The history of Cumbres Pass

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Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Alfred Black is the man standing on the left side of engine No. 6. Black was involved in several stories from Pagosa’s past. I don’t know the other men. Old No. 6 is moving mill worker shacks to a new mill location. In those times, when the timber near the mill was cut, the mill was moved to a new stand of ponderosa.

In last week’s column, we were on a journey to explore the Banded Peaks area comprising the southeastern corner of Archuleta County.
We climbed into our vehicles and after motoring through Chama, N.M., and pointing out the Cumbres and Toltec Railway depot in Chama, we referenced a couple of worthwhile fishing/camping locations along Colo. 17 as we approached Cumbres Pass. Keep in mind we must pass through Chama and a portion of Rio Arriba County in New Mexico to reach Cumbres Pass.
We open this week’s narrative with the history of Cumbres Pass. Cumbres Pass isn’t as famous as Wolf Creek Pass; to my knowledge it has never been featured in a song. Cumbres Pass is older than Wolf Creek Pass and Cumbres Pass is the highest pass in the Colorado Rockies with a national highway and a railroad passing through it. Wolf Creek Pass is not in Archuleta County, it is in Mineral County. Cumbres Pass is in Archuleta and Conejos counties, both in Colorado.
Cumbres Pass has been in use since 1871, possibly earlier by trappers and military parties. Wolf Creek Pass was opened for public use in 1916. Before that, Wolf Creek Pass was not used since it is not a natural pass.
Wolf Creek Pass is 10,857 feet above sea level and has an average grade of 6.8 percent, almost dangerously steep for cars and trucks. Cumbres Pass is 10,022 feet above sea level with an average grade of 5.8 percent on the north side and about 4 percent on the south side, not so dangerous. In an average year, Wolf Creek Pass gets more snow than Cumbres Pass.
At this point while comparing Cumbres Pass with Wolf Creek Pass, I feel compelled to broaden the scope of the story. For our purposes, let’s look at what was happening in Pagosa Country and the San Juan Basin circa 1870.
First, gold and silver mining success in the Silverton area on the upper Animas River above Durango and Summitville on the west side of Elwood Pass was attracting a huge influx of would-be mining millionaires and the businesses needed to support the burgeoning mining industry.
Secondly, the Southern Utes were seriously impacted by the influx of non-Utes onto land promised to them in a succession of broken treaties. Fearful of a bloody war between the Utes and their invaders, the U.S. government was negotiating with the Utes, searching for peaceful settlement of the nose-to-nose and gun-to-gun confrontation. In case the peace was violated, the Army was flexing its muscles by marching increasing numbers of troops throughout the area and by building a fort at Pagosa Springs, ergo Fort Lewis.
Thirdly, Gen. Palmer was busily building railroads across Colorado connecting Denver and the eastern commercial centers with the rest of Colorado and New Mexico. He planned to include the San Juan Basin in his railroad empire and had already laid track into the San Luis Valley on the east side of the San Juan Mountains.
A dilemma was shared by each of these three problems: a good pass across the San Juan Mountains did not exist. Solution: find or make one. Ergo, Cumbres Pass.