The Myths, Tall Tales, and Legends of Durango

by Jessie O’Brien

In old towns, there is no shortage of stories, but whether they are true, or just old tall tales passed down from generation to generation, can be hard to decipher.

“History is not an exact science, and it is rarely a black and white thing, so getting at the truth can be hard thing to do,” said Robert McDaniel, founding director of Animas Museum.

With the help from local historians, we’re uncovering a few historical Durango myths, looking into local legends, and revisiting a spooky ghost car that’s still haunting today.

A lost mine A secret lies in a missing mine near Bear Creek, 30 miles north of Durango. In professional treasure hunter W. C Jameson’s book, “Colorado Treasure Tales,” he describes men who stumbled upon the mine teeming with not only gold, but horror.

A prospector, whose name is no longer known, was wandering the foothills in search of gold, which led him to an abandoned mine shaft. It was here that the nameless prospector found tools scattered across the mine floor, along with other evidence that the mine was active. Deeper inside the dark shaft, the prospector found two piles of gold nuggets. But, as the prospector continued down the mine in search of the vein, he discovered three skeletons in ripped and tattered clothing. The prospector took what he could carry and sold the ore to a smelter for money. He left only cryptic details as to where the mine was located, and after leaving Durango, he was never seen again.

In 1918, Pedro Martinez arrived in Durango with gold he wanted to sell. When asked where the gold was discovered, Martinez described the same details as the missing prospector had. Martinez refused to show anyone the location of the mine because he believed it was haunted. Each time Martinez appeared in Durango, he brought the same gold to be converted. During his last trip to Durango, Martinez died of influenza, and the secret location of the mine went with him.

Twenty years later, a sheepherder appeared with the same gold and the same story. He agreed to lead a party to the mine in exchange for cash, but on the way, the sheepherder insisted he was lost. The group of men threatened to have him killed, so that night, the sheepherder took his belongings and disappeared.

To this day, the location of the mine and the identity of the three skeletons remains a mystery.


XXX tunnels Durango loves prostitution, in myth form or otherwise.

“People like to glorify the lifestyle,” said Animas Museum collections manager Amber Lark. “We don’t need to romanticize things; we have plenty of other history that is just as interesting.”

In reality, the lives of prostitutes 1800s were far from glamorous. The women often started working in a parlor house when they were young, and by the time they were 22-year-old hags, they were out on the streets. Most of the women contracted diseases and ended up dead by age 30.

There is a myth that the tunnels underneath some Main Avenue businesses were created so that upstanding, secretly philandering businessmen could meet with ladies of the night without being seen by other townspeople. The reality is that there are underground tunnels, but the “hidden tunnelways leading to prostitutes” business is probably not true.

Downtown Durango was originally constructed in the 1880s, but most of the brick and stone buildings weren’t erected until after the 1889 fire that destroyed much of downtown. The buildings you see on Main Avenue today were built post-fire, with coal as the main source of heat. The tunnels were used as coal chutes to heat the buildings.

But let’s say those coal shoots were built as a front for prostitution. Well, if the cops busted Mr. Perry with exposed … sock suspenders … he likely would have had nowhere underground to run. While some of the coal chutes were indeed connected underground, the majority were not, meaning the supposed XXX tunnels weren’t really a series of tunnels at all.

And even if the theoretical Mr. Perry had been able to find a series of connected tunnels, he wouldn’t have been able to run through them – he would have had to crawl – and would have gotten covered in soot in the process. That’s not necessarily the look a revered businessman could have sported without some serious questions being asked of him. It likely wouldn’t have impressed the ladies at the parlor houses, either.

“If you think about it, tunneling under the street, that would be an expensive, labor-intensive project to do, so why would you do it?” McDaniel said. “Nobody is going to do that so the upstanding banker can meet with a prostitute.”

Also helping to debunk this myth is Durango’s geological landscape. Durango was carved out by old glaciers thousands of years ago, which is why you sometimes see boulders the size of homes in the area, McDaniel said. Chances are, those giant boulders can be found underground as well, and would obviously be difficult to tunnel through. But people do crazy things for love, right?


Peeved ghost prostituteThere are plenty of ghost stories about Durango: The Strater Hotel and El Moro are rumored to be home to paranormal spooks and other haunting spirits. The train car at the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge museum is, too.

Almost 20 years ago, Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum Curator, Jeff Ellingson, found the last immigrant sleeper car in existence wasting away in the elements. The forest green 460 Tourist Sleeper was built in 1883, and was taken out of service in 1900 before being recommissioned as a 10-car wrecking train, which was used to shuttle passengers involved in trainwrecks and help clear away the wreckage. When Ellingson found the car, it was in surprisingly great shape. That may be because the car’s inhabitant, Kate, a 15-year-old ghost prostitute, was taking care of her home while in everlasting limbo.

The story goes something like this: A fireman was in love with a lovely young prostitute, and he snuck her onto the car packed with drunk, degenerate rail men. As the fireman shoveled coal, Kate was spotted by a mean brakeman who wanted to get down to business with the working girl. The fireman intervened, and it cost him his life, taken by the brakeman’s knife. In turn, the grief-stricken Kate poisoned herself with carbolic acid.

After the car was placed inside the museum, visitors and museum personnel started reporting strange things occurring. At one point, museum workers had to move Kate’s sleeper car outside during a storm to protect the newly remodeled Silver Vista. That night, Ellingson got a call that there had been an explosion in the museum. Chief of security Roy McLaughlin determined that the doors on the bay that the Silver Vista was on – the green sleeper’s home – were blown open.

There were no footprints in the snow, all the hardware from the doors was on the ground, and the bar that kept the door closed was bent at a 90 degree angle. Nothing else in the museum had been disturbed. Well, nothing other than Kate’s temper.


That’s not my nameThings often get lost in translation, but in the case of the Animas River’s namesake, even some of the most esteemed Southwest historians have dropped the ball.

Prior to any white settlers landing in Durango, the correct name – El Rio de las Animas, or the River of the Souls or Spirits – appeared in Spanish explorers’ journals. This was first recorded in 1765 in Juan Maria Antonio de Rivera’s personal journal, and then later in Father Silvestre Velez de Escalante’s diary documenting the famous Dominguez-Escalante exhibition in August 1776. The correct name was also documented on early maps.

But, 105 years later, the name shows up as the romanticized Rio de Las Animas Perdidas, or River of the LOST Souls. Some folks assume it’s because “perdidas” gives the name some mysterious pizazz. It’s also been hypothesized the name was confused with another Animas River – El Rio de Las Animas Perdidas en Purgatório – known today as the Purgatory River in Animas County.

“They will give you these fictitious tales of why the river was named that. … You’ll find some real garbage in there,” McDaniel said. “The Chamber of Commerce has been guilty of that. The phonebook’s town history section was great, so I can’t pin it on the phone book.”

The earliest rogue “perdidas” reference McDaniel was able to track down was in travel writer Ernest Ingersoll’s 1880s travel log of journeys into the Colorado mountains.

And today (spoiler alert), a Google search will lead you to a heap of false information. The wrong name is referenced on many fly fishing sites and also on

Two local historians, Duane Smith and Allen Nossaman, both used slightly different versions of the river’s original Spanish name in their books. In Smith’s book, “Rocky Mountain Boomtown,” the historian used a modified form of the river’s name. It’s unclear whether Smith opted to use an enhanced version, or if he was simply misinformed. Nossaman, on the other hand, inexplicably gives the wrong English translation for the river’s name in his book, “Many More Mountains.”


We don’t want your railroadEvery day, Durango citizens get to hear the soothing hoot of the train making its way past the town. The distant howl is a reminder of why Durango is here – the railroad. There is a myth floating around that the town officials of Animas City – the original town two miles north of Durango – met with railroad officials in 1880 or 1881 to discuss making it the site of the depot, but the town didn’t want it. Why?

“We have no idea,” Lark said. One hypothesis is that the myth appeared in 1948 when Animas City was annexed into Durango. Lark said at that point, Animas City would have sealed its own fate by not “wanting” the railroad.

“This myth would have helped legitimize Durango as the dominant town,” she said.

But there is a very slim chance this meeting ever actually occurred. History books help perpetuate the myth that there were negotiations between the railroad and Animas City, according to McDaniel, but Animas City was unwilling to meet the railroad’s demands. As a result, the railroad took steps to establish its own town.

McDaniel believes, on the contrary, that it’s highly unlikely the railroad ever seriously met with or negotiated with Animas City’s town fathers to make it the railroad terminus. It would have been to the railroad’s advantage to develop its own townsite and control that development. There may be source material out there that confirms a meeting took place, McDaniel said via email, but he’s never seen it.

Most importantly, the railroad would be the one to profit from the sale of town lots, coal lands, and agricultural lands near the townsite, McDaniel said.

“The railroad never intended to make Animas City the railhead,” McDaniel said.

According to Nossaman, the rumor that Animas City’s early town officials met with the railroad is “window dressing.”


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