By Ella Benedictine Rockefeller

“On the Road to Hermosa”

In 1874 Otto Mears and Chief Ouray were little more than another dime store stand-up comic act. The pair traveled from Creede to Capital City to Cortez in an attempt to hit the big time. Artifacts unearthed near the traditional Ute camp north of Jackass Flats confirm these theories. Items excavated include tasteless plaid jackets, clown noses, giant, inflatable shoes, exploding cigars and an assortment of other primitive gags aimed at bringing the house down in the later 19th Century.

During this frustrating time both men went about their own business with tireless fervor. Mears operated a system of toll roads and Ouray attempted to administer the business of the Ute Nation despite the interference of mining and ranching interests in the Uncompahgre Valley. When a lucrative gig opened up, say in Gunnison or Telluride, the two would drop everything and rehearse madly for the opening night. Then, after often receiving a less than enthusiastic reception, the comedy team would return to the tedious chores at hand, to plan their next assault on show business.

One missing link to the whole tale centers around the purported existence of a strong box, rumored to be buried near the top of Red Mountain Pass by Mears in June or July of 1899. The box is said to contain profits from Mears’ questionable ventures in and around the San Juan Mining District. Although tramp miners, treasure hunters and metal detector nerds have eagerly combed the land they have turned up nothing after almost 100 years.

In 1969 a state snowplow allegedly hit a metal object while manicuring the highway shoulder near the Guston town site. When the drivers got out of the truck to observe the situation first-hand they found nothing. What a mystery! It was then surmised that the impact from the jolt may have knocked whatever was there down a steep embankment. Either way, nothing was recovered.

Later, in 1981, a contingent of California realtors claimed to have located the Mears strong box in that same vicinity during a summer picnic. Unfortunately, after sending one of their party to town with news of the discovery, the rest of the group was eaten by a nosy black bear before they could retrieve the prize. Neither the ostensible treasure chest nor the playful bruin were ever located.

Today, hikers, escaped convicts and RV pilots alike often stop near the top of the mountain pass to kick a few rocks, empty their ash trays and snoop around with a passive hope that they might be lucky enough to discover Otto’s treasure box. Up till now no one has found a thing. Ute legend sardonically suggests that Otto took it with him.

The comedy act of Otto and Ouray finally folded in 1908 when Mears was accused of stealing material from aspiring young comic, Calvin Coolidge, who, after failing in vaudeville, would be elected 30th President of the United States in 1922.

NEXT MONTH: “The Insatiable Ditch Whales of Roaring Judy”


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