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Fil Byrne: a pioneer with many talents

Felix A Byrne, better known as Fil Byrne, was one of the most interesting of Pagosa Springs’s early pioneers.

Fil was born in Ohio, but moved to Colorado from Kansas and was a freighter in the San Luis Valley before crossing the mountains to Pagosa Springs in 1878, a young man of 20 years. Remember, that was the same year the Army came to town and began construction of Fort Lewis.

During those early years in Pagosa Springs, Fil taught kids in the Army school in a log cabin schoolhouse, likely located near the Great Pagosa Hot Spring. His life was typical of Pagosa’s early settlers. He did what ever was available to do in order to survive. Among those jobs was carrying the mail from Summitville to Pagosa Springs, sometimes on foot and sometimes on horseback.

At another time, he drove the stage between Pagosa Springs and Amargo. During that time, he married Miss Annie Kern, Billy Kern’s sister. After a short honeymoon, the couple lived at the Halfway House, the stage stop in Halfway Canyon.

In 1885, Fil was appointed by the Colorado governor as the first superintendent of schools when Archuleta County was formed — a position he held for several years. At that time, superintendent of schools was an elected county position and the schools were funded through the county. Before Archuleta County split away from Conejos County by incorporation in 1885, the land that was to become the county was a school district in Conejos County.

Consequently, Fil had the considerable responsibility of overseeing the transfer of that school district and its assets in to Archuleta County as School District No. 1. During that time, (1885) Archuleta County built its first county schoolhouse. It was located next to the old Catholic Church on Lewis Street near that street’s intersection with Third Street. Through its early years, Archuleta County had a considerable number of school districts, the guideline being how far students had to walk in order to reach the school house.

Fil was also active selling insurance during those early years and later formed what was probably Archuleta County’s first title company.

At the time of his death in a Durango hospital Dec. 10, 1932, Fil had served 35 years in the Archuleta County Courthouse, many of those years as county judge.

Oldtimers I met when I came to Pagosa almost 40 years ago had many stories to tell about Fil Byrne. My favorite story centered around a time when Fil was both a deputy sheriff and school superintendent. In those years the county jail was located along San Juan Street on the east side of the river.

It seems a prisoner had escaped from the county jail and headed out of town in a northeasterly direction toward Elwood Pass. Deputy Byrne was soon hot on his tail in a classic western horse chase. He drew close enough to the fleeing fugitive near Laughlin Bridge to dismount from his horse, draw his rifle, and shoot a leg from under the galloping horse, making effective his capture of the escapee.

With that kind of shooting ability, I suspect Fil must have been an effective truant officer. Incidentally, I found a news item in an early Pagosa newspaper verifying the truth of the story.