Bookmark and Share

Following the Chama-Navajo Cutoff

Last week we reported Army Engineer Lt. McCauley’s description of the opening of Cumbres Pass in 1877. On the west side of the Southern San Juan Mountains, known then as the Conejos Range, the road followed the Chama River downstream to Park View (Los Ojos), then crossed the river, climbed a gentle valley to Horse Lake, then swung north to Pagosa Springs by way of a crossing of the Navajo River we now know as Edith, and northward to Pagosa Springs.

Another route suggested by McCauley was known as the “Chama-Navajo Cutoff.” This cutoff followed the West Fork of the Chama to a fairly low divide which it crossed providing access to the Navajo River at about where Price Bridge is today. This cutoff was the accepted route from Chama to Pagosa Springs until the 1930s when the present route which enters Colorado by way of Spring Creek, reaching the Navajo at Chromo, known in earlier days as Price because it was named for a settler named Barzillai Price. Here is McCauley’s description of the cutoff, a proposal in 1877.

“Leaving the Chama route on the upper part of that river near the mouth of the main tributary that comes from the east, crossing the main stream and sweeping in a curve to the south and west to avoid high basaltic mesas and vertical walls of rock that shut out the river from passage and approach as securely in some places as a box canyon, we reach the valley of the West Fork (of the Chama River). On easy grades it can be ascended to the divide (Continental Divide); which is lower than the one on the Chama line; this passed brings us to the Navajo, down which it follows for about 5 miles in a westerly direction.

“This section is an especially fine grazing region, and abundantly supplied with timber. Herds of Mexican sheep are driven into the valley of the West Fork, and the Ute Indians, for fully two months last summer, had established their camp upon the Navajo in this vicinity. This river is the preference of all eastern streams in the lower country, and its valley will make an excellent farming or cattle region. Leaving the Navajo, at a few miles northwestwardly, tributaries of the river are crossed, whence after passage of the main divide between water-sheds of that and the Blanco, we reach in a short distance the present ‘upper road’ to Pagosa…This would bring Pagosa to within 123.4 miles of Fort Garland, and 129.9 from the railroad.”

At that time, 1877, the railroad had not crossed the San Luis Valley or the Southern San Juan Mountains, but terminated near Fort Garland.

We read a mention in early Pagosa history sources, I’ve misplaced the source, of a toll keeper on the Colorado end of the cutoff. His name (Nuttall I think) also shows up in the 1880 Conejos County census. I have seen a charter for an Archuleta (family name) toll road connected with the Cumbres to Pagosa route, but I don’t know exactly which portions of that route were owned by the Archuletas.

We’ll have more information next week on routes across the Southern San Juan Mountains connecting Pagosa Springs with the San Luis Valley.