What was Pagosa Country like in 1880, according to someone who was there? We’ve been repeating an eyewitness account written by the editor of a newspaper called “The Silverton Miner” as he journeyed by freight wagon from Animas City westward to Chama by way of Pagosa Springs. It took two days to reach Chama, as we reported last week. Now we pick up the narrative as our journalist awakens in Chama.
“Leaving Chama at 7 a.m., we have twenty miles to travel (Motter — traveling easterly towards Cumbres Pass, where crew are building the D. & R.G R.R in a westerly direction) to the Bear Creek station, which is the most interesting and difficult road along the route, being along the railroad grade and directly up the Chama River for a distance of thirteen miles to the summit of the Conejos Range (Motter—now known as the South San Juan Mountains and in the early days sometimes called the Conejos Range), which is the highest point reached on the line of the San Juan Extension. The road crosses the Continental Divide between the Chama and San Juan rivers. Eight miles from the point where the railroad camp is connected, is another toll gate; from this toll gate to the summit, a distance of five miles, the railroad has some very difficult and expensive work, in the way of grading to accomplish, the greater part of which is already completed and ready for ties and iron. Bear Creek station is seven miles from the summit on the Conejos Range on the east side. There is no accommodation there for travel and as the train runs so that it is necessary to remain there overnight it is not at all pleasant. A five-cent lodging house on Water street in New York, as described by the Police Gazette, when compared with the sleeping room in the hotel at the end of the track at Bear Creek, is a paradise …”
By January of 1881, the stages were running daily between Durango and the end of the rail line. An item in the Durango Record said, “J.L. Sanderson & Co. will run daily stages both ways, between Chama and Durango.”
Wall and Winter made the same announcement. Regular use and winter weather combined to put the roads in “horrible condition.” Sanderson’s six-horse coaches were referred to as “lumber wagons.” Drivers borrowed lumber to pack into ruts to help the wooden-wheeled vehicles get through the mud. “Instead of making the distance from Chama to Durango in twenty hours, over 40 hours of continuous travel were required on our most recent trip.”
To accommodate the stages and encourage travel through Pagosa Springs, the citizens of the town constructed a bridge across the San Juan River, the crossing being in line with today’s San Juan Street. The old bridge a mile south of town was reported to be in bad condition. It was burned a short time later. (Motter — Apparently a bridge built by the Army at the San Juan Street location was inadequate for stage traffic.)
Hotels were built to provide overnight services for the stage travelers. The Chama/Durango trip required two days. The San Juan Hotel, Hamilton House, Opdyke’s Hotel, and the Pagosa House catered to the eating and sleeping needs of weary travelers.