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Gold brings settlers to the San Juans

Photo courtesy John M. Motter The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad entered the San Juan Basin in 1880-1881. Not only did the railroad provide economic transportation for the regions mineral production, it stimulated agricultural and lumber development, as revealed by this photo.

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad entered the San Juan Basin in 1880-1881. Not only did the railroad provide economic transportation for the regions mineral production, it stimulated agricultural and lumber development, as revealed by this photo.

We’ve been writing about the Great Pagosa Hot Springs as seen through the eyes of those who saw the springs during the first years when Pagosa Springs and the southwest corner of Colorado were being settled.

A writer for a Silverton newspaper reported in March of 1879: “Quite a number of San Juaners are enroute for Silverton via Pagosa Springs and the Animas Canyon Toll Road.”

In the same newspaper, it was noted that a mail route had been established from Garland City to Silverton via Pagosa Springs and Animas City. After July 1, Pagosa Springs was to have daily mail service from Alamosa.

The Silverton news writer accurately described Pagosa Springs’ function during those early days of settlement in the Four Corners area: Pagosa Springs was a spot along the way to a more enticing goal — gold.

Perhaps now is a good time to present an overview of  how Pagosa Springs fit into the larger picture of  settlement in the San Juan Country.

The first impetus for settlement in Colorado during those years was gold. With nothing more than a pick and shovel, and a lot of determination, men of modest means could suddenly become rich — the term was, “Strike it rich.”

Gold had been discovered in the mountains west of Denver during the 1850s and prospectors were busy combing through the rest of the state’s mountains searching for El Dorado.

In 1859 an Army expedition from Santa Fe  passed through Pagosa Springs searching for a railroad route to the West Coast. Such a route was not discovered, but gold was discovered. During 1860, a party of prospectors led by a Capt. Baker discovered gold near today’s Silverton.

The rush to the San Juans was somewhat delayed by the Civil War but, by 1870, the race was on. The earliest settlements were near Silverton, Ouray, Lake City, Parrot City, Summitville and others mostly forgotten today, and all adjacent to significant gold strikes.

Roads to those mining camps entered the San Juans from the north, east and south, starting in the 1860s.  Pagosa Springs was along the southern and one of the eastern entrance routes.

As miners rushed into the San Juans, a military confrontation with the Southern Ute Indians seemed imminent. During those first days of gold exploitation, the San Juans were part of the Southern Ute Reservation. The miners and prospectors were trespassers.

To placate the Utes, new treaties were negotiated and a fort established at Pagosa Springs.

This overview describing how Pagosa Springs fit into San Juan Country settlement will be continued next week.

This story was posted on December 12, 2013.