Telluride, Colo. — A new age has come to the old town of Telluride. There's cable television here now. A newly arrived, younger population gives it a lively, college-town atmosphere. The town was designated a registered historic district in 1966; its Victorian buildings are now restored and transformed into new shops and restaurants, where residents and visitors alike can discuss the day's skiing up in the high powder.
This little town, bounded by high jagged peaks on three sides, still boasts an interesting history, though. It was once a gold mine, founded in the 1870s. Many ethnic groups - Swedes, Finns, Germans, Italians, and Irish - staked claims and bought lots then; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid pulled off one of their first bank robberies here; and William Jennings Bryan campaigned here for president. In that era Telluride probably had 5,000 people living in an area that today measures 400 acres.
The mine was prospected until the Idarado Mining Company closed down in 1978. ''White gold,'' or snow, has proven more precious over the last few years.
''This is what a mountain village in Colorado is supposed to be, small and remote,'' says resident Phil Prather, who sold his ski house in Breckenridge, Colo., because he got tired of the crowds. ''This is the prettiest spot in the state, the kind of place that I've been looking for. The longest I've waited in a lift line was 10 minutes, and that's long, too. I can make more ski runs in a day than anywhere else I go skiing.''
With its 11,840-foot mountain on 460 acres, six double chair lifts, 37 runs, 24 miles of trails, and 3,105-foot vertical drop, Telluride's ski mountain offers terrain at all levels. Despite runs named Jaws and the Plunge, aimed at the most advanced, 50 percent of the mountain is designed for the intermediate and 15 percent for the beginning skier.
For cross-country enthusiasts, the Telluride Nordic center offers 25 kilometers of machine-set tracks that loop through meadows and wind around aspens and spruce trees, giving spectacular views of the 14,000-foot Wilson peaks. There's also cross-country terrain north of Telluride. One Nordic ski instructor, Jim Pettigrew, came to Telluride from Wisconsin one summer and hasn't left, nor has he any plans to go elsewhere.
''I fell in love with the place, the sheer physical beauty of the mountains, '' he said. After his teaching, Mr. Pettigrew works at the local radio station, KOTO, which has a 100-watt transmitter. (Nearly everyone in Telluride volunteers some time to go on the air, debating local issues or spinning yarns.)
Old-time resident Arlene Reid, who doesn't work for KOTO, is full of more stories than the Brothers Grimm. Mrs. Reid is curator of the San Miguel Historical Society Museum, which she helped found in 1966. The museum is closed during the winter, but her home is practically a museum itself, and she welcomes visitors to chat and browse through her collections of bottles, glassware, buttons, photographs that her husband took, and other period pieces. Mrs. Reid escaped the dust bowl of Kansas in the 1930s, setting foot in Telluride in 1937. She still loves Telluride, and she refuses to move, though the majority of older residents sold their homes in the late 1960s and early '70s, when property values increased tenfold, allowing them financial security to retire to the less harsh climate of the high desert not far away.
What gave rise to the real estate boom was the ski mountain looming over the main street. ''Telluride always had the potential of becoming a first-class ski resort,'' said Bill Mahoney Sr., now senior vice-president of operations for Telluride Ski Resort Inc.
The company is celebrating its 10th year in business this season, and it is Telluride's biggest employer, with 250 workers during the ski months. Its expansion program calls for construction of Mountain Village, a complete resort to be built on leased Uncompahgre National Forest land about 10 miles from town. A proposed gondola system will connect the new area with the town. Construction of an airport near the expansion site has also been approved.
Telluride has an elevation of 8,745 feet; some people may find that it takes a day, maybe two, to acclimate to the high altitude. But it takes less than that to feel the pulse of the town and to meet its characters. The town is small. There are only four pages in the telephone directory; the high school will graduate 10 students this year.
Sixty-five percent of the houses were boarded up when Louise Gerdts first came to Telluride in the early 1960s. According to her, it was the aggressive, early real estate agents who brought new activity to the town.
''I just had a feeling about this place. There's something magical here. It looked like some romantic Swiss village.''
At least for those who live year-round here, Telluride is second to none. True, it's in a box canyon, just a dead-end town. But when it snows and the heavy white powder stacks up, muffling the sounds of the street, Telluride comes to life, in its own way.
Lift tickets cost $18; senior citizens (65 and over) ski free, as do children under 12 accompanied by an adult. Ski-package rates are also available. Ski-school director Annie Vareille-Savath teaches the American method.
Telluride is easier to get to now that Frontier Airlines has begun twice-daily service to Montrose and Grand Junction, out of Denver. Frontier is currently offering a ''money-saver'' round-trip fare of $75.
Telluride is an eight-hour drive from Denver. It is 450 miles from Phoenix, 300 miles from Albuquerque, and 800 miles from Los Angeles. Frontier and Trans-Colorado (out of Denver) and Pioneer Airlines (out of Albuquerque) offer what they call ''weekend getaways,'' four-day packages (Sunday through Wednesday , or Thursday through Sunday) at a cost of $197, $238, and $250.
There are accommodations for 1,500 people in Telluride, including the historic New Sheridan Hotel, the Johnstone Guest Inn, and various luxurious condominiums.
With more snow expected over the weekend, all runs are open at Telluride with a 33-inch packed powder base. Ski conditions are good.
For more information, you can write Telluride Ski Resort Inc., Box 307, Telluride, Colo. 81435, (303) 728-3856. Or contact Telluride Central Reservations toll free at (800) 525-3455.