By John J. Motter
A lady recently asked The SUN, “Where was the old Durango Road?” Since I have been writing about trails, it seems appropriate to write about a road. After all, a road is just a fancy trail.
I’m assuming we’re talking about the connection between Pagosa Springs and Durango. Here is the long version of the answer to her question. The location of trails can change with time. As is true for most of our roads and highways today, most of them started out as animal trails which were also followed by the Native Americans of those days.
The first white man to use that route was probably Juan Maria Rivera, who came up from Mexico looking for gold in 1765. Another expedition from Mexico was led by the fathers Dominguez and Escalante in 1776 who were looking for a road to San Francisco. There was no Durango or Pagosa Springs at that time. Pagosa Springs as a town dates from circa 1876-1891 and Durango 1881. It seems reasonable to assume the expression “Old Durango Road” did not exist before Durango existed. Consequently, I’m starting with 1881.
In 1881, people leaving Pagosa Springs would have been going west on what became 8th Street when the town was platted in 1883. The road passed the old town cemetery and continued west into a narrow cañon where an Old West stage holdup was pulled off by the Allison gang in 1881. Westward from this cañon, the road passed through a mature Ponderosa pine forest and crossed Smith Cañon about 8 miles west of town. From here the road went westward pretty much as it is today. North of Chimney Rock and after crossing Devil Creek, the road dropped down to the east bank of the Piedra River and turned north until reaching a bridge at the Old Peterson place.
The Peterson place was a stage stop with a fascinating history. Gen. Grant once spent the night there while touring the West. From the Peterson place, the road followed Yellow Jacket Creek to the bottom of Yellow Jacket Hill where it branched, one branch going northward before swinging west and the other branch more directly west across Yellow Jacket Pass. The two branches reunited near Beaver Creek and continued westward to today’s Bayfield, a stage stop in those days.
Here the road branched again, one route turning north along the Pine River and winding its way into Animas City, later the north part of Durango. The other branch continued westward pretty much on the same route as today. Upon reaching today’s Durango, (nonexistent until 1881) the road branched again, one branch going north to Animas City, and the other branch westward to Fort Lewis at Hesperus. I failed to mention that Fort Lewis started at Pagosa Springs before being moved to Hesperus.
Fort Lewis was the launching pad for today’s Fort Lewis College in Durango.