The Impossible Road: Photos of the Otto Mears Toll Road

Established in 1876, Ouray, Colorado was positioned at the north end of the rugged San Juan mountains, in a box canyon that served as the gateway to many rich mining districts. The town would have been the ideal commerce and transportation center for a large part of the region of not for one problematic detail.

The terrain that separated Ouray and the mining districts to the south was so steep and rocky, that early explorers called the route “difficult and dangerous” and even “impassible”. Early trails and toll roads that linked Ouray with important mining centers like Lake City and Silverton took long and roundabout routes that made travel in the region slow and difficult.

Ouray-Silverton Toll Road at Rocky Point ca. 1890
Ouray-Silverton toll road at Rocky Point ca. 1890

For years attempts were made at building a road between Ouray and Silverton, but these attempts were always a failure.

Interest in the road peaked in 1882 with the discovery of the Red Mountain Mining District, the largest mining boom the San Juan’s had experienced to that point. Building the southern road out of Ouray now became a matter of great importance.

High bridge on the toll road between Ouray and Silverton
High bridge on the toll road between Ouray and Silverton

If Ouray could not be connected to the fantastic mines of Red Mountain it would lose all the commerce and riches flowing out of the district to Silverton.

Reaching the mines of Red Mountain became a race between Ouray and Silverton. The stakes were high, with the winner being the first to benefit from the extensive freighting business that would come from the rich new district.

Otto Mears toll road south of Ouray ca. 1890
Otto Mears toll road south of Ouray ca. 1890

Ouray County took on the job and the first concerted effort was made at building Colorado’s most difficult road. Over $40,000 was spent but not much progress was being made, and the county had to concede that it did not have the resources or expertise to get the job done.

Otto Mear's toll road between Silverton and Ouray, Colorado, just below Bear Creek Falls
Otto Mear’s toll road between Silverton and Ouray, Colorado, just below Bear Creek Falls

Ouray County officials then turned to famed Colorado road builder Otto Mears. Mears had built successful toll roads in the San Juans before, and was considered to be Colorado’s greatest road builder.

Great snow slide and snow tunnel on Ouray & Silverton wagon road
Great snow slide and snow tunnel on Ouray & Silverton wagon road ca. 1888

By the fall of 1883, Mears had completed the road from Ouray to Ironton, beating the Silverton road builders in the race to access the new mining district. As expected, freighting business boomed in Ouray, and the town entered a new era of prosperity.

Toll gate on Bear Creek Falls - Otto Mears toll road ca. 1890
Toll gate on Bear Creek Falls – Otto Mears toll road ca. 1890

Mears was a shrewd businessman and after completing the road from Ouray to the Red Mountain district, he then made an offer to county officials in Silverton to finish their end of the road. The Silverton road had been mostly built but was in such poor condition that freight wagons could not make the trip without great difficulty.

Toll Gate on Bear Creek Falls, Otto Mears toll road ca. 1890
Another view of the toll gate on Bear Creek Falls. Impassable locations were chosen for toll gates so that travelers would have to pay the toll or turn back

In a similar deal to the one he made with the county government at Ouray, Mears got San Juan County to pay for the road and let him collect the tolls that travelers had to pay to use it.

Stagecoach approaches the Bear Creek Toll Station

Mears now controlled both roads to Red Mountain, and charged high tolls in either direction. In addition to the payments he received from the county governments, Mears is said to have collected over $100,000 on tolls

Toll gate on the Otto Mears road ca. 1890
Toll gate on the Otto Mears road ca. 1890

It wasn’t just mines that were bringing prosperity to Ouray. The spectacular scenery of the San Juan’s attracted tourists as early as the 1880s, and the new toll road featured such breathtaking scenery that it boosted tourism in the region despite the terrifying drops and rough condition of the road.

Construction of Snow Tunnel on Otto Mears Toll Road
Construction of Snow Tunnel on Otto Mears Toll Road

Mear’s charter to collect tolls ended in 1887 with Ouray and San Juan counties taking over ownership. The Mears road was now public, and would continue to be one of the West’s most famous roads.

Snow Tunnel on Ouray Toll Road near Ironton
Snow Tunnel on Ouray toll road near Ironton ca. 1888

The 1916 passage of the “Good Roads Bill” provided funds that were used to improve roads throughout America. Starting in 1921, these funds were used to upgrade the Mears toll road to a highway that could accommodate automobiles.

Hauling freight and passengers July 6th 1888. Caption reads “Great snow slide and snow tunnel on road between Ouray and Silverton. 16 mules & the mail carrier killed here early in the year 1886”

For reasons that remain unclear, the newly upgraded automobile road became known as the “Million Dollar Highway”, which it is still known as today. Most would agree that the Million Dollar Highway is America’s most spectacular drive. 

Uncompahgre bridge on the Otto Mears road ca. 1890
Uncompahgre bridge on the Otto Mears road ca. 1890

The road remains a testament to the bravery and ingenuity of men like Otto Mears and the hundreds of laborers that blasted much of this road from the shear cliffs of the San Juan mountains.

Related: Heavy Freight Wagons of the American West