Copyright © 2006 Henrietta W. Hay
The Million Dollar Highway
June 16, 2006
A Colorado newcomer and I were talking one day about our mountains. I mentioned the Million Dollar Highway and she said, "What in the world is that?"
After I finished telling her about it -- at length -- I couldn't get the memories out of my mind.
The Million Dollar Highway. That has a beautiful, rich sound. Even today if you could dig up a little patch of pavement you might find bits of gold dust beneath it. When I first rode over it, it was a dirt road, barely two lanes wide. But, according to legend, I was literally riding on gold.
Back in the 1880's a Russian immigrant named Otto Mears, known as the Pathfinder of the San Juans, hacked a toll road between Ouray and Silverton, it was designed for mule trains to haul gold ore. The toll was $5.00 per wagon, or maybe $5.00 per mule. Forty years later the mules had been replaced by gasoline engines but the road still favored the mules. It was two lanes wide, and I do really mean two lanes with nothing left over. Ernie Pyle, outstanding columnist of his day, drove over it about then said, "If it's a million dollar highway now, I'd hate to have been on it when it was a ten cent trail."
There is some disagreement about the origin of the name. Some claim it holds a million dollars in fill dust, and others say it cost a million dollars a mile to build. There are other somewhat more profane theories.
But whatever its history, or perhaps because of it, it is one of the most beautiful highways in the United States and is known as the Million Dollar Highway.
I first rode over it sometime in the twenties, when I was still a kid. We were going north from Silverton, headed for our favorite fishing hole on the Gunnison. This was much to my mother's great relief since we were on the inside. But somewhere along the way we met a car from Texas going south. The driver was herding his car slowly down the exact center of the road. Since he was obviously not going to pull out we stopped. He stopped. He and my dad met in the middle of the road to discuss the matter. Most of the Texan's conversation concerned the road, and his opinion of it was somewhat shocking for my tender young ears. The gist of it was that no way was he going to drive past us. That left very few alternatives, none of them good. We could back up to Silverton or he could back up to Ouray, but nobody liked either idea.
After what seemed like an endless debate, my dad got back in the old Hudson, and moved it to the right as far as possible. Then got in the Texan's car and drove it past us. The Texan's parting words were that he didn't know who named that **# road, but he would give a million dollars to be off of it. We always wondered whether he got to Silverton without meeting another car.
I have driven or ridden over that beautiful highway many times since.
Now it is wider, and paved, but I can still see the mules trudging up the hills pulling their wagons full of gold ore. It's amazing what the search for gold can accomplish.