The subterranean parts of downtown Durango have been included on a list of Colorado’s endangered historic places, which could result in the underground workings getting a second chance at life.
“I love people being able to continue to use historic places,” said Heather Baily, a member of the Colorado Preservation Inc. board of directors who represents the Western Slope. “There’s a lot of potential and ways we could be using those spaces.”
Since being formed in 1994, Colorado Preservation has added 117 sites. Of those, 48 have been saved and seven lost, with the rest of the projects in the works, said Kim Grant, director of the Endangered Places program.
“That’s a pretty good track record,” Grant said.
While most of the sites on the list are a particular landmark or building, occasionally, Colorado Preservation will add what’s called a “statewide resource,” which isn’t specific to one site or location across Colorado.
This year, the group listed Colorado’s “Downtown Undergrounds,” which includes the vaults, storage spaces and secret tunnels found in Cañon City, Denver, Florence, Fort Collins, Grand Junction, Pueblo, Salida, Trinidad and Durango.
“They help tell a story of the evolution of our downtowns and how merchants made creative use of very tight spaces,” Grant said. “And some are being lost over time, either through development pressures or streetscape projects.”
Beneath Durango’s Main Avenue are a series of tunnels and storage spaces that were constructed beginning in the 1880s. Concentrated in the 900 and 1000 blocks, they were mostly used by businesses to store coal.
Local historian and Fort Lewis College professor emeritus Duane Smith said coal trucks would drive up and down Main Avenue, dumping the coal into a sidewalk chute that went underground to avoid bringing coal through the above-ground stores.
For years, Smith has tried to dispel rumors that there’s a secret network of underground tunnels in Durango built so respectable businessmen could venture to the town’s red light district unnoticed.
“I know there are some wild stories around, but no,” Smith said. “It makes a good story though, doesn’t it?”
Tracy Beach, whose book The Tunnels Under Our Feet inspired Colorado Preservation to list the downtown undergrounds, said some of the subterranean spots in Durango were used for more than storing coal and could be ripe for revitalization.
A large vault room underneath May Palace Restaurant, for instance, used to be a bowling alley back in the day. One can even see where the lanes used to be, she said, and it would fill the long vacant void of a bowling alley in town.
And, many of the underground storage spaces are still being used by businesses. Animas Trading Co. uses the space for its inventory.
“I really liked that Durango was one of the only places I found still using below-ground shops as below-ground shops,” Beach said. “It shows they’re restored and appreciated.”
Grant of Colorado Preservation said the group will first secure grant money, then work with a consultant to visit areas around the state to identify which underground spaces justify saving.
It wouldn’t be the first time Colorado Preservation’s work would benefit the city of Durango and its history.
For nearly 30 years, the historic power plant on the banks of the Animas River sat boarded up, considered an eyesore that also carried the risk of heavy asbestos contamination.
At risk of being torn down, the power plant was listed with Colorado Preservation’s Endangered Places program. After a few years of local effort, the plant was rescued and converted into today’s Powerhouse Science Center.
Though it’s too early to say, Bailey said the group will look for the same opportunities with Durango’s underground.
“I would love for them to come out and see what we have here,” Bailey said. “We have interesting stories and places downtown.”