Copyright © 1997 Henrietta W. Hay
How the Million Dollar Highway got its name?
September 10, 1989
Once upon a time somewhere between Gunnison and Cimarron on the Gunnison
River, there was a little fishing camp called Cebolla. I was first
introduced to it in the 20's with the help of that old Hudson
automobile that was doing a great job hauling my parents and me around
Some of my readers may think that Blue Mesa Lake came with the
territory, but when I first saw that part of the state there was no
lake. The Gunnison river rushed down the valley as it had for a
million years or so, its beauty untouched and its water full of big, fat
Cebolla consisted of a lodge, which was probably a large cabin, and a
series of connected log cabins for guests. My parents spent their
honeymoon there and legend has it that my mother caught the biggest
fish. Apparently that fact did not do permanent damage to the marriage
since it my dad was still telling the story on their 50th anniversary.
Many years later I saw the register for June of 1909, listing my father
"and bride". By the time I started going there "and bride" was somewhat
older and wiser but still an excellent fisherwoman. My dad tried very
hard to teach me to fish those waters. Whatever he taught me I have
long since forgotten, but I remember well that series of little log
cabins, with the Gunnison river lapping at the doors. In my nostalgic
moments, I hate to think of it under 50 feet of water.
You could get to Cebolla from Denver the easy way, over Monarch Pass, or
you could meander around a little and approach it over the Million
Dollar Highway. That was definitely the exciting way to go.
Back in the early 1880's that intrepid road builder, Otto Mears,
hacked a toll road between Silverton and Ouray. Forty years later the
mule drawn wagons had been replaced by gasoline powered cars, but the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, traveling 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."
The day I first saw it we were going north 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 slowly herding his car
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 situation. 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
After what seemed like an endless debate, my dad moved our car to the
right as far as possible and then got in the Texan's car and drove it
around the Hudson. 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 it. We always wondered whether he got to Silverton without meeting
I can remember only one thing about Ouray, when we finally got there
that day on our way to Cebolla. This is one memory that most people
think I made up. But it's true. In a little pool in front of the
hot springs swimming pool, there were several alligators. Why somebody
in Ouray thought a display of live swamp alligators was appropriate for
an alpine town is beyond me, but I really did see them. This puts me in
the same class, I suppose, with a friend of mine who swears he saw a
herd of elephants on Grand Mesa.
Oh well, this was the Wild West in the twenties.
(Note in 1997: I found out later how the alligators got there. Read about it in "Alligators in Ouray", elsewhere on this site.)