Hot springs, hot water and high hopes

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Pagosa Springs was a very different place as shown in this 1891 photo looking east across town. The narrow gauge railroad station in the foreground remains as a rental house sitting at a 45-degree angle on the corner of 7th and Piedra streets. The 1891 first geothermal well shown spouting in the center is where the mound of dried geothermal minerals still sits in the parking lot along the river. Obviously, the train and water tower are long gone.

A major problem of concern to the pioneer citizens of Pagosa Springs was solving the riddle of who owned the Pagosa Hot Springs, plus who owned the property where the town was springing up. Ownership of the hot springs, the townsite and the 6 square miles surrounding the hot springs remained in the hands of the U.S. government.
All of the people who had already settled on the land, erected homes and conducted businesses within the 6 square miles — including the little cluster of homes and businesses nestled between Reservoir Hill and San Juan Street, were squatters, meaning they did not own the land on which they were living. It’s good to remember there was no town water system, hence no reservoir, and double-hence the hill was named Roubidoux in honor of a fur trapper who passed through the area frequently.
As early as 1875, Army Engineer Lt. C.A.H. McCauley apparently felt the ownership of the springs rightfully belonged to the Ute Indians.
His 1879 tongue-in-cheek report stated: “Wrested from its hereditary possessors by perjury, misrepresentation,or fraud, in the Brunot convention or treaty with the Utes in 1873 for the cession or purchase of what is known as the San Juan region, the location of the springs was subsequently claimed by various squatters as agricultural land, omitting the springs on their plat prepared for file and record. To doubly hold the place, it was entered by a confederate as a mill site, and lest this too should be invalidated, the ground was taken up as a placer claim. To legally establish the latter, at a convenient point to the springs, the ground was duly “salted” in the most approved manner, by firing gold-dust from a shotgun into the earth after which, in the presence of a witness, a pan of earth was washed and ‘color’ found by the merest accident. The last and strongest claim, and still in litigation, was the placing of Valentine scrip on some 40 acres of land including the most valuable springs.”
Resorting to “tongue in cheek” from my very own (nobody else has ever tried to claim it) face, I can’t help noticing that the owner of the area’s first homestead was Welch Nossaman, who, with friends, one of them a doctor, was mining gold at Summitville and making frequent trips to the hot springs. Could the desire to own the hot springs have been on Nossaman’s agenda?

This story was posted on August 11, 2019.