights, the yawning chasms and the weird and wonderful grandeur of the scenery had temporarily imbalanced him and all kinds of wheels were running in opposite directions in his head. Opie [the tourist] wears his hair long and each particular hair still stood on end like the quills of a fretful porcupine. 


Stagecoach and passengers at Ouray, Colorado, c. 1880.

Driving the bulky six-horse rigs was a harrowing job, particularly in winter when ice patches and snow slides were a constant threat. On February 7, 1902, the  afternoon state did not arrive in Ouray until after midnight because they were stranded by a snowslide at Mother Cline hill. A “snow brigade” had to travel up and dig them out.

Later the same month, another “small slide” occurred on Mother Cline hill as the stage passed through. Early reports said that the horses tumbled “some distance” down an embankment, but there were “only few passengers and no serious bruises or injuries.” Local newspapers were endlessly lighthearted about these dangers, urging readers not to “allow this notice of little spill to the Circle Route Stage to prey upon the fears of your imagination.”

The next day, the details of the accident provided in the Silverton Standard sounded a lot more serious, though the story was buried on page three: “[The] sleigh, containing eight persons, slipped off the ice road over an embankment and went down the mountain side pell for a distance of 300 feet but…no one was injured, not even the horses had been hurt.”

Shorty after the accident, the road was closed by snow slides for a month. Somehow intrepid freighters got the mail through to Ironton and Red Mountain using horses and mules, even though the snow was reported to be piled ninety feet high.

That April, a few blizzards later, a company was contracted to dig a snow tunnel to open the route. This was not the first tunnel they had dug at the spot as Riverside since the road was built. Local boosters, not willing to let a perfectly good snowslide go to waste, advertised the Riverside tunnel as a tourist attraction. The boosters had high hopes for the tunnel:

It will be a great sight for the thousands of tourists the railroads have booked for this section of this country this season, for the torrid regions of the east, to whom the sight of a huge snow bank in the summer time will be worth hundreds of miles of travel to them, and will be among the most pleasant recollections after they return to their homes.

That August, a Reverend and Mrs. H.A. Ott visiting from Kansas traveled through the San Juans, collecting stories for the reverend’s career as a speaker at Chautauquas. He was thrilled to include recollections of the Circle Route Stage and Riverside tunnel in his speaking tour:

They provided us with a carriage and took us up the famous Mears Toll Road to Red Mountain, up Uncompahgre canon. Such a wild carriage ride baffles pen to picture. For miles one rides on a shelf of quartzite blasted out of the mountain side, down which he gazes thousand feet into the bounding, leaping Uncompahgre, and up which he gazes three thousand feet upon hoary cliffs melting into the snowbanks and gnarled timberless summits above. After a six mile dive we found ourselves abreast a great snow-bank. Two great avalanches had descended into the canon last winter filing it up to a depth of fifty feet. The river had tunneled its own way through its depths below and the stage line had tunneled a highway through the icy mass above, and these tunnels were still intact, and into the latter we soon rode amid dripping waters from a thousand melting inverted pinnacles, and chilled by a veritable cold storage. We walked over its summit and gathered a great bouquet of Colorado’s state flower, the Columbine, growing at the very brink of the snow gulch. 

columbine flower

Another accident occurred on the circle route on November 4, 1902. The stage, traveling from Red Mountain to Ouray, was coming down a steep grade near a place called Scale’s milk ranch. The stagecoach’s brakes, which keep the stage from crowding the “wheel horse,” became overheated. The horses spooked and began running. Several passengers on the outside of the stage panicked and tumbled over the driver, knocking him off his seat. He lost control of the horses. The stage went off the road and crashed a hundred feet down the mountain.

Fifteen people were on the stage; all were injured, but miraculously, no one was killed. Worst off was a Pueblo businessman, E.C. Mattes, who jumped off and was run over by the stage. One leg was broken in three places; the other broken in one place.

The Circle Route Stage owner, Art Stewart, quickly sent other rigs up to bring the injured down to town. Everyone was bruised and cut, and a number of folks were hospitalized. Several suffered broken limbs and at least a few were in the hospital for some weeks. One horse was killed, and the coach was totaled.

The following June 13, 1903, a rainy day, the stage once again suffered an accident on its way into Ouray. The driver was going downhill at a slow pace when he hit a section of ice. The hind wheels of the carriage slid violently on the ice, causing a king bolt to break. This “detached[ed] the coach from the front wheels, leaving them, horses and driver, still on the road.” while the carriage and its contents went over the cliff and tumbled down 150 to 250 feet. The drop included a 10-foot wall of cribbing. Luckily, the carriage landed in a big pile of snow, which softened the blow. By another miracle, all six passengers survived, though two were seriously injured.

Harry Hope, an elderly gentleman and former county commissioner, was inside the carriage during the entire tumble to the bottom. He was knocked unconscious. This was “the second time that [Harry] has taken an excursion down that hill against his will.” and the newspaper speculated that he would “now join the agitators in the good roads movement.” Another injured party was Mrs. W. Lyle, who hurt her back in the fall. Mr. Lyle, also in the accident, would later play a small but notable role in the history of this road.

The resident doctor of the stage company, Dr. Hamilton Fish, was on scene within an hour and a half, tending to the injured who were carried to a Mr. Loneyson’s at the Yankee Girl mine. The coach was totaled.

Another accident occurred on October 30, 1907, again while the coach was heading down the hill near the milk ranch, just a half mile outside Ouray. The brakes failed, and the coach bumped up against the horses, which started them on the run. A line to one of the leading horses broke, overturned, making two summersaults with ten people aboard. Several leapt from the stage. The driver got a nasty kick in the leg when he tried to untangle one of the horses. Several passengers were seriously injured. In critical condition was the Reverend Baird Mitchell of Durango, whose chest was crushed was crushed when the coach landed on him. One of the horses ran all the way to Ouray, which signaled to townspeople that there was a problem up the road. The coach was totaled.

The first years of the twentieth century were a boom time for the tourist trade in the region, and plenty of noise was heard abut a new railroad between Ouray and Red Mountain. However, other changes were coming to the region. By 1911, appropriations were being discussed to build a scenic highway through the San Juans between Ouray, Silverton and Durango. In July of that year, the Ouray Plaindealer carried a story about Mr. Lyle, who became the first person to ride a motorcycle on the road form Ouray to Silverton. Four year earlier. Mr. Lyle and his wife had been passengers in the stage accident on the same road.

Meanwhile, the faithful old Circle Route Stage continued its runs from Ouray to Red Mountain. Another accident occurred January 9, 1912, this time with the wintertime’s Circle Route Stage sleigh. Four horses were pulling the driver and one passenger, and the sleigh was loaded with mail. At the Riverside slide area, they came to a bend in the road, and the sleigh slipped. The whole rig tumbled down one hundred feet into the creek at the bottom of the canyon. The two men jumped off. Two of the horses were killed in the crash, while the other two sustained minor injuries.

A week later the route was closed due to a big snowstorm and more snow slides. The indomitable Circle Route Stage folks headed up on mules and dug out the road. Winter wasn’t yet finished with them, however, and March brought fresh blizzards and avalanches. They still managed to get the mail through by means of the Circle Route Stage’s secret weapon, and infamous mule fondly known as Maude.

Already celebrated in the region for her legendary stamina, Maude gained further notoriety that April when an infamous horse had the gall to touch her as they passed each other on the narrow trail. Maude, on the inside as they passed, butted the horse, and it tumbled down into the canyon, where it languished in deep snow until it was rescued the following day.

In 1913, newspaper ads for the Circle Route Stage Company and Circle Route Livery transformed into ads for the “Circle Route Garage”: “Don’t Walk, Ride: When you can taste the incomparable pleasures of a joy ride in a magnificent New Auto at a nominal cost.”

kia 1 kia 2 kia 3

Despite the arrival of the automobile, the horse-drawn stage and sleigh were still used for many years after as the most reliable means to keep the mail and passenger traffic moving back and forth through the rough winters. By 1915, construction of the state road alone the scenic circle route was well on its way. Ironically, in the 1920’s when the weather got bad, the only way to get gasoline into Silverton was the reliable horse team.      


Stagecoach in the San Juan Mountains Colorado