Back in the day when you’d have entered Pagosa Springs riding a horse or a horse-drawn carriage or maybe a stage coach, you’d have found the “downtown” business section planted on both sides of San Juan Street on the east side of the river stretching between the river and Reservoir Hill where that fixture drops down to the river.
Back in the late 1870s and early 1880s when the town was newly sprouting, there was no reservoir, and hence no Reservoir Hill. The hill was called Roubideaux Hill in those days. Roubideaux was trapper of French descent who had a trading post north of the San Juans and south of Grand Junction. For several decades preceding settlement, fur trappers and other wilderness adventurers passed through Pagosa Country on their journeys between Taos and northern fur trapping centers.
The same visitor to Pagosa Springs would not have been allowed to cross the bridge to the west of the river because Fort Lewis, with 10 log barracks for enlisted men and four officer’s quarters, occupied what we recognize today as “old Pagosa Springs.”
Five or six bars, a couple of hotels, and the first county courthouse — built in 1886, the county was formed from Conejos County in 1885 — lined San Juan Street. As far as I know, only two of those early buildings remain on San Juan Street. A small building constructed of rocks remains about midway down the south side of the street. Much of this building was burned during a confrontation between Anglos and Hispanics for control of the county during those formative years. This is not the subject of today’s story.
Across the alley from the Spa Motel on the south side of the street is a two-story frame house built by Billy Kern in 1891. The Kerns opened the doors for a house-warming party when the house was completed. That house warming got hotter than the Kerns expected and that is the subject of today’s story.
The Pagosa News reported, “The pleasure of the dance in the new Kern building last Saturday evening was marred by the very ungentlemanly behavior of four cowboys named Bob Kelly, Emmet Wourt(Wirt), Bill Davenport, and Jack Gerart, belonging to Carlisle’s outfit. The boys were treated with due respect by those present, yet they were determined to have a row and expose their brutish natures. About the close of festivities during a dispute with Mr. Kern, one of them demolished the lamp with his gun. This seemed to be the signal for each one to begin the perforation of the new building with bullets, and the four guns were emptied twice. The manner in which they flourishing their guns in the face of the proprietor of the building was not very pleasant for him. Warrants were sworn out for their arrest Sunday morning, but the sheriff and his deputies, after a futile chase in the direction of New Mexico, returned without their men.”
Several stories could be created about the participants in this story. A book could be written about the lives of Kern or of Emmet Wirt. As a young man, Wirt moved to northern New Mexico from Missouri, worked a time in lumber mill, became a cowboy, then the post trader for the Jicarilla Apaches, acquired wealth and was well-known through the southwest.