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ATS Colorado DLC will include the “Million Dollar Highway”

SCS Software has just announced that the future Colorado DLC will reproduce the famous “Million Dollar Highway”, one of the most beautiful and dangerous roads in the United States of America. Forget the usual standard driving safety regulations like protection rails and berms or shoulders, there aren’t any on this track, but above all expect many miles of jaw-dropping landscapes and spectacular views.

The Route 550 (US 550) full length runs from Bernalillo, New Mexico, to Montrose, Colorado, and the section from Silverton to Ouray is worldwide known as the Million Dollar Highway (MDH). It’s around 40 kilometres (25 miles) of twists and turns through three high mountain passes. The Coal Bank Pass (3,240 m), the Molas Pass (3,340 m) and the Red Mountain Pass (3,358 m).

This entire stretch has been called the Million Dollar Highway along the years, but it is the 19 kilometres (12 miles) south of Ouray through the Uncompahgre Gorge to the summit of Red Mountain Pass who live up to this name.

million dollar highway peterbilt
U.S 550 – Million Dollar Highway. Photo: The Durango Herald

A Nickname, a Legend or Effective Cost?

Like many famous worldwide places, there are several theories about how MDH allegedly got its name. Some old legends say it was ironically named by people afraid to drive it, not even by a “million-dollar”. Others claim the nickname emerged after thousands of visitors charmed by the spectacular “million-dollar” views. There is also a theory that reports the potential for mining prospecting in the region surrounding the road, would be one million dollars back then.

Fun fact: The U.S. dollar experienced an average inflation rate of 2.51% per year between 1888 and 2017. $1,000,000 in the year 1888 is worth $25,142,104.13 in 2020.

The most solid theories state that the MDH name came from a local government construction planning meeting in the 1920s. There, one of the official intervenients remarked that such a rebuilding road work between Ouray and Silverton would cost around a million dollars.

Making History

Like any other road, MDH was born out of the need to move people and goods in that region. The first section was constructed to support the mining industry that was beginning to arise in what would become the Red Mountain mining district. Some of these centenary facilities resisted trough times and can be observed from the actual highway. Two of the most famous towns show how important mining was back then; Silverton and Ironton, now abandoned.

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Bear Creek toll gate at Otto Mears road in 1880-90.
Photo: Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, WHJ-1871
otto mears toll road million dollar highway
Snow Slide and Snow Tunnel at Otto Mears road, 1888 July 6
Photo: Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, Z-6919

There was a visionary man with enough money and audacity to idealize and launch such ambitious projects. This would be the starting point of an amazing road network construction at the mountain’s core during the next 37 years. These men were establishing the primary routes that became the basis for the actual region’s highway system.

Otto Mears toll road between 1880-90

Same exact place in 1880-90 and 2019

otto mears toll road million dollar highway 1
Photo: Denver Public Library
Western History Collection, Z-7867
Million Dollar Highway in 1880 and 2019
Photo: Denver Public Library
Western History Collection, Z-7867
Map data ©2018 Google

A Pioneer and Visionary Man

otto mears million dollar highway

We are talking about Otto Mears (1840–1931), a Colorado businessman who carried out a key role in the history of the first roads within San Juan Mountain Range and Uncompaghre Gorge. You’ll probably be surprised by knowing that Mears born in Russia, in 1840, from an English father and a Russian mother. Both parents died when he was young, and Mears ended up living with several relatives until the early 1850s when he finally went to the United States. California was living the Gold Rush, and the young Mears soon tried out some jobs related to it. He later served in the Civil War till finally arrived in Colorado to start his transportation industry empire in 1864.

He settled in Saguache, Colorado, where he acquired a local farm and became a wheat producer. He instantly realized how difficult it was to get his wheat to the booming markets around the new mining regions. These transport difficulties experienced by Mears represented a key factor for his ultimate decision to improve the roads himself. He was persistent enough with his valuable government contacts, till he grants official permission to charge tolls for others to use his “private” roads. This was the auspicious beginning of a brilliant business career that helped to improve people and goods transportation all over southwest Colorado.

Between 1864 and 1882, Mears performed a series of investments, partnerships and acquisitions with some toll companies, as well as contracts with the government, ending up owning a 450-miles network of toll roads. One of the most significant of his projects represent the roads constructed in the Red Mountain, especially the route between Ouray and Silverton, which would become the basis for the Million Dollar Highway. His interests additionally included the ownership of railroads, telegraph lines, mills, mines, stores and hotels.

Otto Mears died on June 24, 1935 in Pasadena, California, leaving an incredible legacy of ambitioncourage and vision that allowed him to cut the mountains bringing peoplebusinesses and cities all together. He stated his desired to be cremated, and his ashes were spread at the Engineer Mountain, near Ouray, Colorado. There’s a monument honoring him at the Route 550 located between Ouray and Silverton.

Million Dollar Highway Milestones

  • 1840 – Otto Mears born in Kurlan, Russia, on May 3.
  • 1850 – Otto Mears arrived in San Francisco, California to live with an uncle.
  • 1865 – Otto Mears arrived in Colorado, first in Conejos later in Saguache.
  • 1882 – Ouray County asked Mears to build a toll road up to Uncompahgre Canyon.
  • 1883 – Road to Red Mountain finished in September, at a cost of $10,000 per mile.
  • 1883 – Toll charges – $5 team wagon, $2.50 trail wagon, $1 saddle animals.
  • 1884 – San Juan County asked Mears to build a toll road up to Red Mountain.
  • 1884 – Road to Red Mountain finished in November, linking Silverton and Ouray.
  • 1887 – San Juan County and the State overtook maintenance of the road.
  • 1910 – First car journey from Ouray to Ironton (6 miles) on a new Ford T.
  • 1920 – Planning meeting for reconstruction works and MDH name theory appear.
  • 1920 – Road reconstruction works, part of the actual US Highway 550.
  • 1924 – Colorado Department of Highways began upgrades for automobile travel.
  • 1930 – State Highways map showed US 550 as a surfaced road.
  • 1931 – Mears dies in Pasadena , California, on June 24, at the age of 91.
  • 1935 – Improved snow-clearing machinery allows open year-round.
  • 2020 – SCS Software replicates the Million Dollar Highway on American Truck Simulator.

Unique Road and Incredible Landscapes

million dollar highway semi truckPhoto: The Durango Herald

Million Dollar Highway allows travellers to enjoy the best of nature. The breathtaking landscapes composed of vast rocky valleys and extraordinarily high peaks, impress anyone who passes by. However, in addition to the hard-driving, it is also a dangerous road, especially on sections with tight curves and tall cliffs without any guardrails.

Some of these curves represent a real driving challenge since many of them are 180º half loops. These “hairpin” type curves were quite usual back in the 18th-century road construction techniques, mostly to gain elevation in reduced lengths.

At the Million Dollar Highway, many of these curves cut directly into the mountain valleys, putting travellers into fearful vertiginous outside edges of the narrow roads. It’s what makes this road spectacular, fearful and above all feared for most of the drivers. This this section of the US 550 is definitely unsuitable for the fainted hearts.

That’s why we see some experienced truckers posting YouTube videos recommending that rookie drivers shall not take this shorter but dangerous route, and that they should follow the warnings of alternative truck routes, in Ouray and Silverton.

million dollar highway semi truck 1
Photo: The Durango Herald

Harsh Winters

This region experiences a typical summer, but winter is sometimes severe. It’s quite common to see the authorities closing the road due to significant snows or avalanches, even with the support of an efficient snow clearing brigade like the one operating there. There’s a famous and unique snow overpass between Ouray and Ironton, built in a strategic place where unpredictable avalanches occur. Snow chains are mandatory in almost every winter.

avalanche chute overpass us 550 million dollar highway
Avalanche Chute in real life at the U.S 550. Photo: Ken Lund
avalanche chute overpass us 550 million dollar highway american truck simulator
Avalanche Chute in American Truck Simulator. Image: SCS Software

Present Days

This road is barely used by trucks these days, because the major logistics flows between Denver, the capital of Colorado and Albuquerque, the capital of New Mexico, flow mostly by the interstate 25. However, cities like Durango, Silverton or Ouray need supplies, and these have MDH as their main road. There is also the lumber industry that involves some trucks going up and down the mountain.

The latest statistics show that the U.S. 550 draws an average of 2,300 vehicles a day, mostly tourists driving cars and RV’s. But SCS Software intends changing those stats regarding trucks. Therefore, anyone will soon be able to drive their truck through this mythical and iconic road on the map of the American Truck Simulator.

The SCS Software Replica

Any SCS fan or ATS/ETS2 player knows that the SCS Software mapping team has improved a lot over the past few years and the latest DLC’s has proven it. Since the American Truck Simulator release in February 2016, that I repeatedly retained the idea that the ATS team goes more in detail than the ETS2 ones, but maybe it’s merely because I am a big European fan of the United States and probably that makes me devote more attention to details. Perhaps an American player feels the same way while playing ETS2.

us 550 million dollar highway american truck simulator
The amazing level of detail for the upcoming DLC Colorado. Photo: The Durango Herald
idarado mine million dollar highway american truck simulator 1
Idarado Mine trestle faithfully reproduced. Photo: LiveMore! EXTRA
bear creek million dollar highway american truck simulator 1
The Bear Creek Falls. Photo: Lee Snook

The latest MDH images released by SCSdemonstrate us that the Czech studio is strongly committed to faithfully reproduce as much as possible. All the details, landscapes, historical landmarks and monuments seem absolutely real and even myself, an outsider about this regionrecognised everything they revealed on the latest gameplay video, just with the knowledge gained while researching for this article.

I recommend you to watch the two YouTube incorporated videos, the real trucker one and the American Truck Simulator stream, in order you can check the excellent level of fidelity and reproduction that SCS Software did on the Million Dollar Highway from the upcoming Colorado DLC.

Having said that, what do you think of it? Do you have any experience or opinion about it? Tell us everything in the comments below or help us spread the word by sharing this article in your social media!

By Pumizo

A freelance trucking industry journalist, SCS Software senior beta-tester, transport & logistics senior specialist and simulators passionate.

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