The route finally chosen by the Army to connect Fort Garland, located on the eastern side of the San Luis Valley with its sub post, Fort Lewis, in Pagosa Springs, was the Alamosa River route.
As we have already pointed out in recent articles, the Army surveyed just about every possible route across the San Juans. They even surveyed Cumbres Pass, the route chosen by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad when they crossed the mountains circa 1880-1881.
The route finally chosen by the Army followed the Alamosa River up the east side of the mountains. Remember, in 1877 the Denver and Rio Grande had already connected Denver with Pueblo and Pueblo with Fort Garland. Alamosa, Antonito, Chama, and Durango did not exist at that time. Those communities were created by the railroad as it moved westward, finally arriving in the newly created Durango in 1881.
That is not to say there was no settlement near the railroad-founded communities. At that time, settlements existed along the Rio Grande River as far up as Del Norte (called Las Lomas) at the time. In the Antonito area were Conejos with the oldest church in Colorado and several other communities. Near Chama along the Chama River were several communities collectively called Tierra Amarillas (including Las Nutritas, today’s Tierra Amarilla. And pre-existing Durango on its north end was Animas City. The railroad created new towns in order to avoid paying more for land in existing settlements.
In any case, construction of Fort Lewis in Pagosa Springs began in the late fall of 1878. The first troops rode from Fort Garland up the Conejos River and down the west side of the South San Juans into the drainage of the Blanco River. The Blanco River Valley may have contained Indian trails, but we have never heard of the route being used for anything else.
Wolf Creek Pass was not mentioned during those early days because no such pass existed. Before settlement of the Four Corners and Pagosa area, there was travel across the mountains into the valley of the East Fork of the San Juan River, and apparently some travel up the Rio Grande South Fork and then a mountain crossing that stayed high until dropping down at Windy Pass just south of Treasure Falls. There were undoubtedly other horse and foot trails across the mountains.
Nevertheless, the Army obtained funds to build a road from Fort Garland to strike out westwardly from Fort Garland, ascend the eastern slopes of the San Juans via a branch of the Alamosa River, cross the top of the range and drop into the valley of the East Fork of the San Juan River by was of Elwood Pass, and then follow the San Juan River down to Pagosa Springs and Fort Lewis.
Unfortunately for the Army, they had no historic data concerning the San Juan Mountain weather. They soon learned that they could not supply Fort Lewis in Pagosa Springs by following a wagon road across the mountains. There was, to put it simply, too much snow.