Pagosa Country in the early years

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
The Chapson family, pictured here shortly after 1900, lived for awhile on the east side of U.S. 160 between the bottom of Wolf Creek Pass and Treasure Falls. Stretched across the photo behind the family patriarch is good proof that you don’t have to have big bucks to build a picket fence.

It’s probably safe to say the town of Pagosa Springs started on June 5 of 1878 because that’s when the first post office opened for business. Somehow, the name Joe Clarke wasn’t mentioned as a pioneer when I started attending San Juan Historical Society meetings and writing history columns in The Pagosa Springs SUN in 1976. Incidentally, you history buffs likely remember that Colorado celebrated her 100-year anniversary as a state in 1976.
Despite the History Society’s lack of affirmation, the license for that post office was issued to Clarke, who also had a general store and saloon in the general vicinity of the sewage lagoon south of town on the west side of the San Juan River. There was a bridge across the river at that point carrying the road (Baker’s Toll Road) from Española to high in the San Juan Mountains at Baker’s Park and its newly discovered gold ore deposits. Other businesses in town at that time were Clarke’s rooming house; a stables, livery and feed business run by William S. Peabody; Tom Blair’s Rose Bud Saloon and the area’s first sawmill started by E.R. Cooper.
These early-day pioneers were soon joined in 1879 by E.T. Walker and Charles Loucks, who freighted their sawmill, and Walker’s steam engine over Cumbres Pass. Margaret and James Voorhees opened a general store. Fil Byrne taught in the government school. Nossaman staked out a claim to his ranch north of town. Norbert Berard hauled freight, maybe with an ox team. Newman, Chestnut and Co. came down from Summitville to start a drug store.
With the newly acquired Army base, soon to be named Fort Lewis, things were a-hummin’ in Pagosa Country.
In October, the 15th Infantry came hup-two-three-fourin’ into town. As anybody who lives here knows, winter weather can lather Pagosa Country anytime. And, so, the Army got busy building shelters for troops and horses and mules. The Army pitched their tents on the northwest side of the San Juan River, where the main block of downtown Pagosa is today. The business buildings I mentioned earlier in this column, except for Clarke’s, were scattered along what today is San Juan Street on the east side of the river. Since the town wasn’t platted and surveyed until 1883, folks set up housekeeping and shops anywhere that was convenient and not already occupied.
Anything you ever saw in a western movie happened in Pagosa Country during those early years. Picture shoot-outs, knife fights and the threat of Native American warfare. Imagine pushing and shoving over who owned the water and whose cows grazed where. There were hardworking sodbusters just “lookin’ for a home,” and there were hard-ridin’, quick-shootin’ cowboys lookin’ for a fight. During the winters, miners and prospectors abandoned their high mountain digs and came to town where they turned their burros loose and drank hard whiskey as long as there was a jingle in their jeans.

This story was posted on November 19, 2019.