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Pagosa: an interesting stopover for miners and adventurers

Photo courtesy John M. Motter In the background of this circa 1890 photo of the Pagosa Hot Springs, lumber buildings with false fronts define the early community of Pagosa Springs. A series of fires destroyed most of these buildings.

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
In the background of this circa 1890 photo of the Pagosa Hot Springs, lumber buildings with false fronts define the early community of Pagosa Springs. A series of fires destroyed most of these buildings.

By the early 1870s, Pagosa Springs was an interesting stopover for miners and adventurers on their way to the gold fields in the higher San Juan Mountains. Pagosa Springs was interesting because of the hot springs.

At the same time, communities were forming around Pagosa Springs. Some of the communities were adjacent to the mines. Others were similar to Pagosa Springs —  stopovers on the way to the gold mines. A few places, such as the Tierra Amarilla and Farmington areas in New Mexico, supplied food for the miners.

On the east side of the San Juans in the San Luis Valley, settlements had started as early as the 1850s. The earliest settlements were created by New Mexicans in the San Luis and Conejos areas. Garland City, just north of Fort Garland on the eastern side of the San Luis valley, was a bustling community. Settlers and miners from the east crossing the Front Range via La Veta Pass first encountered Fort Garland before crossing the valley on their way to the San Juan mining area.

Del Norte formed in 1874 on the site of a small Hispanic community called La Loma. Del Norte prospered as the supply point for the gold mines at Summitville. Del Norte was also on a major route that crossed the San Luis Valley from Fort Garland, passed through Del Norte and turned northward at today’s South Fork. This route continued up the Rio Grande until it crossed the San Juans by way of Stony Pass, where, on the western end, it dropped into Cunningham Gulch on its way to various mining camps along the Animas River between Silverton and Lake City.

Another route to the San Juans left Canyon City and followed up the Arkansas River until reaching Poncha Pass, which provided access to the northern end of the San Luis Valley. Once in the San Luis Valley, the trail split at Saguache. The westerly split crossed Cochetopa Pass and continued to the fledgling town of Lake City. The remaining fork from Saguache continued in a southwesterly direction until it joined the road from Fort Garland to Del Norte.

Finally, the San Juan gold fields could be reached from the north by passing through Ouray. During the early 1870s, Otto Mears built toll roads along many of the routes just described. Mears was known as the “Road Builder of the San Juans.” His most notorious road is probably Red Mountain Pass, connecting Ouray with Silverton. Descendants of Mears presently own Wolf Creek Ski Area. Wolf Creek Pass was never a pioneer entryway to Pagosa Springs. It was not built until after the flood of 1911.

This story was posted on June 5, 2014.