Risk-Ski Business

Can Aaron Brill's single lift save Silverton and earn salvation for the sport?

Almost as bad as the loss of employment was the loss of identity. "It was a way of life," says Ernie Kuhlman, Silverton's mayor. "Mining was my life one way or the other since I was born. I loved the camaraderie, the good money. It was hard work, but you felt good about what you did."

To many people who lived in Silverton before the mine closed, letting go has been hard, and the exodus of the mining company is still news. "There are a lot of people who still talk constantly about the mines leaving," says Bill Norman, the San Juan County administrator.

Ten years after it stopped pulling ore out of the mountains, Sunnyside is nearly gone. A half-dozen workers remain to work on reclamation; that project should be complete sometime toward the end of this year. Perino, whose grandfather moved to Silverton from Italy and whose father worked in the mine before him, has been in charge of the job. "It's not likely I'll stay in Silverton when the mine shuts for good," he says. "There's really nothing here for me."

Aaron Brill may become skiing's prophet of no-profit.
Aaron Brill may become skiing's prophet of no-profit.

Perino will be one of the last to leave. In the decade since Sunnyside closed, the town has foundered badly. Most of the miners moved away quickly to search for jobs. In 1990, the U.S. Census counted 716 Silverton residents. By last year, the number had dropped to just over 400, making San Juan one of only a couple of Colorado counties that saw a drop in population over the past decade.

Most devastating to the town, though, has been the disappearance of households. In 1990, 191 families called Silverton home. Today, the number is closer to a hundred. "Our families have moved out," says Erickson. "Most held on as long as they could and then reluctantly left."

Naturally, the loss of the town's children has been felt most acutely in the county's only school. Last year, 79 children attended classes in the single, century-old three-story brick building: Elementary students on the first floor, middle school students on the second and high schoolers on the third floor. Nine seniors graduated this past spring.

The numbers continue to fall. "This year we'll be lucky to have 65 to 68 kids," says Superintendent Larry Ranney. A preliminary count identified a potential graduating class of seven. But that's not the worst of it. "All of our big classes are in high school," explains Ranney. "The attendance factor is going to catch up to us soon." The reason can be found on the first and second floors: This year Silverton expects five kindergarteners, two first graders, three second graders, two eighth graders.

The number of teachers is tied to the student population, so in recent years several instructors have been forced to leave. Those who have been kept on double and triple up on their classes so as not to diminish course offerings. One teacher handles English, Spanish and history; another teaches geography and computers and oversees production of the school newspaper and yearbook. Sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders are taught by a single person. "Each of our teachers prepares for six different subjects a day," says Ranney, who grew up in nearby Gunnison.

The flight of the town's families has had a more subtle, but no less drastic effect: It has altered the feel of Silverton. Many of the single-family homes once occupied by miners and their families have been bought by vacationers looking for a scenic place to have a second home a few weeks out of the year. The town has also seen a half-dozen new vacation homes go up every year.

Residents are grateful for the economic boost. "I think we're recovered to the point where we don't need saving now," says Norman, the county administrator.

Still, most people who have lived in Silverton for more than a decade can't help but notice the change. "We're recovering," acknowledges Willie Tookey, who worked in the mines, as did his father, Vince. "But it's a different community."

Since the day the once-dominant industry shut down, there was little doubt where the community would have to turn in order to survive: Silverton has worked hard to attract more tourists during the summer; mines that were loud with the din of drills and trolleys a decade ago have been turned into mine tours and mine museums. Though the mining hall remains, a number of seasonal antique shops now line Greene Street.

In the summer Silverton appears the very picture of a quaint, bustling mountain community -- the Durango & Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railroad can dump several thousand people off each day from June through August -- but the cold months are bleak. Tucked between Red Mountain Pass to the north and Molas Divide and Coal Bank Hill Pass to the south, Silverton often is literally cut off from the world when the heavy snows start. Many businesses go dormant. The town's largest year-round employer is the government.

In the past couple of years Silverton officials have looked hard for ways to goose the economy between October and May. Three years ago, the town opened its checkbook to pay for a new rope tow for the municipal ski area, Kendall Mountain, which had been closed since 1974. And two years ago, Silverton dedicated a brand-new community center near Kendall, the centerpiece of which is an ice-skating rink. "All the work we've been doing has been to bolster our winter economy," says Erickson.

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