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Pagosa Springs cemeteries: who’s responsible for our heritage?

Many Pagosa residents are familiar with Hilltop Cemetery located on Cemetery Road. But few are aware of the existence, let alone the whereabouts, of Pagosa Springs’ original cemetery.

The Old Fort Lewis Cemetery on South 10th Street in downtown Pagosa Springs is the resting place of many of Archuleta County’s earliest settlers and is believed to be one of the oldest historical sites in Pagosa Springs.

With minimal preservation efforts by the Town of Pagosa Springs, the Old Fort Lewis Cemetery has fallen into a state of disrepair. Though irregular attempts by local groups have been made to maintain the site, it has all but been forgotten.

It was not until the 1970s when Ann and Leroy Oldham, co-authors of a book documenting Archuleta County’s cemeteries, discovered the deed granting ownership of the cemetery to the Town of Pagosa Springs, that town officials acknowledged its ownership. The deed is dated March 20, 1908, and states the site is deeded to the Town of Pagosa Springs, “to be used as a cemetery or for the burial of the dead and no other purpose whatsoever.”

The Old Fort Lewis Cemetery was the official cemetery of Fort Lewis while the fort was located in Pagosa Springs between 1878 and 1881.The earliest known burial in the Old Fort Lewis Cemetery occurred in 1878. When the fort was moved to Durango, the bodies of two soldiers originally buried in the Old Fort Lewis Cemetery were transported to Fort Leavenworth, Kans. After Hilltop Cemetery was established sometime between 1883 and 1887, the bodies of Civil War soldiers buried in the Old Fort Lewis Cemetery were transported to Hilltop Cemetery. For a time, both cemeteries were in use as active burial sites. The last known burial at the Old Fort Lewis Cemetery occurred in 1902.

Because the Town of Pagosa Springs does not provide perpetual care for its cemeteries, individual gravesite owners or their descendants are responsible for the upkeep of plots.

As a result, the Old Fort Lewis Cemetery, a cemetery whose occupants have no known living relatives and therefore, caretakers, has become overgrown, broken down and strewn with garbage. A number of flat grave markers have been covered by brush, while at least one upright headstone has broken into pieces.

But, if the Town of Pagosa Springs forfeits its ownership of plots when it sells such plots to individuals, is the town also released from its responsibility to preserve its oldest historical site and the resting places of the deceased?

Ann Oldham, author and member of the San Juan Historical Society and longtime participant in museum activities, believes the answer is no. She states, “That’s part of our history and it needs to be preserved.”

Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem and Chris Gallegos, superintendent of the town Streets and Maintenance Department, point out that this is not a question of preservation, but one of respect. It is and has historically been town government’s stance that when the deed of a plot is transferred to an individual, that plot is no longer town property and any disturbance by town staff of a plot is thereby trespassing.

Mitchem and Gallegos acknowledge that this policy is not necessarily the norm. Gallegos describes it saying, “This cemetery is different.” He explained that when an individual purchases a plot at Hilltop Cemetery, it is a permanent sale; that individual is deeded the piece of property and it is theirs to do with as they will.

Pagosa’s residents have become accustomed to this policy; Gallegos states that, in the past, when he has tidied Hilltop Cemetery, before and after Memorial Day per town policy, he has been told to stop trespassing.

Gallegos’ department is responsible for maintaining both cemeteries as needed, but primarily Hilltop. He uses much of the $1,000 budget allocated by the Town Council to repair and maintain the roads surrounding Hilltop Cemetery. Other maintenance is left to the relatives of the deceased.

Even in the case of the Old Fort Lewis Cemetery, where there are no known living relatives of the deceased laid there, town officials think that the best way to respect the dead is to protect rather than preserve, hence, the chain-link fence which surrounds the cemetery.

Though the fence is currently damaged, notably in the back right corner portion, town officials have plans to repair it. Gallegos says that as soon as he gets the equipment together, and the time, he will repair the fence, which he believes was damaged by snow. Gallegos plans to repair the fence mostly with materials already at the site, as well as to repair the locks on the gate.

The chain-link fence, which was put in place some time before 1984, originally surrounded all known and visible plots. But, sometime between 1984 and now, as indicated by a photo taken by John Motter in 1984, the portion of the fence bordering 10th Street was moved back several feet so as to no longer completely encompass all plots, notably the plot of Thomas Grandfather Chambers, which is also surrounded by a waist-high, wrought iron fence.

Despite the town policy emphasizing the prevention of trespassing on the plots, there are no plans to return the fence to its original position, thus protecting all plots. Mitchem says any movement on that issue will occur only under the Town Council’s direction.

Many of the cemetery’s original graves were marked with wooden crosses and headstones, markers which have since disappeared. With their disappearance, it is no longer possible to know the exact location or number of gravesites within the Old Fort Lewis Cemetery.

That is, without the use of ground penetrating radar technology. Such technology would enable town staff to survey the area and establish exactly where each of the sites is located to ensure that the surrounding fence encloses all gravesites. This information would also help staff to ensure that they are not violating the deed designating the space be used only for burial and, “no other purpose whatsoever.”

Because town staff did not utilize this technology prior to the paving of 10th Street, one can speculate that it is possible that unmarked graves were disturbed. But, as Mitchem reminds, “We can speculate about anything. There are no facts to prove that.”

In the past, the preservation of the Old Fort Lewis Cemetery has been left to volunteer civic groups. The Rotary Club approached town officials and volunteered to clean up the site, though the club has not done so in recent years. Since then, the Boy Scouts have also intermittently done some work on the site. All such cleanup efforts have been volunteer and at the convenience of volunteers. But without any current volunteers, the site remains unmaintained.

If any volunteers were to step forward, Gallegos says, their help would be welcome. “I believe the cemetery should be maintained a little better.” Anyone interested can contact him directly at 759-8005.

The Old Fort Lewis Cemetery may be one of the town’s oldest historical sites, but as Mitchem points out, it is first and foremost a cemetery. Though it may hold untold pieces of Pagosa Springs’ past, until directed otherwise, the primary concern for officials regarding the cemetery will be to protect, not preserve.

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