History of Southwest Colorado: Freighting to the Ouray Mines
120 years ago the population of Ouray was at its peak and silver mining supported the town.
Getting the ore down from the mines and supplies back up to the mines was carried out by freighting outfits who employed dozens of men and kept hundreds of horses, mules, burros (donkeys) and wagons. The standard ore wagon had a five-ton capacity and was pulled by six horses or mules (see attached photo).
The wagons of course could only be used on roads, but many of the mines were located on narrow trails. Long teams of mules or burros could be seen every day on the streets of Ouray preparing to head to the mines. Horses were too skittish for hauling to the mines on narrow trails and mules were much more sure-footed. A mule could carry 200-400 pounds of material while a burro could carry 75-150 pounds. Burros have the advantage that they would feed themselves by eating natural vegetation while mules needed to have food provided. Some of the items freighted to the mines included food, coal, machinery, rail, lumber, explosives and tools. Lumber was hauled up to the mines tied at one end to a burro and dragging on the other end. It would be ordered six inches longer than needed so the damaged end could be cut off.
Dave Wood’s Magnolia Line was the most important of the early San Juan freighting businesses. He followed the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad’s railhead and provided freight service from there to towns further west. In 1884 Wood built his own road, still known today as the Dave Wood Road, from Montrose to Telluride. He served towns until the railroad arrived: Ouray in 1886 and Telluride in 1892. At one point he had over 500 head of horses, mules and oxen at work. When a newcomer to Colorado asked him how long he had lived in these mountains, Wood replied, ”Madam, I hauled these mountains in here.” In spite of his great success he went bankrupt during the Silver Panic of 1893.
Even after the railroad arrived in Ouray in 1886 freighting was still needed to get materials to the mines. The largest freighting company to serve Ouray’s mines was owned by John Ashenfelter. His company served Ouray from 1882 until his death in 1910 and was the exclusive freighter for the Camp Bird and Revenue Mines. Ashenfelter’s business occupied both sides of 8th Avenue in the block west of Main Street. He had two large barns, wagon and grain warehouses, three livery stables, corrals as well as blacksmith and carpentry shops. At the height of his business he had 24 six-horse teams, many dozen pack mules and a herd of 80 burros. Ashenfelter also ran a daily four-horse stage up the Camp Bird Road. In 1899 his stage was the scene of the only reported stagecoach robbery in Ouray County.
Ouray was also served by many smaller livery stables. They did a brisk business in renting buggies, wagons and horses. It was common practice for miners at the Camp Bird and Revenue Mines to walk into Ouray on a Saturday and then hire a horse on Sunday to ride back to the mine. The horse would then return riderless to the livery stable.
John Donald came to Ouray in 1886 and started a packing business with a string of burros. He did most of the ore packing for the mines on Gold Hill north of Ouray. He eventually bought what remained of the Ashenfelter stables in 1920. The Fellin brothers established a freighting business in 1911. They did most of the hauling for the Atlas and Mountain Top Mines. The Fellin brothers purchased John Donald’s business after his death in 1933. Fellin trucks continued to haul the Camp Bird ore to the railroad until the 1960s.
Other livery stables included Union Livery Company which was located on Main Street and had wagons and carriages on the first floor and stables in the basement with large corrals in the back. A. A. Moore established the Free Coinage livery in 1898 at the corner of 9th Ave and Main Street. Today’s Ouray Livery Barn traces its history back to 1883 when the O. K. Stables were established. In 1893 Charles Rowley, who had married John Ashenfelter’s sister, purchased the O. K. Stables and operated it until his death in 1930.
About the Author: Don Paulson is the curator at the Ouray County Historical Society and Ouray County Museum. He is also a retired Professor of Chemistry where he specialized in organic chemistry. Don is an active member of the Ridgway Railroad Museum, and an avid hiker, 4WD (jeep) enthusiast, and photographer in addition to his duties as curator for the museum.