Rabbitbrush Rambler: Fourth of July, 1878

When the first train officially crossed the Rio Grande River into Alamosa on the Fourth of July, the new town was ready. In fact, it already had seen a train of flat cars that transported some buildings from Garland City, including two little hotels and a saloon, so the celebrants could slake their thirst.

But July 4, 1878, was the date for a grand celebration, with the whistle tooting, dignitaries making speeches, the newcomers cheering, and probably some earlier inhabitants watching in mystified silence.

The route for the rails crossed just below the Big Bend, where the river changed its eastward course to the southward. Until the bridge was completed, all the construction workers, horses, mules, timbers had to be ferried back and forth across the stream until rails could be laid on the framework. The bridge was a major accomplishment, worthy of a major celebration.   

Actually, this was hardly virgin land. Indians earlier had camped in the cottonwood grove on the east side, and a few Hispanic settlers were living on both sides of the stream, and a small enclave on the west side or somewhere nearby was called Rio Bravo. In the 1860s a ferry had begun to operate with authorization from the territorial government, linking Conejos folks to those in the northern part of the Valley, and prior to the D&RG’s construction, wagons, teams, trekkers, and stage coaches had been using the east-west road across the Valley on the north side of the river.

A former territorial governor, Alexander Cameron Hunt, platted the new town called Alamosa and gave it is name, referring to the cottonwood grove. As head of the town company, Hunt was working on behalf of the land company that was a subsidiary of the Denver and Rio Grande Railway. (Hunt may remind some readers of Colorado Territory’s first governor, William Gilpin, who became a land promoter after he lost his political job and turned to buying and selling real estate on the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant.)

With a reputation as a go-getter, Hunt had been born in New York City, had gone west, had been a mayor in Illinois before moving on to California during its gold rush, then headed back to Colorado Territory for its own rush, and got appointed as its fourth governor (1867-1869) by President Andrew Johnson. By the 1870s, he had taken a job with General William Jackson Palmer’s Denver & Rio Grande Construction Company.

In 1877 he was in charge of the survey and plat for the Alamosa Town Company and was already selling lots. When the D&RG resumed construction in 1880, it was his job to acquire land along the right-of-way and new town sites, like bypassing the established plaza of Conejos and platting the new town of Antonito.

Since the business was a land and a town company, it also engaged in selling agricultural land to farmers and ranchers who soon arrived in the area in the 1880s and purchased land, joining homesteaders. The company’s office was upstairs in a brick structure at the northeast corner of Hunt Avenue and Sixth Street, with the First National Bank occupying the downstairs. Eventually, it became a bordello.    

The railroad’s shops were a few blocks to the east of the first small depot and freight building, which was replaced within a couple of years by a very attractive wooden depot that burned on Christmas Day in 1907 and in turn was replaced in the fine brick structure. Hunt’s family lived in a pretty, two- story residence that later served as the Alamosa Senior Center at Cole Park.

Alamosa was a railroad town. It had a fast-growing population of construction workers, yardmen, gandy dancers, trainmen, brakemen, engineers, conductors, and the bosses who operated the D&RG’s Division 4, and the families who came with them. Men heading to work in overalls and carrying lunch buckets were a familiar sight.

Sixth Street was the center of business activity in the earliest years. It quickly spread into State and Main, while undertakings like the flour mill and the water works went up on the south side of the tracks.  The town’s livelihood, its businesses, trade, shipping, stores, schools, churches, clubs — everything came into being because of the railroad. And any other towns or industries without a good railroad connection were, well, off the track.

And that is how the West really was won.     

To be continued….