We’ve been writing, very sketchily, about the Hispanics and Anglos who visited Pagosa Springs before Welch Nossaman and a couple of friends built the cabins which eventually led to the town’s founding in 1877.
The most elaborate early visitation was sponsored by the U.S. Army and came in 1859, just a year before the Ward Between the States. It was a time when the Army sent survey parties across much of the American West, hoping to identify good routes for railroads to link the West Coast with the East Coast.
And so a party of scientists and engineers led by Capt. John M. Macomb, the army’s chief topographical officer in the Territory of New Mexico, set out along the Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fe bound for Pagosa Springs and points west. Twenty thousand dollars were appropriated for the expedition. Geologist John Strong Newberry and four assistants provided scientific support. Albert H. Pfeiffer, sub-agent to the Utes at Abiquiu, served as guide. A detachment from the Eighth Infantry commanded by Lt. Milton Cogswell provided military protection.
The expedition left Santa Fe during the middle of July, passed up the Chama River past Abiquiu, the most remote settled community on the Chama River at that time, crossed the Chama River at El Vado — the Crossing — topped the Continental Divide near Laguna de Caballo (Horse Lake on today’s Jicarilla Apache Reservation), then entered today’s Archuleta County and crossed Rio del Navajo near today’s Rosa. From there they crossed Coyote Park, the Blanco River, and on to the Great Pagosa Hot Spring.
Judging from the map he left, Macomb’s party split just south of Tierra Amarilla. The western group passed Horse Lake, camped on the Rio Navajo on the tenth day out, camped the next night north of the junction of the Blanco and Little Blanco rivers, and on the twelfth day camped at Pagosa Springs. The other portion of Macomb’s group traveled up the Chama River, possibly following the west fork of that river, then journeyed north and west staying east of the first party. The parties reunited at the Blanco River camp.
Macomb gives us our first written description of the Pagosa Hot Springs and a line drawing of the Hot Springs and Chimney Rock as well. From Pagosa Springs westward, Macomb’s route approximated today’s U.S. 160.
After leaving Pagosa Springs, they camped at the east end of the canyon of the Nutria River-Stollsteimer Creek, then on successive nights on the Piedra River and Beaver Creek. From there they continued westward to the junction of the Green and Colorado rivers in Utah, before later returning to Santa Fe by a westerly route that recrossed the San Juan River near the mouth of Largo Canyon.
Macomb’s trip added much to American knowledge of the San Juans and Pagosa Country.
At least two events of historical importance resulted from Macomb’s expedition. First, he said no wagon road could be built between New Mexico and Utah following the Old Spanish Trail. Second, Macomb’s party carried back to civilization the news that gold could be found in the San Juans. The gold rush was on!