Shootout at the Kern place

Early Pagosa Country experienced its greatest population growth between the years 1890 through 1916, fed by the coming of the railroad and exploitation of the huge stands of ponderosa pine covering the lower elevations. During the decade of the 1890s, the town incorporated, acquired a railroad, acquired a permanent newspaper, moved across the river occupying space formerly occupied by Fort Lewis, organized several fraternal, civic, and social clubs, and constructed the community’s first church buildings.

The following items appeared in that first newspaper, the Pagosa Springs News, during the summer of 1891.

“There is considerable building being done in and about Pagosa Springs this summer … the Strawn House on the north side is now receiving guests … W.H. Kern will put on a stage line between Pagosa Springs and Durango starting next Monday … A.D. Garvin opened his “Little Parlour” saloon to the public on Tuesday evening … J.V. Johnson came up from Chama last Thursday accompanied by L. Hersch. The latter gentleman is from Santa Fe and will take charge of Mr. Johnson’s store at this place … The San Juan Hotel has not had a vacant bed or room this past week.”

And to prove Pagosa Country’s Wild West roots were not dead, Editor Daniel Egger recorded the following occurrence. The action described took place in a house known as the Sturdivant House, still standing in good shape on San Juan Street on the east side of the San Juan River. Here is what happened when the owner of the newly built house, Billy Kern (same guy as the W.H. Kern starting the Durango stage line), conducted an open house celebration for his new business and home:

“The pleasure of the dance in the new Kern building last Saturday evening was marred by the very ungentlemanly behavior of four cowboys named Bob Kelly, Emmet Wourt (Wirt), Bill Davenport, and Jack Gerart, belonging to Carlisle’s outfit. The boys were treated with due respect by those present, yet they were determined to have a row and expose their brutish natures. About the close of festivities during a dispute with Mr. Kern, one of them demolished the lamp with his gun. This seemed to be the signal for each one to begin the perforation of the new building with bullets, and the four guns were emptied twice. The manner in which they flourished their guns in the face of the proprietor of the building was not very pleasant for him. Warrants were sworn out for their arrest Sunday morning, but the sheriff and his deputies, after a futile chase in the direction of New Mexico, returned without their men.”

If you read between the lines as I do, you’ll note a convenient lag between the time the trigger-happy (four six-guns fired twice each amounts to 48 bullets, a lot of flying lead) miscreants left Pagosa and the time the sheriff launched pursuit. I could digress on some of the characters involved on both sides of this shootout, but won’t at this time. Suffice it to say that Kerns became sheriff of Archuleta County and left behind several wonderful stories of his activities here. Wirt became post trader to the Jicarilla Apaches, in which position he obtained wealth and fame throughout the Southwest.