History of the East Fork: Utilities stretch over the mountains

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
The Chapson family ranched and did whatever they could to make a living on the West Fork of the San Juan River. Many of the Summitville and East Fork miners lived on the West Fork, but maintained close ties with the East Fork.

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

After Cumbres Pass opened in 1877 and the Denver and Rio Grande narrow gauge railroad reached the upper Animas River mining country by that pass in 1881, the East Fork entry route to Pagosa Springs and the San Juan Basin was not the only or even the best route across the South San Juan Mountains.

Some pioneers continued to use the East Fork as an entry route, prospecting and mining continued in the mountains surrounding the East Fork and several homesteaders established their homes in the high mountain river valley. A number of those prospectors and homesteaders moved permanently to Pagosa Springs, leaving their hand-built log structures to decay under the withering assault of summer sun and winter snow. We’ll name several of those early residents and describe their East Fork lifestyles later in this series. It should be noted that the valley remained useful for other purposes.

It seems mail from the east was delivered by this route from 1878 until the late 1880s. It was also the shortest crossing of the mountains for a number of other purposes. About 1907, the Colorado Telephone Company strung a major east-west telephone line through the East Fork route. The East Fork road provided access for the installation and maintenance of this line.

An item in the Times-Observer newspaper, one of several newspapers serving Pagosa Springs in earlier times, published the following article on Nov. 1, 1907. It read: “Work on the new telephone line between here and Monte Vista is progressing nicely. Deputy Forest Ranger, E.E. Chapson has seven men working on this side of the range.”

Right of way patents were obtained by the Colorado Telephone Company in 1910. By 1911, they transferred ownership to the Mountain States Telephone Company. According to an article in The Pagosa Springs SUN in March 1952, this company still operated the line in 1952.

Jud Thiele, owner of the Pagosa Springs Telephone Company, purchased the Mountain States Telephone Company toll line running from Platoro through the East Fork (the same line we’ve been talking about) to Yellow Jacket in May 1955. Thiele sold to Oswald Reeves and family in October of 1956. Some time after this purchase, service from the East Fork line was discontinued. Much of the wire and insulators were sold for salvage, I’ve been told by both Thiele and Reeves. I’m sure old-timers from Pagosa, as do I, remember seeing the rotting old telephone poles.

Finally, a natural gas line was laid along this route, necessitating restoration of the old road for installation and maintenance access. Later owners of the East Fork, Whit Newton and Frank Teal, closed the route, but allowed limited passage if permission was first obtained by them. During recent years (early 1980s), an agreement between the U.S. Forest Service and Teal and more recent owner McCarthy has kept the road open to the public. It provides logging, cattle grazing and recreational access to an extensive area.

Next week we’ll get into East Fork settlers and their homesites, for sure.