Entering Pagosa Country: the early routes

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Photo courtesy John M. Motter Until just a few years after World War II, a bridge crossed the San Juan River just north of the Hot Springs. It was a continuation of San Juan Street from the east to the west side of the river, where it had been since the old fort was in town. The 100-year flood of October 1911 almost eliminated the bridge, as is evident from this photo. The 1911 flood washed out every bridge in Archuleta County except the Chromo Bridge across the Navajo River.
Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Until just a few years after World War II, a bridge crossed the San Juan River just north of the Hot Springs. It was a continuation of San Juan Street from the east to the west side of the river, where it had been since the old fort was in town. The 100-year flood of October 1911 almost eliminated the bridge, as is evident from this photo. The 1911 flood washed out every bridge in Archuleta County except the Chromo Bridge across the Navajo River.

Pagosa Country’s first pioneers settled along the roads that already passed through what was to become Archuleta County. The major north-south road entered from New Mexico Territory.

The points of entry for this route were four: 1) the Navajo River about, a mile upriver from today’s Chromo; 2) the Spring Creek route entering Chromo today as U.S. 84; 3) the still-existing route which crosses the Navajo River today at Edith; and 4) the Carracas Cañon route, which entered Archuleta County at the old community of Carracas located on the San Juan River a few miles upstream from Navajo Lake.

I have never been able to figure out for certain which of these routes came first. I’m pretty certain all of these routes were Indian trails long before Europeans entered the country. My guess is that the Carracas route, in historic terms, is the oldest. It is known by historians as the Old Spanish Trail. At its peak, circa 1830-1850, it reached from Abiquiu to southern California and carried a considerable amount of trade in each direction. Several books have been written about this historic, and romantic, route.

Briefly, here is a look at each of the routes, starting with the Carracas route. The oldest maps of New Mexico all show Horse Lake, and the Pagosa Hot Springs. Juan Maria Rivera, the first recorded explorer of Pagosa country, entered by this route in 1765. The Domingo/Escalante exploration in 1776 passed Horse Lake and picked up Carracas Canyon northwest of Dulce. The Fathers were following the route blazed by Rivera and used by other New Mexicans who traded with the Indians.

This route only crossed the southwestern tip of what was to become Archuleta County. The first permanent settlement in Archuleta County was likely at Carracas. It is also known that Hispanics who settled in the Tierra Amarilla area by 1860 freighted along this route delivering supplies to the miners on the Animas River upstream from Durango after the first gold strike in 1860.

This route followed the San Juan River downstream to maybe the Tiffany community in La Plata County, then to the Animas river south of Durango, on to Dolores, Grand Junction, Utah, and the City of the Angels in California. It had a number of changes over the years, but we’re not digging that deep into its history at this time.

Route three was probably next in use. It likely branched from the Old Spanish Trail near Horse Lake on the Jicarilla Reservation, made its way north to Edith, then northward by various alternatives to the southern entrance of Halfway Cañon.

Route two was used by a U.S. Army exploration party identified with its leader, Macomb, in 1859. Macomb used the Spring Creek route and continued northward to the southern end of Halfway Cañon where we left Route two. Finally, Route one entered at the Navajo Bridge we mentioned earlier and followed the river down to Chromo. At Chromo, this route traveled about the same as Route two to the southern end of Halfway Cañon.

You may have noticed that Routes one, two and three all come together at the southern end of Halfway Cañon. From there, with minor changes, the road is all one as it meanders to Pagosa Springs. More on roads next week.