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From wagons to railroads

The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad’s arrival in the San Juan Basin and Four Corners area was a monumental and life-changing event. To establish a time line for the event, the reader should know that the D.&R.G. entered the San Juan Basin by crossing Cumbres Pass east of Chama in 1880 and reached what is now Durango in 1881. In fact, the train’s arrival was the reason the train company’s owner and manager, Gen. Palmer, created the town of Durango just south of Animas City. Animas City had already been in existence for a number of years by the time 1881 rolled around.

For purposes of historic discussion, we’ll arbitrarily divide our discussion topic into three eras: (1) getting supplies to the San Juan prior to the coming of the railroad; (2) getting supplies to the San Juan after the railroad crossed Cumbres but before it reached Durango; and (3), after the railroad reached Durango.

First, a look at the obvious, before 1881, all freight into the San Juans was carried in wagons drawn by horses, mules, or oxen. Roads entered the San Juans from all four sides. During the earliest years of settlement circa 1860/1870, most of the freight came in from the south via roads starting in Hispanic frontier villages currently included in today’s Espanola.

That road followed the Chama River upstream to Abiquiu and then branched. One branch continued up the Chama to El Vado, then crossed the mesa country that is today’s Jicarilla Apache Reservation to the San Juan River, and from there to the Animas River, then north into the mountains. The other branch of that road entered Largo Canyon, followed that canyon until hitting the San Juan River near today’s community of Blanco in New Mexico, and from there again found the Animas River and proceeded upstream.

Beginning in the early 1870s, the D.&R.G. entered the San Luis Valley and reached the Fort Garland area. Another branch of the same railroad moved up the Arkansas River to the Canon City area on its way to Leadville.

As the railroad moved nearer the San Juan, supplies were shipped to the end of the railroad and then packed by wagon to the proper destination in the San Juans.

Therefore, pack roads were developed from Fort Garland City westward to Del Norte and across Stony Pass to the Silverton area, from Garland City westward to Conejos and across Cumbres Pass and thence to the San Juan Country, from Garland City to Saguache and across Cochetopa Pass to Lake City and the northern San Juans, and from Canyon City across Poncha Pass and into the northern San Juans.

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