Life the hard way, in Summitville

Considering the time of year and current weather conditions, it seems appropriate to repeat some stories written long ago from a Summitville correspondent to the Del Norte Prospector.

The old gold mining town of Summitville was the most elevated mining town in Colorado, nestling in the South San Juan Mountains at an elevation of 11,042 feet.

The town was located about 27 miles south of Del Norte, and supplied some of Pagosa Country’s earliest settlers, including Welch Nossaman and the Montroy family.

At times before 1900, mail was carried to Pagosa Springs from Summitville, horseback in summer and on skis in winter. Summitville was reached from Pagosa Springs by going up the East Fork of the San Juan River and over Elwood Pass.

At various times, Summitville was reported to have as many as 1,000 residents, four general stores, four hotels, and more bars than an ordinary man could count on his fingers. Of course a miner’s capacity for liquor was not considered ordinary.

The stage regularly ran to Summitville from Del Norte, weather permitting.

Did I mention weather? For those who wintered in Summitville the weather was challenging, at best. Consider the following news items published in the Del Norte Prospector by a Summitville correspondent whose signature was “Cabet.” Remember, Summitville was 1,000 feet higher than the summit of Wolf Creek Pass.

The following observations appeared in February of 1885.

“For almost four months the thermometer has not registered above twenty in the shade. The lowest point observed was 13 below zero. By August next, I suppose, it will climb up to thirty-two degrees, or near it.

“As I stated in my last, Summit is almost a hospital. Men are being knocked out ‘right and left.’ There has been quite an exodus, a pilgrimage as it were, to Pagosa Springs, the Mecca of our sick ones. But how a sick man can undertake to make that trip beats the Dutch. The distance is about forty miles over a dreary, God-forsaken country. A party of four started out this week, but ‘ere they could arrive the point proposed,’ two of them ‘petered out’ and had to be helped into the Springs. Another, on his return, had his ‘off’ foot frozen. Verily, the way of the invalid is hard. The trip is made on snow-shoes, of course (home-made skis … Motter).”

Later, in the same column, same date, we read: “How about amusements? Mighty scarce. Snow-shoeing is very poor and has not been indulged in to any extent. Last year, men women and children lived on the shoes. Well, they had enough snow. Just imagine their ‘shoeing’ over the cabins, over the San Juan mill, in fact any and everywhere. Snow? Folks had to tunnel for their house doors, or climb in through the second story window. Snow! Why a party went snow-shoeing on the 4th of July last.”

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
This photograph shows some of the buildings at Summitville with South Mountain in the background. I don’t know the date of the picture but know it was made on glass plates, the coating on the glass obviously worn off in spots.