Rabbitbrush Rambler: Early infrastructure


Bridge and road projects in the 1800s depended on private investors to fund them, whereas in the 1900s we depended on federal and state governments, counties or towns to build and maintain them, but we don’t heard the president or Congress talking much about providing the billions of dollars that are needed now, despite their campaign promises. Instead, we hear about Jeff Bezos using his spare cash to clutter space by putting his old Tesla into orbit.

General/President Washington, who crossed the Delaware in a boat, understood the need for bridges. General/President Eisenhower understood the importance of roads for vehicular transportation when he initiated our interstate highway system. But now bridges are crumbling, even falling down.

In the frontier’s West, the military built or improved trails to connect its installations. When Fort Massachusetts was being constructed in 1852, it was connected to Fort Union in New Mexico, east of Santa Fe, with a road that improved on the original Indian and game trails over the Sangre de Cristos and through the San Luis Valley.

The first known name for a wagon road in the Valley was a military road simply called “the government road” or sometimes the “Salt Lake and Fort Garland road” that crossed Cochetopa Pass and then ran west. Another military road, called a military express was mapped in 1861 between Denver and Taos in New Mexico Territory, and when Fort Garland needed a road across the San Juans to Camp Lewis at Pagosa Springs, solders were put to work creating it over Elwood Pass.

But private enterprises and land companies also had been involved in the road-building business elsewhere in the colonies much earlier. For instance, promoters hired Daniel Boone to create the Wilderness Road through Cumberland Gap, and the new Territory of Colorado expected private undertakings of to provide most of its primitive infrastructure.

These were business opportunities, with private individuals or companies hiring workers to get the rocks and stumps out of the way to create what euphemistically was called a road, or to throw a tow rope and some planks across a stream, in exchange for the right to charge tolls for its use. Otto Mears, the “Pathfinder of the San Juan” whose charter for the Poncha Pass road was dated in 1867, may have been the best known in our neck of the woods, but his efforts were not the first in this region.

The first charter from the territorial legislature for a toll road in this Valley was granted in 1861, while the territory was just getting organized. This route was intended to link Cañon City to Poncha Pass and south to the Rio Grande in the San Luis Valley. There it connected with “the government road.”

The next charter for a toll road into the San Luis Valley was granted by the territorial legislature in 1865. This was the Denver and San Luis Valley Wagon Road Company that ran from Denver through South Park to Poncha Pass and the Valley and thence to Gunnison. (We tend to forget that for many years until the 1930s, there was no road over Monarch Pass, so wagons, and subsequently motor vehicles, went to Saguache to make the looping connection to Gunnison. Saguache owed a lot of its early commercial success to that traffic.)

The amounts charged depended on the length and the difficulty of its construction and maintenance. Typical toll on roads were a dollar for a wagon or carriage with a span of animals; a horse of mule with a rider was 25 cents: a pair of draft animals was 25 cents also; horses, mules, cattle or burros were 10 cents each, while sheep, hogs were a nickel; but people going to funerals were free. Regardless, travelers often found cutoffs around tollgates to avoid paying any toll.

Charges for ferries in the Valley are not known to me. A small number were chartered in the Valley, though. One such was a charter in 1862 at what soon was called Stewart’s Crossing. The original grantees were Cisco and Head. Cisco was John Francisco, a well-known trader at La Veta town and sutler at Fort Garland, while Lafayette Head was a go-getter on the Conejos Land Grant. The ferry’s location at or near the mouth of Trinchera Creek made good sense for travelers on that southwest/northeast diagonal route across the Valley. Another ferry was located farther south near the mouth of Culebra Creek.

Presenting the biggest obstacle for travel was the Rio Grande itself. Where, during some seasons, muddy flood plains impeded travel. One account tells of hundreds of head of livestock being held up for three weeks east of Del Norte during a drive from Saguache to the Conejos area.

A primitive bridge was created at Del Norte, but the first major undertaking in bridge-building was the railroad’s at Alamosa. A few years later, state bridges came into existence there and at Lobatos east of Conejos.

Toll gates still could present obstacles or cause improvised detours to avoid tolls, though. As late as the rush to Creede in the 1890s, prospectors and merchants had to pay a toll through Martin Van Buren Wason’s ranch, because it offered the only access to or egress from the booming mining camp.

We are lucky to have Colorado’s well-maintained, public roads, but aging bridges with heavy traffic are concerns that need attention. Remember Oak Bay and Minneapolis.

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