The continued history of the East Fork

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
The subject of this photograph is a large rock located on the north side of the road running through the box canyon of the San Juan River East Fork. Old-timers called this either Engineer or Locomotive Rock.

Today’s column continues with the history of the East Fork of the San Juan River.

While dictating his memoirs many years later, pioneer Welch Nossaman recalled traveling from Summit to Pagosa Springs via East Fork twice during the fall and early winter of 1876. Remember, there was not yet a town of Pagosa Springs.

Nossaman had filed incorporation papers in the Conejos County courthouse at Conejos for a toll road using East Fork. Before the Elwood and Cumbres passes were developed, several applications had been filed for toll roads across the south San Juan Mountains. I suspect many of those applications were filed by entrepreneurs anticipating the coming railroad. The hope was that when the railroad companies came, they would have to purchase a right of way from one of these toll road companies. It was well-known at that time that railroad company surveyors were busily scoping the San Juan Mountains for a suitable site for either a narrow-gauge or a broad-gauge railroad crossing.

An article in “Pioneers of the San Juan Country” circa 1940 reads, “In about 1875, Mr. Montroy, Mr. Welch Nossaman and Mr. Peter Holmes went by team and wagon from Summitville over Elwood Pass down the East Fork of the San Juan’s to what is now Pagosa Springs. It took about three weeks to make the trip. They had to go through the middle of the river in the box canyon of the East Fork of the San Juan as there were only sheer cliffs on both sides. Often, they had to move large rocks, had to snub their wagons down steep grades and had to cut paths through thick timber. Later, Mr. Nossaman and Mr. Holmes ran a wagon train over this road, transporting supplies over this road from Fort Lewis (now Pagosa Springs) to Summitville. Evidence of this old road is still to be seen, though it is now but a government trail.”

The Army was searching for the best routes to the San Juan gold country by the early 1870s. The Army had another goal. Prospectors and their supporting brethren were entering the San Juans in increasing numbers. The problem was, based on a prior treaty with the Ute Indians, the San Juan Mountains belonged to the Utes. Bad blood between Ute and white was approaching the boiling point. The San Juans were relatively unknown, a condition which needed correcting if the Army found the need to fight the Utes. The Utes knew the mountains.

Consequently, Lt. E.H. Ruffner of the Army Corps of Engineers and stationed at Fort Garland in the San Luis Valley made several surveys across the San Juan Mountains at that time. Ruffner was a veteran of early western settlement, having served several years in New Mexico.

The first survey, in 1873, passed through Del Norte, up the Rio Grande and across Stony Pass to the mines along the upper Animas River. The next survey crossed Cumbres Pass in 1877. During the same year, a survey from Fort Garland followed the Alamosa River to the headwaters of the San Juan, then down the east fork of that river to Pagosa Springs, where the earliest of the settlers were digging in.