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‘Difficult’ was a classic understatement

A small garrison manned Fort Lewis in Pagosa Springs during its first few years of its existence.

These two units were from the Thirteenth Infantry Regiment and Company D of the Ninth Cavalry Regiment. Company D was part of the two black cavalry regiments formed after the Civil War.

At first, the army high command planned to build a permanent post at Pagosa Springs for eight companies of troops. Lieutenant McCauley had that in mind when he drew a map showing the location of buildings at Fort Lewis in December of 1878.

McCauley’s map is largely speculative. Many of the buildings shown on the map were never built. By the time funds were appropriated and plans to build the Pagosa Springs fort were approved, the tide of affairs in the San Juans had shifted west to the Animas River. Fort Lewis soon followed.

An Army inspector, Maj. J.J. Coppinger, inspected Fort Lewis in Pagosa Springs Aug. 13, 1879. Soon after, Coppinger’s report was released by Army Inspector General R.B. Marcy. This report is probably the most accurate description of the buildings actually constructed. We quote:

“Fort Lewis is at present a small half built cantonment consisting of 4 pretty fine log huts for officers quarters 2 rooms and a kitchen each, 10 fine log huts 22 x 14 feet affording crowded quarters for two companies 84 men, 4 log huts for storehouses, 1 for a guardhouse, 1 for a carpenter shop, 2 small huts for laundresses.

“There is a small jacal for 36 mules and a small corral.

“The post is located on the western half of the town site of Pagosa on a pretty level bench close to the western bank of the San Juan River, within two hundred yards of Pagosa Springs, surrounded by mountains and fine woods. Altitude 7,100 feet, 130 miles from Fort Garland W via Conejos and 77 miles from Alamosa via the Ruffner road to be open in September. A decidedly healthy and attractive situation.

“Recommended. I recommend that the commanding officer be furnished with definite instructions as to what course he is to pursue regarding his post. 4 companies are ordered to take post here, yet he has not sufficient accommodation prepared for two companies. Nor has he sufficient storehouses, and no stables. At an altitude of over 7,000 feet in the heart of the Sierra Madre mountains, (I wonder where he got that name? I’ve never seen it applied to mountains this side of the Mexican border except in this instance—Motter) good shelter is needed in the winter for man and horse. If these 2 additional companies are to come here this fall, no time should be lost in preparing the necessary protection from the severity of the winter.

“I further recommend that the winter supply of stores be delivered early in the fall before the snow renders the mountain roads difficult.”

“Difficult” when referring at that time to San Juan Mountain roads during winter was a classic understatement of massive proportions, as we will soon learn.