A lot can happen in 140 years. Just look at Durango.
The city’s population and size have grown piecemeal since its founding by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in 1880, thrust by advances in technology that made getting to the remote region, extracting resources from the mountains and building a life in the mountain valleys easier, said local and Colorado historian Duane Smith.
“Part of it was the railroad, part of it was the start of Fort Lewis junior college, then the four-year school,” Smith said. “The oil boom was the big thing back in the ’50s and early ’60s. ... They really modernized the town.”
In the early years
From its inception in 1880 to present day, Durango has grown by a factor of 20, from 532 acres to 10,926 acres today. Population increased from 2,400 in 1880 to 17,986 today.
But the change didn’t come without resistance, Smith said. As the city grew, its residents grew more liberal in attitude, he said. People realized it was important to pave roads and build good schools, he said. But others liked things the way they were and protested expansion of city limits from historic downtown and the coming of major grocery stores.
“Look at a town and the problems of growth, we had ’em all,” Smith said.
City limits in Durango’s early days stretched from First Street north to about 22nd Street, and from East Ninth Avenue west to somewhere around Narrow Gauge Avenue, excluding the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad’s waterfront property, historical maps show.
The first settlers in Durango were mine and rail workers. Back in those days, everyone walked everywhere, Smith said. Durango was quiet and quaint, and everybody knew everybody, he said. Prostitutes and bootleggers roamed Durango’s dirt streets, and gossip never seemed to stop, he said.
By the early 1900s, Durango became known as a vacation destination with the establishment of the San Juan National Forest in 1905 and Mesa Verde National Park in 1906. But Durango stayed relatively remote, Smith said.
“Durango was isolated, out of the way and glad of it,” he said.
City branches out, like an amoeba
It wasn’t until 1930 that city limits expanded again, this time incorporating the railroad’s riverfront property into the city and extending its northern borders along Main Avenue to the current site of the Durango Community Recreation Center, historical maps shows.
The city expanded throughout the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s thanks to the oil industry, Smith said, spreading like an amoeba to the north, east and west to encompass much of what we recognize today as Durango city limits.
The oil industry brought with it a “better educated” people “who felt Durango hadn’t been living up to what it could do,” Smith said. Educated people started running for local leadership, Smith said. Main streets were paved. Schools were built. Emergency services were modernized.
Durango united with Animas City after the former municipality went bankrupt in 1947 to extend boundaries north, according to the historical map. The city’s population grew from the 1950s to the 1970s, extending city services to Crestview Elementary, Needham Elementary, Riverview Elementary and Miller Junior High schools. It also extended its services to College Mesa and parts of Main Avenue where Durango High School now stands.
The old Ochsner Hospital closed in 1958 – a medical center that, along with Sisters of Mercy, the precursor to Mercy Regional Medical Center, put Durango on the map – and by 1960, the population breached 10,000.
“It was sad for those people that the town changed so much,” Smith said of the locals when oil workers came. “They realized they were being left out.”
Former President Gerald Ford participated in a dedication ceremony for the annexation of the Hillcrest Municipal Golf Course in 1980. The city also annexed Hillcrest Estates and the property where the Durango Mall now stands. Durango-La Plata County Airport opened its terminal in 1988, revolutionizing transit in and out of the Four Corners.
“We had the railroad, we got the first airport. We had a lot of advantages,” Smith said. “Plus, it rains a little more here than in some places.”
In the 1990s, the city expanded west and annexed the Greenmount Cemetery and the property near the Tech Center. The city also approved annexation of Rockridge subdivision, the Animas View Drive area, the Walmart area, residential land of SkyRidge to the northeast and the business district of Bodo Industrial Park to the south of downtown.
“They were looking for tax dollars,” Smith said of annexations in the ’80s and ’90s. “We didn’t need those, they were important to the town, but they didn’t need to be in city limits.”
Durango continued to grow into the 21st century, adding the Three Springs area southeast of town for construction of Mercy Regional Medical Center. Three Springs also offered development opportunities for private homes. Other annexations in the 2000s include property around U.S. Highway 160 west, Colorado Highway 3 and Westside Mountain Park.
Durango City Council approved annexation of Horse Gulch in 2014 for use as open space. The south side of Animas Mountain and the Twin Buttes area were also brought into the city as open space, according to the historical map.
Lake Nighthorse is the most recent major annexation, a decision that added thousands of acres to the city’s map.
Durango continues to annex property around the region, most recently with a 1.77-acre plot destined for a tiny home village.
So what’s next?