Pioneer Otto Mears is credited for building the toll roads and railroads that opened southwestern Colorado for settlement and mining, earning him the name “Pathfinder of the San Juan.”
Born in Russia and orphaned at an early age, relatives sent Mears to England at age 9, and then to New York. From New York he sailed to California, where he lived with his uncle. When Mears arrived, his uncle was gone, forcing him to live alone at age 11. He made his way by hawking newspapers on the Barbery Coast, tin-smithing, and working in the California and Nevada goldfields.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Mears enlisted as a volunteer in the First California Regiment, where he served under Colonel Kit Carson during the Navajo campaign.
When discharged in 1864, Mears moved to Santa Fe where he worked as a shopkeeper for the Staab Brothers. Proving to be a valuable asset, the brothers offered to help him open a store in Conejos, Colorado.
Mears’ interests eventually shifted from management to construction. He saw an opportunity in narrow gauge railroad, and with the help of financiers, he constructed his first line running from Silverton to Red Mountain. Mostly used to carry supplies and transport ore from the mines, the narrow gauge rail proved to be instrumental in the formation of Colorado. Later, Mears built the Rio Grande Southern from Ridgway to Durango.
In 1893, Mears lost control of the Rio Grande Southern railroad. The repeal of the Sherman Act caused a silver crash that closed the mines. Workers left, there was no ore to haul, and the Rio Grande Southern went into receivership. Although Mears lost much of his wealth, he wasn’t discouraged. He went on to build a railroad from Washington, D.C. to Chesapeake Beach, MD.
Among his successes in the railroad industry, Mears in credited with bringing the first telegraph to Fort Garland and negotiating the Brunot Treaty of 1873, as well as chairing on the Board of Capitol Managers which oversaw the construction of the Colorado State Capitol. Mears would also go on to serve as a
Colorado Representative and a newspaper publisher.
Former Colorado governor and Sen. Charles S. Thomas said this in Mears’ 1931 obituary.
“I first met Mears in the San Juan country in the early ’70s, not so many years after he came to the state. He was a small man, exceedingly nervous and always active. He was forever scheming and planning some new development. He was then engaged in his many toll road enterprises. He impressed me as a very brilliant, though rather eccentric figure… Altogether, he was a very picturesque figure, a typical western frontiersman, full of fire and vitality.”