© 2023 KSUT Public Radio
NPR News and Music Discovery for the Four Corners
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A roundabout where ‘society turns around’

 A historic photo of the Social Tunnel, not to be confused with Society Turn.
Telluride Historical Museum
A historic photo of the Social Tunnel, not to be confused with Society Turn.

Every community has its own unique place names, often with a backstory.

In Telluride, a proposed development has brought renewed attention to a traffic circle long known as Society Turn.

Today, Society Turn is a roundabout, sifting vehicles as they come and go from Telluride, Lawson, Mountain Village, Down Valley, and all the points beyond.

Meanwhile, the moniker has been adopted by the nearby Society Turn Business Center, the “Society Conoco,” and the roadway Society Drive.

Lately, it's become the chosen name of a major development which received an initial approval from the County Commissioners this spring — that’s the development on the so-called Society Turn Parcel which abuts the roundabout to the southwest.

But wherever did this name come from? And how far back does it go?

I put the question to the Director of the Telluride Historical Museum, Kiernan Lannon, who took a dive into the records.

“The prevailing theory seems to be that it had something to do with the well-to-do, high society people, who would on Sundays head out for their version of a Sunday drive,” said Lannon. 

They’d then “head down to where Society Turn as we know it today is, maybe have a picnic, and then turn around and head back into town. So, it’s the place where — as the story goes — society turns around,” he continued.

That story comes from folklore — word of mouth.

There is no historical source actually documenting this high society picnicking practice.

But, the name Society Turn does appear in the documents going back roughly a century.

“The earliest I saw it appear in newspapers was the 1920s, where that area was called ‘Society Turn,’” said Lannon.

White settlement began in the Telluride area in the 1870s, but it would’ve taken a while for the town to develop a real society, said Lannon. 

“Telluride was officially incorporated in 1878, and then it was a pretty small outpost before the railroad came in. So I wouldn't imagine you would see the high society doing this picnicking thing prior to the 1890s,” he said.

Then, one has to imagine it takes a while for a name to stick, so the term’s appearance in the 1920s fits with the general timeline of settlement in the Box Canyon.

Another piece of the story that checks out?

Back in that era, it would’ve been best to get out of town for your picnic.

In the little industrial center of Telluride proper, says Lannon,“there was a lot of smoke from wood fires, and there was a lot of noise with the stamp mills going off. So the further you were able to get away from that the nicer it was.”

The historical record does contain evidence that the area around Society Turn was a popular local destination, even if no specific evidence of high society parades and picnics exists.

“It was clear that by the 1920s that was a place people were hanging out. There was a golf course not too far from there. There are some mentions in oral histories of people treating it not like a beach per se, but just hanging out by the banks of a river,” he said.

“It was a well-known area to get away from town for a little bit.”

Lannon adds the leisure culture which is associated with Society Turn, is not to be confused with another local landmark — the Social Tunnel, which is above town on Tomboy Road.

The origin of this spot is far better documented than the story behind Society Turn.

Miners who slept in boarding houses at Tomboy Town in the high country and in Telluride itself were not allowed to bring women or alcohol into their quarters.

The tunnel, situated between Tomboy Town and Telluride, was an in-between space where the rules fell away.

“The miners could come down and have something to drink, maybe meet a lady, potentially a prostitute,” said Lannon.

“So these social things took place far enough outside of both Tomboy and Telluride, where they could get up to whatever they felt like getting up to.”

Back on the topic of Society Turn, Lannon adds, there is another explanation for the name.

Situated at a crossroads in the box canyon, travelers making long journeys through remote mountain terrain could — at that spot —- either turn in towards Telluride, towards society, or turn another way, and continue their travels in the wilds of the frontier mountain west.

But, of course, the folklore of those high-society horse-and-buggies, has a certain appeal.

This story was shared with KSUT via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico, including KSUT.
Copyright 2023 Aspen Public Radio.

Gavin McGough
Related Stories