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In Rico, Colorado
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By Carol Horner Photographs by David Alan Harvey

It could be the next Telluride, but for now this tiny mountain town likes its edges rough.

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In the mid-1990s a handful of investors calling themselves Rico Renaissance came to town, expecting to create a real estate boom like the one in nearby Telluride, which has turned itself into a resort full of condominiums, high-end shops and restaurants, and multimillion-dollar homes. But the developers encountered resistance, and so far almost nothing has happened.

That suits Jim Britton just fine. A gray-bearded man, 6 feet 3 inches tall and over 300 pounds, “Big Jim,” as he’s known, manages Motherlode Liquor on Rico’s main street. He was sitting out front reading a book about Civil War battles when I walked up one afternoon last summer. Drawn to mountain life, Jim, 57, moved west from Ohio soon after college and a stint as a medical supply clerk in the Army. He said he used to enjoy hunting, but now “I guess I have sort of a Bambi complex,” and he has quit cross-country skiing because his knees are messed up. But he has fun playing music with friends; his instrument is a jaw harp.

“My big deal during the summertime is getting my firewood in,” Jim said. He’s a six-cord-a-year man, he told me later as he showed me around his octagonal solar-powered log cabin. He is proud of the house, which he built in 1981 while camping out during the warmer months. “I didn’t have the amount of money to buy a house, probably didn’t even have the credit background for a mortgage.”

He has a propane-powered range and refrigerator and a woodstove he heats and cooks with in winter. He got rid of his phone a couple of years ago but has a 21-inch television that gets a decent over-the-air signal from NBC and, in daylight hours, from CBS. He thinks he’s the last person in Rico without a satellite dish. Jim shares the house with cats Tuxedo and Evander, who has a split ear. Jim is against large-scale growth in Rico but fears he might be outnumbered now.

The Rico Renaissance folks do still hover, hoping to win cooperation, but no one who knows Rico expects it to be transformed anytime soon.

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Rico owes much of its early success to a lottery ticket. Before 1879 this up-and-coming silver-mining camp in the San Juan Mountains was called Carbonate City, among other names. To reflect their expectations, early prospectors finally settled on Rico (meaning “rich” in Spanish), and by the time the town was founded in 1879, a mining boom was under way: From one log cabin in August, Rico grew to more than a hundred buildings within a month (including seven saloons) and more than 400 by February 1880. Although Rico’s remote location posed a challenge, the surrounding mountains were soon covered with mining claims and operations. The owner of the Enterprise mine repeatedly ran out of money before his wife bought a lottery ticket for a dollar and won $4,000, which she invested in her husband’s hopes. In October 1887 the Enterprise struck the rich Swansea vein, sparking the biggest mining boom Rico has ever seen and making Colorado history as one of the richest mines in the state.

—Kathy B. Maher

Visitor Information
Browse the official website of the small but historic town of Rico, in Colorado’s beautiful San Juan Mountains. See familiar names from the magazine story in the business directory, which lists recommendations for lodging, dining, and shopping.


Markels, Alex. “Colorado’s Rugged San Juans,” National Geographic Adventure (May/June 2000), 106-108.

Joseph, Patrick. “Rocky Mountain Low,” National Geographic Adventure (May/June 2000), 50-52.

Friedman, Steve. “Silverton, Colorado: Beyond the Narrow Gauge,” National Geographic Adventure (Winter 1999), 45-46.

Tejada-Flores, Lito. “San Juan Skyway,” National Geographic Traveler (May/June 1997), 84-93.

Page, Jake. “Colorado Adventure,” National Geographic Traveler (September/October 1990), 26-30.

Ormes, Robert. “Colorado’s Friendly Topland,” National Geographic (August 1951), 187-214.


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