Gravett, Amron. “The Making of Otto Mears” in History La Plata, Durango Herald, May 2013, 8.
Otto Mears, often named the Pathfinder of the San Juans, is best known as the tireless builder of lines of communication and travel all over southwestern Colorado. His activities in the state have been well documented by historians, but it is also worth investigating his childhood journey; the journey that made the man.
In 1865, Mears arrived in Colorado at the age of 24, with an already adventurous life story. He is credited with developing towns, publishing newspapers, building 450 miles of toll roads including today’s Million Dollar Highway, introducing telegraph lines, building three railroads, aiding in the negotiation of two Ute treaties, and being a state representative. In our area, he is best known for his work in the development of the Saguache and San Juan Mountain areas of southwestern Colorado. What is less known is his journey before he arrived in Colorado.
Otto Mears was born in Courland Province, Russia (present-day Latvia) on May 3, 1840, to a Russian Jewish mother and an English father. Both of his parents had died by his third birthday and he was sent to live with an uncle, aunt, and their 12 children. The arrangement was less than accommodating and after six years, his uncle sent him on a lumber freighter across the Baltic Sea to live with another relative in England. This passage included his first train ride. The living arrangement did not work out either, and within a year, he set sail for six weeks from England to New York City on a ship full of Irish immigrants. Here he stayed with
an uncle for nearly a year before he was shipped out yet again, this time to San Francisco, to live with four uncles who were reportedly living there at the time.
The voyage of a lone ten-year-old from New York City to San Francisco in 1850 was a grand adventure. A ship navigating that route sailed south along the Atlantic coastline down to Gran Columbia (present-day Panama) and docked at the newly founded city of Colón. There the passengers disembarked and began a horseback trek and dugout canoe ride across the isthmus to Panama City. They then boarded another ship and headed north along the Pacific coastline. On both of Mears’ ocean voyages, he was looked after by an older woman and the captain, both strangers to the young boy.
Arriving in San Francisco in 1851, he found his uncles had already left for the gold mines of Australia and he was forced to fend for himself. The woman who had looked after him put Mears up in her husband’s boarding house where he sold newspapers to pay for his room and board; his first job. He developed a good wit, a keen sense of human nature and excellent salesmanship skills, which helped him succeed throughout the rest of his life. The area in San Francisco where he settled was called Sydney Town because its residents were mostly criminals from the British Commonwealth. Among them, English Jim of the infamous Sydney Ducks was hanged by the Vigilance Committee around the time that Mears arrived. This nine-block red-light district in San Francisco was known for arson, burglaries, gambling, piracy, prostitution and other seedy criminal activities. In the 1860s, the area was renamed the Barbary Coast after the region in North Africa where Arab pirates attacked Mediterranean ships.
From ages 11 to 21, Mears lived in San Francisco and around the California gold fields working in various mercantile and freighting businesses, milking cows, learning tinsmithing, investing in gold mining in California and Nevada, and developing ambitious enterprising skills. At the age of 21, he became a U.S. citizen and enlisted in the Union Army’s First Regiment of California Volunteers. His military service took him on foot across Arizona and New Mexico into the fight against the Navajo resistance under Kit Carson. During this time one of his jobs was as a baker for the soldiers. He developed a moneymaking scheme where he sold excess Army-issued flour to the Navajos. His profits totaled $1,500 by the time he was discharged on August 31, 1864. With his grubstake, he set off looking for the next venture. He spent 1864-65 in Santa Fe working as a clerk in the Ellsberg and Amberg firm and then opened his own store with the assistance of the Staab brothers. He learned about the cattle business and became a government beef contractor for range cattle. He got wanderlust yet again and after scouting the region, he hired a team of oxen and wagon and headed north to Conejos where his Colorado exploits began.
Clearly, Otto Mears possessed a natural entrepreneurial zeal. He came to America at a time when thousands of other European immigrants were seeking a new life. Exemplifying the new American ideals, he seized opportunities as they arose. Mears’ ability to turn these opportunities into successes was due as much to luck as to his practical intelligence. Reading situations well, he was able to extract what he wanted from them, which usually involved money. By constantly applying lessons learned in business and investment ventures from his youth, he succeeded throughout his life. Otto Mears’ early journey from boyhood to manhood, from Russia to Colorado, proves that he had the skills and the moxie to succeed in any endeavor he embarked upon.
Looking for more information about Otto Mears’ road building legacy in the San Juans? Come check out the exhibit titled “Trails, Roads, and Rails” at the Animas Museum.