Before and during the first years of settlement in Pagosa Country, the most used entry route from the east was the Elwood Pass Road. This route crossed the Continental Divide via Elwood Pass and followed the East Fork of the San Juan River to its junction with the West Fork of the San Juan River, then followed the united river downstream to Pagosa Springs.
It probably will help understand the origin of this route if I give a short summary of the history of what was happening at the route’s origins in the San Luis Valley on the eastern side of the San Juans.
Considerable settlement had already taken place in the San Luis Valley by the time Pagosa Country settlement started in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Communities existed at today’s San Luis, around Fort Garland, along the branches of the Conejos River, along the upper reaches of the Rio Grande as far as Del Norte, at Saguache, and other points in the northern extremes of the San Luis Valley.
Some of the settlement could be attributed to Hispanics and agricultural pursuits, and some to the discovery of gold in the San Juan Mountains. Early communities in the mountains such as those along the Upper Animas River in the Silverton area, Lake City, Ouray, Telluride and Summitville sprouted up around major gold and silver strikes.
An important route to the Upper Animas gold communities crossed the San Luis Valley from Mosca Pass to Del Norte, then followed the Rio Grande to its sources and crossed the mountains into Silverton by way of Stony Pass.
Closer to home, gold was discovered at what became Summitville circa 1870. Access to Summitville from Del Norte and other points connected with an old trail that moved west by way of Elwood Pass. Just a few years later, Gen. Palmer’s Rio Grande Railroad started across the San Luis Valley westward with the ultimate destination being the San Juan Mountain gold sources.
All of this activity stirred up resentment among the Southern Utes Indians, which caused the Army to conduct several surveys to identify the best routes across the San Juans. One of these routes was the old trail across Elwood Pass. When it was known that Fort Lewis was to be built at Pagosa Springs, the Army decided to build a supply road from Fort Garland in the San Luis Valley to Fort Lewis in Pagosa Springs by way of Elwood Pass.
Following the Army’s lead, many of Pagosa’s first settlers entered Pagosa Country by this route. A number of early residents of Summitville also reached Pagosa by this route, as did early mail deliveries. More next week on entering Pagosa Country from the east by way of Elwood Pass.