We reported last week that five of the main reasons people moved to the Pagosa Springs area during the late 1870s were the building of Fort Lewis in town, the expectation of the Southern Ute Reservation and headquarters nearby, the expectation that the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad tracks would come through town, an expected major development of a Pagosa Hot Springs spa, and the expectation the community would boom economically based on the events just mentioned making it a major supply terminus for the rapidly developing mining towns to the north and west.
As so often happens, the expected did not become reality. Consequently, a high percentage of Pagosa Springs’ first settlers moved on within a year or two looking for greener pastures.
As expected, work on Fort Lewis began in late 1878. Ten enlisted men’s barracks and four officer’s quarters and a few other buildings were erected. Then, unexpectedly, by 1880 everyone knew the fort and its economic needs were moving westward to Hesperus.
The reason? The Indian reservation with its headquarters and economic demands also moved westward.
Why? That’s where the Indians were. Congress never ratified the proposed reservation on the headwaters of the Piedra, San Juan, Blanco and Navajo rivers.
Finally, the Denver & Rio Grande crossed Cumbres Pass in 1880 and dropped down into Chama, a town it basically created during the building process. As it moved westward from Chama, the railroad never approached Pagosa Springs. Instead it crossed northern New Mexico until it hit the Navajo River at a small community called El Navajó, followed the Navajo north to the San Juan River at today’s Juanita, followed the San Juan to Arboles, then crossed westward to the Animas River just below today’s Durango, another town it created.
Where did that leave Pagosa Springs? No fort, no Indian reservation, and no railroad.
The closest the railroad got to Pagosa Springs was Amargo, just south in New Mexico. Pagosa Springs was left with the vaunted hot springs, but what entrepreneur would invest heavily in a health venture located at the end of a jolting 30-mile stage coach ride. How many invalids would risk such a trip when they could visit hot springs in other parts of the nation and the world that were easier to reach?
And so, by 1880, economic prospects for those in Pagosa looked pretty iffy.
As I said earlier, a lot of those folks moved on, many of them to newly-formed Durango which benefited from the railroad, the proximity of Fort Lewis and the Southern Ute Reservation, and a burgeoning mining industry in the mountains up the Animas River.
Those who remained in Pagosa Springs were mostly cattlemen with well-located homesteads, and a few businessmen. The community did its best to promote the hot springs and it did attract health seekers, but no one built the facilities needed to makea them a major attraction.
Growth and economic progress in Pagosa Springs was extremely slow between 1880 and 1895. In 1895, lumber moguls began to harvest the huge stands of ponderosa pines that covered much of the county. At that time, a railroad spur moved into the county from Lumberton to Edith. By 1901, another railroad spur which started in Pagosa Junction reached town. From about 1895 until 1915, the town enjoyed prosperity fed by the lumber industry.