Cruising into the future

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
This undated photo of businesses along Pagosa Street in Pagosa Springs before snow plows were in use shows how the merchants endured the snow.

By the 1910s, trucks and cars were showing up on the local scene in increasing numbers. For example, Galbreath Tie and Lumber Co. purchased a 55-horsepower diamond-T truck in August of 1918. Autos and trucks brought about a change in Pagosa Country that ushered in the modern era.

Roads were laid out and constructed to accommodate the new, gasoline-powered, rubber-tired vehicles. Landowners selected property served by the new roads. Businesses chose locations that provided convenient parking. New businesses surfaced providing gas, oil, tires and air, and mechanical adjustments and repairs for the new vehicles. And much of the nation’s, including Pagosa Country’s, merchandise was being shipped by trucks instead of the railroad. The handwriting was on the wall. Railroad service to small, isolated communities such as Pagosa Springs would largely disappear by the mid-1930s.

Pagosa lacked a major requirement to facilitate keeping in pace with progress. She needed a good, all-weather road to the north and east enabling the year-round provision of supplies. Only the railroad could be depended upon to breach the snow-encrusted Southern San Juan Mountains during winter months. And even the railroad was sometimes closed for weeks at a time because of unpassable snow accumulations.

The San Juan Basin, from the inception of settlement, had been isolated from the rest of Colorado and the capital city of Denver by the San Juan Mountains, with their winter snowfalls sometimes reaching 800 inches a year. The push for an auto/truck pass connecting the San Juan Basin with the San Luis Valley was supported by all of the communities in the basin. Obviously, all would benefit.

Only one road served Pagosa Country from the northeast. This was the old military, miner and pioneer route across Elwood Pass. It was a bad road, poorly built and poorly maintained, even though it was a state highway. Some years it was scarcely passable. When passable, it was fit only for wagons. During winter months it was fit only for men on skis.

The flood of 1911 wiped out a good portion of the road between Elwood and the junction of the East and West forks of the San Juan River. To the south, Cumbres Pass was little improved from its condition when it had been a toll road. Clearly, a new road was needed.

The entire San Juan Basin joined in the clamor for a new road. The voices of merchants on the east side of the mountains who wanted year-round access to San Juan Basin markets also supported the construction of the all-weather road. All agreed it was a job for the state highway department. More next week on the building of Wolf Creek Pass.