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The Golden Years Return to Colorado's Old West

September 22, 1985|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

DURANGO, Colo. — Picture the set of a Hollywood Western, only with tourists starring for the macho mountain men of another century.

That's Durango.

During the West's golden years Durango sprang up in this one-time lusty, hell-raising corner of Colorado where for more than a century it prospered as the gateway to some of the richest glory holes on earth. Will Rogers described it as "out of the way and glad of it."

Founded by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, Durango was the scene of bars, brothels and shoot-'em-ups, including a gun battle involving the notorious Stockton-Eskridge gang that lasted for more than an hour. When the smoke had cleared, Main Street resembled nothing less than a war-torn battlefield. Windows were shattered and blood was spattered--but the player piano in a Main Street saloon never missed as much as a single note.

Today tourists ride the range in four-wheel Mustangs and mingle on Main Street, taking in the melodrama at the old Strater Hotel and riding the Durango & Silverton narrow-gauge railroad. Others disappear to three guest ranches as well as Tamarron, a five-star attraction spread across 600 acres of fir and aspen.

At Tamarron a herd of elk stares at guests while guests fire back with Instamatic cameras. Stan Wadsworth bought a meadow and carved out a kingdom. In a land of lakes he dug others, planted more trees, built a lodge and surrounded it with town houses.

The result is a Rocky Mountain all-weather playground for well-heeled vacationers, with golf a leading attraction.

With the arrival of winter, players trade clubs for ski poles and disappear into the forest. Just above the 18th fairway, novice skiers schuss down a beginner's hill and others skate on a frozen pond not far from the 10th fairway.

Still others commute by helicopter to Purgatory with its maze of trails, lifts, bars and restaurants.

Guests at Tamarron choose between studio apartments in the main lodge and spiffy condominiums that face the golf course. The tab figures out to $125 a night for a double (make that $115 for a single) and runs upscale to $350 for a pad in the pines that accommodates a family of four. In case the guest gets hooked with all the beauty, Tamarron will sell him a condominium priced from $62,000 to $350,000.

At Tamarron, depending on the season, one may take lessons in archery, raft down a river or climb the highest mountain. In addition, there's an indoor-outdoor swimming pool as well as a fleet of Jeeps for exploring ancient ruins, abandoned mining towns and alpine meadows high in the awesome San Juans.

A favorite hangout of an evening is a lively pub called the Miner's Shaft where ore cars make do as booths and miners' lamps provide the light.

Beyond Tamarron, guests visit the ancient cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park and explore Silverton where Bat Masterson patrolled a beat of 37 saloons that operated around the clock.

Ricky-tick piano drifts out the swinging doors of the Grand Imperial and the Bent Elbow, and strangers spill their silver up and down Blair and Main streets, buying up mementos of the tumble-down mining town.

During winter the winds howl off the Rockies and strangers warm themselves beside potbellied stoves; they look in on Lee Lung Ty's abandoned laundry and study the sign nailed over the undertaker's parlor: coffins, shrouds, tombstones.

Silverton's handful of old-timers call it "the mining town that wouldn't quit." But little life remains in winter. With summer throngs gone, silence returns to Main Street, save for the mournful cry of an icy wind.

Head for the Hills

Meanwhile, back in Durango other vacationers head for the hills to ride for a week at Western-flavored guest ranches. Places with pure air and pure water and a sky that's ignited with stars. No smog or sirens. Just the open land and the San Juan Mountains with their quaking aspen and lofty pines.

At Colorado Trails Ranch, Dick Elder has been welcoming guests for 26 years. Ever since he plunked down $35,000 for 555 acres of pine-covered mountains and valleys--a spread valued conservatively today at $1.5 million. Elder is both a cowboy and a showman who built a Western village complete with opera house and a trading post as well as a saloon with soft drinks in place of stiff booze.

Cherry Cokes are on tap at an old-fashioned soda fountain along with lemon phosphates, peanut butter milk shakes, Popsicles and sarsaparilla.

Youngsters crowd the Ruckus Room with its pinball machines, Ping-Pong and old Bailey piano. Next door, staff shows are staged in Schaeffer's Opera House--whenever guests aren't dancing to country music.

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