Wolf Creek Pass: The $76,000 road opens

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Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Crossing Wolf Creek Pass in 1916 soon after it opened could be a harrowing adventure, as this photo of a car nearly going over the edge reveals. Do we need any more proof of the value of guard rails?

A Denver newspaper writer, describing the construction underway at Wolf Creek Pass on Oct. 22, 1915, penned the following words, “… The new road is forty-four miles long … The cost of construction will be more than $76,000 including $16,000 that will be spent on the last link now underway … The road is passable now, though not for the average motorist. Fred Catchpole, stockman, banker, and county commissioner of Archuleta County [Motter’s note: Wolf Creek Pass is in Mineral County where Creede is the county seat], who had been pushing construction work on the south (west) side of the divide, recently made the first trip in an automobile … This work will be completed by Fall, and the new road ready for use from Denver … in the early spring … it is felt the road will stimulate automobile travel to Colorado 25 percent … it will also stimulate travel from southwestern Colorado to Denver … There are many prosperous residents of that section of the country who have not bought automobiles on account of the difficulty of getting out to the east and north.

The official opening of Wolf Creek Pass took place Aug. 21, 1916. Ceremonies were planned for the summit of the 10,800-foot pass, but were moved to the head of the box canyon 12 miles to the east. About 1,000 people and 250 cars attended the ceremony. Free elk meat and coffee were served.

A Pagosa family who crossed Wolf Creek Pass that first summer leaves the following description of that adventure. Here, in the words of Myrtle Hersch, is how the journey was accomplished:

“In February of 1916, our Chalmers car was shipped from Pagosa Springs by Denver and Rio Grande Narrow Gauge Railroad to Santa Fe, New Mexico, as the town was snowed in at that time of the year. There our family, consisting of my husband David, our thirteen-year-old son Joseph, and small daughter Marguerite and I began a leisurely tour of 6,000 miles through warmer and lower altitude states. We planned our homecoming over the new pass, later in the summer, from the east side.

“At that time there were none of the luxury motels as of today, so we carried a complete camping equipment with us for comfortable living either inside or out in the wide open spaces. We did little real camping — like the hotels better. Tent setting we found difficult for soft hands, so took the easier way, and kept our overnight bags easily within reach.

“On our return we spent some time in Denver, where we bought a new seven passenger Cadillac V-8 car while the Chalmers was being painted and reconditioned. Joseph went into the Cadillac garage and worked and became quite an expert at placing cars, tire changing, greasing, and what-have-you. At that time there were not the rules and regulations for drivers that we have now.”