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The ‘wild and wooly’ railroad towns

Photo courtesy John M. Motter Until it burned, the St. Francis Church was located near Stollsteimer Creek a short distance west of the home of the late Mel Martinez. The foundations of the building remain, obscured by a stand of oak brush. Rebuilt near the confluence of Stollsteimer Creek and the Piedra River, the rebuilt church was restored a few years back by the John Gallegos family. John is a nephew of Mel and lives nearby.

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Until it burned, the St. Francis Church was located near Stollsteimer Creek a short distance west of the home of the late Mel Martinez. The foundations of the building remain, obscured by a stand of oak brush. Rebuilt near the confluence of Stollsteimer Creek and the Piedra River, the rebuilt church was restored a few years back by the John Gallegos family. John is a nephew of Mel and lives nearby.

The 1881 arrival of the Denver & Rio Grande Narrow Gauge Railroad immensely impacted the San Juan Basin and Pagosa Country.

The towns at the new construction end of the railroad were, to use a western term, “wild and wooly.”

The laborers building the railroad through this area worked long, hard, back-breaking hours. For the most part, they lived in tent cities, moving continually westward as the rails advanced. They had money in their pockets and the only diversions in those temporary and very remote communities were provided by makeshift saloons, predatory gamblers and women “of ill repute.” To a large extent, law lurked in the chambers of six-shooters carried by those willing to use them.

And so, a succession of lawless towns spearheaded the railroad’s movement across the San Juan Basin in 1881, to towns including Chama, Amargo, Arboles and, finally, on to the newly created Durango.

Durango’s predecessor was Animas City. When the financial powers in Animas City wanted too much money for a railroad depot and facilities, General Palmer, the railroad’s builder, started a new town, which he named Durango. Animas City, located approximately where the northern half of Durango is today, faded into the western sunset.

When the railhead was in Amargo, people and supplies bound for Pagosa Springs climbed off the little train at Amargo, climbed onto a stage bound for Pagosa Springs, and clippity-clopped their way through Edith, Coyote Park, Halfway Canyon and on to Pagosa Springs.

The town of Amargo was located about one mile east of today’s Lumberton, approximately four miles east of Dulce. At that time, in 1881, there was no Lumberton or Dulce.

A self-styled band of desperados headed by Charley Allison set up camp in Amargo. They supported themselves by robbing stages, travelers and towns. Allison had been a deputy sheriff in Conejos County on the east side of the San Juans shortly before the railroad crossed the mountains. He allegedly conducted five stage holdups near Alamosa before wearing out his welcome in that part of the country. When the railroad moved west, Allison took off his badge and tagged along.

One of his more enterprising business adventures occurred in Chama. He picked a time when a lot of folks were downtown. Then, apparently in the middle of a block, he raised a ruckus which attracted the attention of a lot of folks who clustered around to see what the ruckus was all about. While the crowd’s attention was focused on the ruckus, members of Allison’s gang, with drawn six-shooters, blocked off both ends of the street, and one by one emptied the pockets and purses of the assembled donors, then disappeared into the surrounding countryside.  The next day, while a posse combed the hills searching for the outlaw gang, emboldened by their success in Chama, they did the same thing in Pagosa Springs.

A Silverton newspaper writer warned that travel through the area by the southern route was not safe and that lawlessness in the vicinity of Amargo had reached such proportions as to shut off travel to the San Juan country.

This story was posted on September 19, 2013.