After the near death of a 14-year-old Durango boy from alcohol poisoning at last year’s Fourth of July celebration in Silverton, the mountain town reflected on how to change the culture of its largest and most popular event.
“That really gave everyone here a major wake-up call,” said DeAnne Gallegos, director of the Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce. “We had a dismal Fourth of July last year, and it’s created this new evolution of the event for our town.”
Family-focused events throughout the day are planned, the fireworks show will move back to its traditional spot, camping in some troublesome areas has been banned and law enforcement will be beefed up.
The Fourth of July celebration is by far Silverton’s flagship and most profitable event of the year, drawing thousands of visitors to enjoy the mountainous scenery, as well as its famed fireworks show.
But at last year’s celebration, a massive party of underage drinkers, mostly from Durango, led to near tragedy.
According to San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad, the group of nearly 160 kids camped near the Christ of the Mine Shrine above town to drink and take drugs, trashing the grounds in the process.
Around 2 a.m., after issuing several underage-drinking citations throughout the day, the Sheriff’s Office was alerted that a 14-year-old boy was “at risk of dying” from an alcohol overdose.
Officers, after some difficult searching, found the teen in a tent being attended to by some girls. He was taken by a Flight for Life helicopter to Mercy Regional Medical Center in Durango, where he eventually recovered.
Other incidents that day, such as when a Durango resident who volunteers part time for Silverton’s fire department drove off County Road 11 and went several hundred feet down into Cement Creek, added to officials’ frustration. The driver, Dylon Hendricks, was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol. A female passenger was airlifted to Mercy with serious injuries, and was released a few days later.
“This is not happening next year,” Sheriff Bruce Conrad said at the time. “This is no longer a family-fun event. It’s a ridiculous ruckus, and we need to change our whole event in my opinion.”
A nonprofit made up of business owners and community members, called Silverton Fourth of July Association, sought ways over the past year to increase a family atmosphere, as well as improve enforcement of drinking and drugs.
They believe changes to this year’s celebration will make that happen.
“Quite frankly, it’s no longer the Wild West up here,” Gallegos said. “This is no longer a drinking, booze-filled, out-of-control party. This is now for families.”
Conrad said there will be no camping or vehicles allowed near Shrine Hill, and the San Juan Sheriff’s Office will be aided by the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, Colorado State Patrol, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Mounted Rangers of Durango. He even said officers will use a “eye in the sky” video surveillance system.
“It will definitely be more of a police state than we have been in the past,” Conrad said. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s necessary with the large groups we get.”
As for the underage drinkers from Durango, Conrad said “if they’re coming up to party, they’re not going to have the good time they were expecting.” He said all underage drinkers and unattended minors will be cited.
“This is a reminder to the parents: Silverton is not their day care. They can’t just drop off their kids here on the Fourth of July and expect that to turn out well.”
Organizers have added family-friendly events between the end of the town parade at noon and the start of the fireworks show at 9:30 p.m.
“We’ve realized in the past there was nothing to do between the parade and the fireworks but drink,” Conrad said. “So we’re trying to give people places to go other than just driving around drunk.”
This year, the town will offer a carnival-type event from 12 to 4 p.m. at Memorial Park, which will feature rides and games, as well as a “Last Frontier Wild West Village.” Then, a block party with live music, food and drinks will be from 6 to 9 p.m. on Blair Street. A full list of events can be viewed at www.silverton4thofjuly.org.
The fireworks display will once again be put on by the Silverton Volunteer Fire Department, and the show will be back at its old location near Shrine Hill.
Last year, a conflict between the fire department and Silverton Town Hall led to firefighters opting out of participating, and it was moved to a less desirable location farther away from town.
“To watch it basically be a total failure last year, the way it was handled, and then people talking about not coming back to Silverton, we just decided we could work with individual business people and make it happen again,” said Fire Chief Gilbert Archuleta.
“We just hope everybody that had a bad taste when they left last year will reconsider and come back and support our local businesses here in Silverton. We believe it’s going to be a great show, probably one of our best shows we’ve ever done.”