We’ve been writing for some time about Army surveillance and exploration in the San Juan Mountain area.
The Army busyness was triggered by the discovery of gold in the San Juan Mountains on the Ute reservation. Following the end of the War Between the States, the discovery resulted in hordes of minors searching for fortunes in gold and silver as they trespassed on the reservation.
The invasion, as you might guess, did not make the Utes happy. Tension between the races climbed to a boiling point. The Army’s response was to survey the largely unknown area paying particular attention to the best access routes, maybe so they could move troops and supplies around quickly.
We have just printed Army Engineer Lt. McCauley’s description of his first trip over Cumbres Pass in 1877. McCauley worked for The Army’s chief engineer in the Southwest, Lt. Ruffner. At that time Ruffner was stationed at Fort Garland in the San Luis Valley, but the Army was already well on their way to constructing a log fort at Pagosa Springs. With that in mind, Ruffner had some other ideas about crossing the Southern San Juans.
At that time the railroad terminus for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad was near Fort Garland. It was most desirable that any supply routes to the San Juan get as close as possible by railroad, the fastest connection with Army troops and supplies coming from the East, particularly from Fort Leavenworth, headquarters for western United States Army activities at that time.
Ruffner was considering two additional routes. One, called the Alamosa Line, was the shortest, most direct route. It crossed the Rio Grande River above the mouth of the Alamosa River, followed the Alamosa River to the top of the Continental Divide near Summitville, then dropped down the western slope of the mountains following the drainage of the East Fork of the San Juan River to Pagosa Springs, taking advantage of Elwood Pass.
Although it was the shortest route by five miles, Ruffner recommended against this route, noting the great expense of building through the rugged mountain terrain did not justify the savings in distance. A toll road under the name of the Conejos, Rio Grande, and Pagosa Springs Toll-Road Company was planned for this route. Ruffner didn’t think much of this toll road company and guessed they were trying to tie up the route so they could sell it to the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad when they extended their line westward. He is probably referring to a toll road company of that name chartered by Welch Nossaman with a capital stock of $20,000.
The final route across the San Juans considered by Ruffner was a toll road between Del Norte and Summitville owned by Mr. John H. Shaw of Del Norte. This road he called “a good one.” According to Ruffner, it “follows up Los Pinos Creek, a natural road, for nearly twelve miles; thence up the mountain slopes to the southwest, reaching the summit over a few miles of the old line.”
This proposed route joined the proposed Alamosa Line route a few miles southwest of Summitville, then followed the same route across Elwood Pass and down the East Fork of the San Juan River to Pagosa Springs.
Private investors with one eye on the coming economic development of the Four Corners area and the other eye on the approaching Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, were also studying ways and means of getting across the mountains. A rash of toll road companies was chartered.