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The path from the Valley to Pagosa Country

Photo courtesy John M. Motter Much modified, buildings once belonging to Old Joe Mann remain overlooking the East Fork of the San Juan River. Mann was among the early settlers in the northeast portion of Pagosa Country.

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Much modified, buildings once belonging to Old Joe Mann remain overlooking the East Fork of the San Juan River. Mann was among the early settlers in the northeast portion of Pagosa Country.

I’ve been writing about the first settlements in Pagosa Country, particularly that part which became Archuleta County in 1885.

I pointed out that all of the earliest settlements were along roads existing at that time. Most of those roads still exist.

So far, we’ve written about the Pagosa Springs/Durango stage road on the west side of the county and the southern entryway through the Chromo area along the Navajo River.

This week’s column will consider a northeastern entry route that followed the San Juan River into town. A lot of the land first settled in this portion of Pagosa Country ended up in either Mineral or Hinsdale counties instead of Archuleta County. Wolf Creek Pass is not being considered, because the route followed by Wolf Creek Pass was no tregarded as good by the pioneers, even for a goat trail. Wolf Creek Pass did not open until 1915, at least 40 years after first settlement in the Pagosa Country.

Before Wolf Creek Pass, this side of which ends on the West Fork of the San Juan River, the East Fork of the San Juan was used to cross the Southern San Juans, called the Conejos Range by early pioneers.

For those who don’t know where the East Fork of the San Juan is, imagine driving easterly toward Wolf Creek Pass. When you cross the second bridge over the San Juan, you will notice a road leading to the right immediately after crossing the bridge. That road follows the East Fork of the San Juan River through a narrow canyon, then a wider valley, and ultimately up Elwood Pass and over the mountains. On the east side, the road branches in several directions, all of them ultimately ending in the San Luis Valley.

During the era when Pagosa Country was first settled, the route going to Summitville and the route going down a branch of the Alamosa River awere most important.

Summitville was a gold mining town started around 1870. Its main outlet was to Del Norte to the northeast. Many of Pagosa Springs’ first settlers worked the mines at Summitville before moving to Pagosa Springs.

The route up the Alamosa River and across Elwood Pass was first surveyed by Army engineer Lt. Ruffner, a grizzled veteran of the pioneer Southwest. Ruffner surveyed a route starting at Fort Garland as its eastern end and intended to cross the San Juans via Elwood Pass and down the San Juan River to Pagosa Springs, where Fort Lewis was being built. That road was intended to be a supply route to Pagosa Springs.

After being totally defeated by the first winter the road faced, the Army changed its mind and delivered supplies to Fort Lewis by a more southerly pass across the Continental Divide.

Even so, the State of Colorado took over Ruffner’s route and operated it until a 1911 flood destroyed the western end. As a result of the flood, the state gave up on Ruffner’s road and constructed Wolf Creek Pass instead.

More next week on settlement in the northeast parts of Pagosa Country.

This story was posted on August 15, 2013.