A toll road in the early days..
U.S. Highway 550 is the official cartographer’s term for the 70-mile ribbon of asphalt connecting Ouray and Durango — but it goes by several other names, as well.
San Juan Skyway, for instance, National Forest Scenic Byway. And, if you want to be dramatic, Highway to Hell.
That’s how the automobile website MSN Autos recently described it, echoing a number of Internet lists. For Popular Mechanics, the highway ranked No. 3 on “10 of America’s Most Dangerous Roads” in 2013. That same year, it was the only highway in the Lower 48 to make USA Today’s list of the “World’s Most Dangerous Roads.” The transportation blog RoadCrazed featured it on a list of “The Most Dangerous Highways in America.” YouTube users can find videos of trucks crossing 550’s center line and barreling down on terrified motorcyclists.
Perhaps no one knows the Colorado section of U.S. 550 better than historian P. David Smith, who penned “The Road that Silver Built” in 2009 and co-wrote “The Million Dollar Highway” with Marvin Gregory in 1986.
According to Smith, the esteemed explorer John C. Fremont once described the San Juan Mountains as “the highest, most rugged, most impracticable and inaccessible” in all the Rockies. The mean elevation of the range is a lung-searing 10,000 feet.
There’s only one reason roads were made to ever cross the savage San Juans: money.
In the 1986 book, the authors estimate that a billion dollars’ worth of metals has been produced by the mines scattered between Ouray and Silverton. As costly as ore was to extract, it was even more costly to ship. Prospectors needed a dependable road, and that’s why Otto Mears began stitching together various pack trails, stage roads and railroad grades.
Nancy Shanks, Region 5 Communications Manager for the Colorado Department of Transportation, said the stretch of road between Ironton and Ouray most bedeviled engineers: “As you go north from Ironton, the road drops 2,000 feet in six miles into Uncompahgre Gorge. There were estimates then that it cost a thousand dollars per foot to construct.”
But money was to be made. Starting in 1883, Mears — an Estonian immigrant who’d become regionally famous by building the Rio Grande Southern and Galloping Goose railroads — began dynamiting a toll road out of the cliffs looming above Ouray.
There are rumors that Mears spent a million dollars a mile to build his road, which soon became known as the Million Dollar Highway.
But this origin myth is oft disputed. Another theory holds that the highway is buttressed by fill dirt that contains a million dollars in gold ore. Others maintain that the name comes from a phrase used to describe a common reaction to the road’s perilous twists and turns, especially in winter: “You’d have to pay me a million dollars to drive that stretch in the snow.”
While the nickname originally pertained only to the 12 miles south of Ouray, the entire 70-mile stretch to Durango is today considered to be the Million Dollar Highway. The first motorcar climbed the road in 1911. By 1935, said Shanks, the Million Dollar Highway was completely paved and opened for year-round use.
As you continue reading, under the subtitle ‘AGAINST THE ODDS’, the third paragraph (see below) describing an avalanche burial of four people in 1999 that didn’t happen. I’m not sure where Rob Story got this story ~ maybe it’s connected to Ken Kesey’s infamous quote “I know it’s true even if it never happened!”
“In 1999, a Red Mountain Pass avalanche buried four people — three highway workers and one motorist — alive beneath 40 feet of snow. The avalanche debris that day deposited itself in such a way that air could move throughout the pile. The four victims survived the night, and rescuers tunneled to them the next day.”
Andy Gleason and I were the highway avalanche forecasters at that time & the event never happened. There have been no burials on Highway 550 since the avalanche forecasting program began on RMP in 1993. There were a few stuck cars in Blue Point path & the East Riverside snow shed, but four people buried under 40′ of avalanche debris over night just never happened. But makes for a great story … Jerry Roberts