Early history of the East Fork

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Welch Nossaman claimed many firsts in Pagosa Country, including the first to take wagons down the East Fork and the first to build a cabin near the Hot Springs.

We’re talking about the early history of the East Fork of the San Juan River for a couple of reasons. First, the activities associated with mining in that locale during the time frame from 1870-1900 were foundational to Pagosa Springs emergence as a town. Secondly, people today still enjoy viewing the beauty and other recreational activities associated with the East Fork, as it was referred to by old-timers I knew. Truthfully, East Fork history is foundational to the entire San Juan Basin. So, here goes.

The source of my information is also two-fold. I was personally acquainted with one of those East Fork pioneers, Bill Warr. Secondly, there have been several serious studies of the East Fork, one of which I had the privilege of being part of in 1985. The then owner of most of the East Fork property was Dan McCarthy. McCarthy decided to build a four-season ski resort area there involving 2,780 acres of private land and 6,000 acres of Forest Service land. Because Forest Service property was involved, McCarthy was required to submit an environmental impact statement.

The environmental study was conducted by a number of experts including anthropologists from the Fort Lewis College of Anthropology who spearheaded the study, geologists, experts on identifying and dating artifacts and others. I was honored to be invited to join this team of experts and write the cultural historic data.

The study required several months. When the study was completed, 32 cultural resources were identified. Human presence in the study area was confirmed beginning with the Paleo-Indian Period starting about 12,000 B.C. My columns will deal with historic activities taking place after gold was discovered in 1870 at what became Summitville.

A gold camp featuring several producing gold mines was established in1870 on South Mountain, a few miles east of the upper San Juan River east fork. The name was later changed to Summitville. The discovery attracted a great number of prospectors who searched every nook and cranny in the South San Juan Mountains, hoping to open the door to a life of ease financed by a gold-plated El Dorado. That search included the East Fork of the San Juan with its surrounding mountains and all of the mountains you see from Pagosa Springs.

The best route from the east into the San Juan drainage and the rest of the San Juan Basin was across Elwood Pass and down through the East Fork. In the interest of historical accuracy, I should point out that a second route from the east also started at Del Norte, the source of the East Fork route. From Del Norte, the second route followed the Rio Grande upstream to Stony Pass, dropped on the west side to Cunningham Gulch, and from there joined the Animas River and branched out to Silverton, Lake City, Ouray, Telluride and all of the mines in that portion of the San Juans.

We have several accounts of early travel and settlement along the East Fork. For example, this 1873 story tells us, “For some years before permanent settlement was made at Pagosa Springs, people came each summer to take baths in the medicinal springs. Among the first to come over the pass from Del Norte in 1873, was Mrs. M.O. Brown, her young son, Tom Reavis, and her blind father, Mr. Sallee.”

In 1874, this article appeared in the San Juan Prospector, published in Del Norte and the first regular newspaper in the San Juans. It was headlined, “A Perilous Journey” with a subhead reading, “Headwaters of East Branch of the San Juan River.” The article described how an “unidentified party of four left the Summit mines to prospect the western range from the Summit mines to the Animas, the route being east to west.” The party described Crater Lake and the headwaters of the East Fork and reported passing Captain Burrows camp upon the San Juan.

More next week on early travels through the East Fork, including Welch Nossaman’s first trip in 1876.