History of the East Fork: moving over the mountains

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
This two-story house still standing on Pagosa Street was known as the Archuleta House. It was built and lived in by the family for which Archuleta County is named. The Archuletas also had homes and business buildings in Edith in Archuleta County and Amargo and Lumberton in Rio Arriba County in New Mexico.

We continue with the history of the East Fork of the San Juan River.

By 1879, the Army had allotted money and was building a wagon road via the East Fork connecting Fort Garland on the east side of the San Luis Valley with newly established Fort Lewis in Pagosa Springs. The purpose of the road was to provide a direct route for conveying supplies from Fort Garland to Fort Lewis.

Construction of this road began at Fort Garland. It’s proposed route was from Fort Garland to a point on the Rio Grande River just south of Alamosa, then along a branch of the Alamosa River westerly up the east side of the San Juans to Elwood Pass, then down the west side of the San Juans via the East Fork to Pagosa Springs.

Alamosa was a town in the center of the San Luis Valley newly created on the banks of the Rio Grande River by Gen. Palmer, who was busily pushing the construction of a narrow gauge railroad to cross the San Juans on its way to the diggings in the San Juan Mountains above Durango. Durango didn’t exist at the time, but would be created by Gen. Palmer when he reached that locale.

Palmer also created Antonito in the San Luis Valley while building his railroad. At this time, the railroad had not crossed the mountains. Palmer had decided to use Cumbres Pass, instead of the East Fork, to cross the mountains.

It is not unreasonable to assume that many of Pagosa’s first settlers were watching the Army road and Palmer’s railroad and packing their bags back east with plans for settling in Pagosa Springs, anticipating the new fort and soon-to-be railroad would stimulate a flourishing economy. Maybe they could get in on the ground floor.

Because the road down the East Fork originated on the mapping tables of the Army, old-timers in Pagosa Springs referred to the road as the “Old Government Road” or the “Old Military Road.” It seems clear the portion of the road located east of the mountains was built by the Army. But, by the time construction began on the western portion of the road through the East Fork, the Army had decided to move Fort Lewis from Pagosa Springs to Hesperus. The Army no longer had a need for the East Fork route. That doesn’t mean the route was totally abandoned.

Between 1879 and 1916, the state of Colorado took over the route and sent some state money to maintain the road. A considerable number of pioneers migrating to Pagosa Springs and other destinations in the San Juan Basin entered the San Juan Basin via the East Fork. Earl Mullins and Worthe Crouse (both now deceased) have described this experience for me. Both were very young children at the time of the crossing.

The William Mullins family, with young son Earl, made the trip in 1900. By the time they approached the box canyon at the bottom of the East Fork road, according to Earl, the weather turned bad, the water in the river got high and it was impossible to go through the canyon. The alternative was a trail that turned north just east of the Old Joe Mann cabin and made its way to Windy Pass just south of Treasure Falls.

Getting safely down to the valley floor from the top of Windy Pass was so steep, the travelers had to be extremely innovative. Often, the draft animals were put in front of the wagons to hold the wagons back and logs were attached to the rear of the wagons to create more drag. Even so, the downhill trip was pretty “hairy,” according to Earl.

More next week on the history of East Fork.