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Some confusion, and the fort is moved

Photo courtesy John M. Motter San Juan winters, with their abundance of snow, severely tested the mettle of the region’s first settlers. Building Fort Lewis in Pagosa Springs pushed man and beast to the limit. When the narrow gauge railroad arrived in 1881 it helped, but crossing Cumbres Pass was not easy, as shown by this photograph.

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
San Juan winters, with their abundance of snow, severely tested the mettle of the region’s first settlers. Building Fort Lewis in Pagosa Springs pushed man and beast to the limit. When the narrow gauge railroad arrived in 1881 it helped, but crossing Cumbres Pass was not easy, as shown by this photograph.

We’re writing about the 1878 establishment of Fort Lewis in Pagosa Springs.

We are quoting from a letter written by W. T. Hartz, a captain in the 15th Infantry who has just arrived in Pagosa Springs to take charge of the soon-to-be-built fort.

In 1878, the 45th Congress authorized a post at Pagosa Springs. It was to be named Camp Lewis in honor of Lt. Col. William H. Lewis, who had been killed by Cheyenne Indians near Fort Wallace, Kans., on Sept. 28 of 1878. The name of Camp Lewis was later changed to Fort Lewis, (the origin of the name of the college in Durango).

We continue quoting from Hart’s letter to his commanding officer at Fort Garland.

“I enclose a list of the Q.M (Quartermaster) property required, and as I find other wants, I will promptly notify you by letter. If you want regular estimates in approved form let me know, but I am very short of clerks, and will have to be very busy out-side looking after the work. Have directed Major Peabody to purchase and deliver 100 tons of hay, and the lumber and shingles as per your estimate. I have also authorized him to furnish the troops with fresh beef at reasonable market rates until such time as a regular contract can be made. I will furnish you copies of my letter of instructions to him by the next mail, probably by this, if time will permit.

“The post office is about a mile below the springs, mail once a week.”

The decision by Hartz to build the cantonment on the west bank of the San Juan River is a clue that he knew of claims filed to possess the hot springs and adjacent land by civilians. The fort was being built outside of the 80 acres of  land surrounding the hot springs that was granted to private parties in 1883. A Presidential Order dated May 22, 1877, had created the one-square-mile town site of Pagosa Springs, which included the springs. Hartz’s fort was being built within the town site. The town site had been created, but the lots would not be sold for a few years.

By a Presidential Order dated Jan. 28, 1879, six square miles, excluding the town site and hot springs, was declared a military reservation.

Camp Lewis was, therefore, erected on the grounds of the town site within the military reservation. By the time troops arrived in October to start the post, civilians had already taken up land and constructed buildings on the town site and military land. The confusion of land ownership led to moving the fort westward to Hesperus in 1880.

This story was posted on December 26, 2013.