An epic journey over Wolf Creek Pass


Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Last week we showed you a picture of the Chapson family who lived at the foot of this side of Wolf Creek Pass shortly after 1900. This week we’re showing you how the Chapson boys spent their time — hidin’ out.

The first folks to drive over Wolf Creek Pass in 1916 made what was at that time an epic journey. I am fortunate to have an eye-witness account of that adventure graciously given to me by Marguerite Wylie.
Prior to the building of Wolf Creek Pass, folks coming from Del Norte and the northern parts of the San Luis Valley to Pagosa Springs crossed the Continental Divide at Elwood Pass and followed the East Fork of the San Juan River downstream to its juncture with the San Juan West Fork, and from that juncture down the San Juan Valley to Pagosa Springs.
A little review of the history of the San Luis Valley and Pagosa Country up to the time we’re talking about might enlighten the picture we’re trying to paint. Before we fire up our enlightener, it’s good to keep in mind that almost all of the roads and highways we’re using today started out as Native American trails.
We’re starting in 1858 because that is when the U.S. took over the San Luis Valley and Pagosa Country at the end of the Mexican-American War. Hispanics had already scratched out a few settlements in the San Luis Valley, which at the time was part of New Mexico Territory. The most notable of those settlements were at Conejos on the west side of the valley and San Luis on the east side of the valley. I recommend that our history-lovin’ readers spend a day out visiting both of those places.
As happened frequently in the frontier history of this area, the Southern Utes were threatening both of those communities. In 1858, Kit Carson was Indian agent for the Utes, Apaches and Navajos who frequented our area of interest. Carson, despite his diminutive 5-foot-6-inch frame, lived to dictate his life story on the frontier by shooting first and asking questions later.
Fort Garland over on the east side of the San Luis Valley was built in 1858 to house federal troops brought in to control the Utes.
Now it’s time we to bring Pagosa Springs and Elwood Pass into our picture. Let’s jump to 1876. By 1876, gold had been discovered in the San Juans and prospectors were treckin’ through Pagosa Springs to reach the gold. The Utes were metamorphising from snarley-toothed to downright dangerous. And so the Army decided to build a fort in Pagosa Springs and call it Fort Lewis. The Army also built a wagon road to transport troops and supplies from Fort Garland to Fort Lewis. The shortest route across the rugged South San Juan Mountains was across Elwood Pass while skirting the gold mines at Summitville.
Colorado soon took over the Elwood route from the Army, maintained it and promoted it. Soon, travelers from back east on their way to California’s gold bonanza crossed the San Juan Mountains using Elwood Pass. That route served its purpose until an act of nature, known as the flood of 1911, convinced the state highway higher-ups to look for a new route across the Silvery San Juans. Come back next week to learn about the origin of Wolf Creek Pass.