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Sounds of building as the Army rolls in

Photo courtesy John M. Motter This picture looking south across the big Pagosa Hot Spring dates circa 1880. The log building on the left with the fireplace could have been the first school house, or it could have been the first building erected by the Army and soon abandoned when a decision was made to build Fort Lewis on the west side of the river.

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
This picture looking south across the big Pagosa Hot Spring dates circa 1880. The log building on the left with the fireplace could have been the first school house, or it could have been the first building erected by the Army and soon abandoned when a decision was made to build Fort Lewis on the west side of the river.

The sounds of hammers, saws and axes must have filled the mountain air of Pagosa Springs soon after the soldiers from the 15th Infantry marched into town on Oct. 18, 1878.

They likely were a tired bunch. Their march began at Fort Garland on the eastern side of the San Luis Valley. They crossed that valley until reaching the Conejos River, which has several branches running down the eastern side of the southern San Juan Mountains. In fact, in 1878, the southern San Juans were known as the Conejos Range, a moniker undoubtedly attributed to the river with the same name. In Spanish, Conejos refers to rabbits. Conejos County was one of the original 16 counties formed when the Territory of Colorado was organized.

And so, the soldiers of the 15th Infantry chosen to begin Camp Lewis at Pagosa Springs marched up the Conejos River Valley to the Continental Divide in the vicinity of Platoro (Platoro was a small gold-mining camp at that time), crossed over the divide into the Blanco River Valley and followed that stream down in a westerly direction until finally turning northward to Pagosa Springs.

Such a journey was much more than a pleasant walk. With full pack, it would have been arduous at best, even with the golden glow of quaking aspen to light up their eyes. Already the nights were cool and crisp and the days were growing shorter.

Winter can come any time in Pagosa Country. Before snow fell, housing for troops and horses had to be built. Hay and grain contracts had to be arranged to feed the horses and mules through the coming winter. The soldiers would need meat, beans and anything else the government could afford, and there was no guarantee that supply roads across the mountains would be open during the winter. Wood for winter fires was a must. Because the Army’s first duty is to fight, a watchful eye was kept on the Indians. Patrols were sent out. In addition, the routine of Army life must be kept: daily reports, drills, inspections, rifle practice, guard duty.

For Companies I and B of the 15th Infantry and Company D of the 9th Cavalry, winter came too soon. A log corral had been built with a jacal-type shelter for the horses and mules. Ten soldiers’ barracks built of logs and of a size to house 100 men — two companies — were well under way. A post bakery of logs was erected near the river, probably to make it easier to get water. Company headquarters, traders and the black troops of the 9th Cavalry were housed in tents on the northwest side of the San Juan River in the area housing today’s county courthouse.

This story was posted on July 24, 2014.