Saturday, April 13, 2024


It’s hard to say precisely when Silverton, Colo., started to come apart, but the town election of April 7, 2020, might be a good moment to begin the story. That was when a young, progressive New York lawyer and adventure skier named Shane Fuhrman beat the longtime fire chief Gilbert Archuleta, part of Silverton’s old guard, by 10 votes to become the new mayor. To supporters, mainly of his generation, Fuhrman, 42, represented progress. After working at top finance firms in Manhattan, he had returned to his native Colorado and renovated the old Wyman Hotel on Greene Street, not in the mountain-town Victorian style of the Grand Imperial a block away, but as an elegant, hip boutique inn, with rooms going for as much as $385 a night.

To Fuhrman’s opponents in the former mining town of 796 residents, he was the incarnation of the T Word, Telluride, and the A Word, Aspen, with their staggering housing prices, luxury outposts and billionaire denizens. Their skepticism turned to anger 14 months into Fuhrman’s tenure when he declared that the council would stop reciting the Pledge of Allegiance until further notice. He said he was concerned about a town trustee who had received threats for not participating in the pledge, but that didn’t stop his critics from standing during a council meeting and shouting their allegiance to Old Glory as the mayor glumly watched. Soon, Fox News broadcast a “Fox & Friends” episode from the Grand Imperial Hotel in which Mayor Fuhrman’s critics questioned his motives.

“There was a feeling like the mayor was monopolizing Silverton,” said Cole Davenport, a Marine Corps combat veteran who opened his cannabis dispensary on Greene Street in 2019.

Death threats poured into Fuhrman’s office. City Hall was shuttered for safety’s sake. An effort to recall the mayor was begun, a deeply personal affront in a tiny town where there is no anonymity even in a trip to the one grocery store. Silverton split along familiar political lines, with pickup trucks suddenly flying giant Trump signs.

The skirmish was a sobering rebuke to those who believe that if Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, could just live and work together, the forces of division pulling the nation apart would find no purchase. But as in the country at large, it seemed the town would become hopelessly divided. Then, a kind of miracle happened. Silverton came back together again. A town built on division. Silverton, nestled 9,318 feet above sea level in a shallow valley of the majestic San Juan Mountains, is by no means Anytown, U.S.A. From Durango, more than an hour away, one road leads in from the south, with hairpin turns and breathtaking passes. Aspen forests shimmer in gold in mid-October, but the snows that can close U.S. Route 550 for days started falling before Halloween.

The town’s roots were planted in 1860, when miners tapped the Sunnyside silver vein. The government pushed out the Southern Utes by treaty in 1874, and the rush was on. Fashionable citizens built graceful Victorian hotels, shops and homes along Greene Street, still the only paved road in town, while miners and prostitutes crowded into boardinghouses and bordellos on Blair Street, which ran muddy and rough a block east. Silverton became known as the Queen City of the San Juans.

“Our town was built on social division and classism,” said DeAnne Gallegos, who heads Silverton’s tourism outreach and its Chamber of Commerce, and the public information office of rugged San Juan County, in which Silverton is the only municipality. Her grandparents came for the mines, which supported livelihoods in town until the last one closed in 1991.

What saved Silverton was tourism. The town’s population nearly triples in the summer, catering to visitors passing through by car, hiking in from the Colorado Trail and Molas Pass, or disgorged by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, from which some tourists claim Bigfoot was spotted in October.

“We like that it’s rough around the edges,” said Klem Branner, the 51-year-old, Danish-born founder of Venture Snowboards on the edge of Silverton.

And yet the town is growing, little by little, with an influx of educated young professionals, lured from Denver, the suburbs of Milwaukee and even New York. Silverton’s new preschool houses 21 babies and toddlers, and 87 students attend the town’s state-of-the-art K-12 school, which offers experiential learning and progressive education. Housing prices are creeping up and the threat of chain stores looms as an omnipresent worry.

The factors that divided Silverton will be familiar to even the casual student of America’s partisan divide. Less educated workers and “old-timers” — baby boomers with links to the mining past — felt left behind, manipulated and even persecuted by the new liberal, educated millennial professionals imprinting their ideas on Silverton with little or no consultation, according to their critics. “We used to be close-knit,” said Gary Davis, a retiree and part-time volunteer at the San Juan County Historical Society who came to Silverton a quarter-century ago. “Then the newcomers came and tried to change the town into what they wanted it to be.”


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