More history of Cumbres Pass

Posted Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Logging and making lumber from ponderosa logs was big business in Pagosa Country starting in the mid-1890s. When the narrow-gauge railroad arrived after 1901, tracks were built up almost every river valley to the huge stands of yellow-bark ponderosa. Most of the labor was done by hand with the help of horses, mules or oxen. Pictured here are logs being skidded onto a flatbed rail car for transportation to the mill. Draft horses are pulling the logs.

We continue this week describing the conditions prompting the finding and development of Cumbres Pass. The time was the early 1870s. During the early 1850s, the Army had fought a series of battles up and down the San Luis Valley against the combined forces of the Jicarilla Apaches and their Moache Ute allies.

Fort Garland was built in 1858 to house and protect two companies of troops deployed to facilitate peace between the U.S. and their Native American enemies. The fort was strategically located along a trail much used by fur trappers and Hispaño settlers to travel back and forth between Taos and a settlement a little north of the community we know today as Pueblo.

Skirmishes between the Native Americans and settlers in the San Luis Valley continued, but did not grow into full-scale warfare. The threat of war intensified on the west side of the San Juan Mountains when gold was discovered in 1861. When the Civil War ended, large numbers of prospectors invaded the San Juans and war with the Southern Utes seemed imminent. This brings us to the early 1870s.

Under the leadership of Army Surveyor Lt. Ruffner stationed at Fort Garland, Army surveyors combed the San Juans looking for a suitable pass. Their first conclusion was to build an Army road over Elwood Pass and into Pagosa Springs.

Consequently, the Army began construction of Fort Lewis in Pagosa Springs and a road across Elwood Pass to supply the new fort. It only took one winter for the Army to learn that they could not deliver supplies from Fort Garland to Fort Lewis via Elwood Pass. There was too much snow; it was impassable.

As a result, supply wagons traveled down the east side of the San Juans to Ojo Caliente in New Mexico Territory, then northward up the Chama River Valley and on to Pagosa Springs.

At the same time during the early 1870s, Gen. Palmer was searching for a pass across the San Juans for his railroad. Palmer chose Cumbres Pass and by 1881 his train tracks had crossed the San Juans into the beginnings of the town of Chama in New Mexico Territory.

The Archuleta family chartered a toll road which followed a branch of the Chama River northward from Chama to a confluence with the Navajo River a few miles upstream from Chromo, called Price at the time. This was the main route into Pagosa from the south until the 1930s. I had the pleasure of driving this old road when I moved to Pagosa Springs a little more than 50 years ago. It has subsequently been closed and is no longer available.