Land of Contrast: A History of Southeast Colorado
BLM Cultural Resources Series (Colorado: No. 17)
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Southeast Colorado, defined as that area from the Continental Divide east to the Kansas line, north to about Colorado Springs, and south to the New Mexican border, is a land of far-ranging contrasts. From the snowy Rockies to the wind swept eastern plains, history has seen this land change from nomadic natives wandering its peaks and valleys to heavy industrialization by modern society. While the first humans to use this region were Native Americans, who survived by exploiting natural resources, the first Europeans into the southeast corner were Spanish. Spain's attempts to expand her empire were not overly successful, and there were no settlements of consequence in this part of what was later to become Colorado. Perhaps the greatest Eighteenth century event was the Comanches' 1779 defeat near the Greenhorn Mountains.

The early 1800's saw a new invasion of Europeans, this time Americans in search of fur. The fur trade lasted until about 1840. Forts were established, and the plains boomed. The famous Santa Fe Trail was established to bring goods into Santa Fe, New Mexico. Bent's Fort served as the primary outpost of civilization on the eastern prairies. However, like everything else, the fur days were not destined to last. As beaver fur ran out, hunters turned to the plains and buffalo. The great herds were decimated, and by 1860 nothing was left to exploit. The land was abandoned except for a few New Mexican settlers, who clung to the earth in the San Luis Valley. The New Mexicans came to the Valley to take up land grants from Mexico's government. However, the Mexican War of 1846 caused this region to become part of the United States, and the older Mexican land grants were in litigation for a number of years. Nevertheless, settlers from 1850 forward built little villages, particularly San Luis, in 1852. They dug irrigation ditches and tilled the soil. On the other side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, settlements were established along the Huerfano and Purgatoire Rivers. These plazas barely sustained agriculture. On the Arkansas River, El Pueblo (or Milk Fort) provided passers by and local farmers with supplies and food. This place was wiped out in 1854 by Ute warriors.

The Pike's Peak gold rush of 1859 is where modern history begins for southeastern Colorado. In that year some 100,000 would-be miners rushed into the Rockies when gold was discovered along Cherry Creek, later the site of Denver. By 1860, South Park was flooded with miners; the Upper Arkansas saw preliminary exploration activity; and gold seekers crossed the San Luis Valley ready to invade the San Juans. As it happened, a primary beneficiary of the gold rush was the Valley, for its first settlers now sold scarce food to thousands of miners. Equally, the Arkansas River corridor was used to move the argonauts to the gold fields. Pueblo was founded at this time, as were numerous small way stations. The Smoky Hill Trail crossed this area, as did the ever-popular Santa Fe Trail. Raton Pass was put into use. By 1865, cattle were being trailed up the Goodnight-Loving Trail through Pueblo. The gold rush stimulated considerable settlement in this region, but by 1865 things were slowing down. It turned out that there was not as much gold in "them thar hills" as expected. South Park's camps died slowly. The Arkansas River corridor, no longer the route of thousands, fell back on agriculture as did the San Luis Valley. The Raton Basin languished, for the gold rush hardly touched the valleys of the Huerfano and the Purgatoire.

The era of the 1860's was one of quiet. The cattle industry got its start along the Arkansas River at this time, and agriculture expanded modestly in southeast Colorado. Thanks to the collapse of the great rush of 1859, there was not much significant settlement. This changed, however, in 1872 when the newly incorporated Denver and Rio Grande Railway chugged south from Denver to Colorado City. Here is where William Jackson Palmer founded Colorado Springs and where his railroad brought tourists. The Rio Grande moved on to Pueblo and then Trinidad, hoping to cross Raton Pass, but there were rivals. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad (Santa Fe) marched across the Colorado plains, along the Arkansas, preparing to meet the Rio Grande head on. At this time, Las Animas, La Junta, Granada, and other little settlements on the river became railroad towns. As the Santa Fe reached Trinidad, an event on the Upper Arkansas changed everything.

The discovery of huge amounts of silver at Leadville in 1878 touched off a boom that was astonishing. Overnight, Leadville's population reached into the tens of thousands. Siver kings like H.A.W. Tabor, David Moffat, Jerome Chaffee, and D.R.C. Brown made their fortunes here. The rival Santa Fe and Rio Grande turned, at Pueblo, ready to rush into Leadville. The Royal Gorge was not big enough for two railbeds and the "Royal Gorge War" broke out. After extensive litigation, the Rio Grande won this route and built into the rich Leadville market in 1882. The Santa Fe got trackage rights to Denver, which also boomed, because of Leadville. Pueblo, the lower Arkansas, Trinidad, and, thanks to William J. Palmer, the San Luis Valley all had, by 1882, rail transport. The importance of this cannot be underestimated, for now reliable, relatively cheap transportation was available to previously isolated regions. Farmers benefitted because they could export their crops back east, or to the booming mountains, or to a growing Denver market. Cattlemen, wheat growers, and various others all saw the day when the dry plains would bloom. The silver boom, the advent of rails, and a strong national economy all came together in a ten-year period and helped southeast Colorado solidify its position in agriculture and mining.

The 1880's saw development from new coal mining activity that took place in the Raton Basin. Trinidad, Walsenburg, Aguilar, and, to a lesser extent, Canon City, all supported numerous company coal towns. Rail lines extended like a spiderweb all over the foothills of southeastern Colorado. Even the isolated Wet Mountain Valley underwent a silver boom. In the late 1870's, Rosita and Querida became the sites of a silver rush. Silver Cliff, founded in 1882, became a town of 10,000 souls overnight. The Rio Grande built a line up Grape Creek into the Valley; however, 1893 saw an end to this, for in that year, silver prices collapsed. The Panic of 1893 was the coup de grace to an ailing industry. Leadville's mines closed, Silver Cliff was all but abandoned, and the nation was cast into a deep depression. Railroads that once were money-makers went broke. The Denver, South Park and Pacific (DSP&P) slipped into receivership, while the Colorado Midland (from Colorado Springs to Leadville) was on the verge of collapse. Even the big outfits like the Santa Fe or the Rio Grande suffered, which in turn did not bode well for local farmers and miners. As the crisis deepened, homesteaders tried to farm the arid plains more extensively (so-called dryland farming), without benefit of water or irrigation. Technical advances like "Turkey Red" wheat made this possible, but 1893 also wiped out drylanders. Prices were too low to make farming profitable. Industry, like the steel mill at Pueblo, suffered badly, as did area coal mining. Production dropped, and prices fell. Workers were laid off. Yet, there was one bright spot in this gloom.

Cripple Creek townsite was platted in 1893 to take advantage of gold discoveries made in 1890. The Cripple Creek boom was not only huge and the creator of two cities; it was also the last major discovery of precious minerals in this State. Cripple Creek and Victor lasted until about 1910 when the price of gold was too low to make mining profitable. During this boom, some 25,000 persons made Cripple Creek and Victor their homes. Labor violence during the late 1890's marked Cripple Creek as hostile to workers. The infamous Independence Station bombing made national headlines; but in the end, Cripple Creek faded like other mining districts. After an agonizingly slow death, Cripple Creek and Victor now cater to tourists, not miners.

The turn of the century saw recovery from the devastation of the Panic of 1893. As businesses struggled to their feet, they found that there were not as many buyers. The lack of a strong mineral industry did not help much. Farmers, ever hopeful, began returning to the plains. Irrigation, a development of the 1880's along the Arkansas River and throughout the San Luis Valley, was once again popular. Where irrigated lands could not be obtained, dryland homesteaders went back at it. From 1900 to 1920, the last great homestead boom occurred on the Great Plains. Thousands of last-minute, would-be farmers poured onto the plains in a last-ditch effort to own land. In 1914, just prior to the Great War, most dry-landers, indeed all farmers, were having a hard time. However, war in Europe brought about high food prices due to increased exports. Local industry also profited from the war; steel prices soared; and CF&I, at Pueblo, had all the business it could handle. Coal production rose to keep pace with increased rail traffic and industrial use. Alloys like molybdenum became popular and were increasingly mined. Climax (AMAX) began its operations on Fremont Pass, and by the late 1930's had developed this area near Leadville into the world's largest such mine.

While the four years between 1914 and 1918 were prosperous, the latest boom ended in 1919 with a serious recession that wiped out farmers, miners, and industry. Drylanders were particularly hard hit, as was the precious mineral industry. Gold and silver production dropped, and other industrial metals like lead, copper, and zinc lost ground. This caused the population to seek a scapegoat for their woes. At first, Communists were the target. The Red Scare of 1919 had all the overtones of witch-hunting, but a worse threat was the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan during the early 1920's. The Klan managed to seize the governor's mansion in 1924, and the Colorado legislature had all it could do to stop these extremists. In southeast Colorado, Klan activity centered around Pueblo (a large Catholic and Hispanic population), Walsenburg, and, to a lesser extent, Trinidad. Canon City had a strong chapter, too. Other than a few cross burnings, the Klan did little real harm. They were out of political power in 1926, and the KKK slid downhill from that point forward. The Roaring Twenties was not prosperous for most Coloradans. The nation might have boomed, but the local economy did not. Farmers, as mentioned, faced hard times. They banded into cooperative groups to market their wares in 1924, after passage of the Cooperative Marketing Act permitted such activity. San Luis Valley potato growers, in particular, were leaders in co-op ventures. Dryland wheat farmers grew more and more to cover their losses. This not only glutted the market, but also had a devastating effect on southeast Colorado's fragile topsoil.

If the twenties were bad, the thirties were far worse. In 1929, the American economy totally collapsed, not that eastern Colorado's farmers noticed right away. More important was the Federal Government's intervention in the market place. Republican President Herbert Hoover's "wait-and-see" policy failed miserably. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, was elected President. He immediately began Federal aid to industry, farmers, and the dispossessed. Farmers living in the Dust Bowl, of which southeastern Colorado was part, were aided in numerous ways, including heavy farm subsidies. The national forests, created in 1891, were improved by Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) labor, while the Public Works Administration (PWA) built post offices and city halls. This Federal aid worked well for a while, but by the late 1930's the economy once more sagged. Again, war saved the day.

When the United States entered World War II in 1941, America's industry and farmers were both producing full tilt. Food prices skyrocketed, mining demand was up, and industry could not keep up with local wartime demands. CF&I, at Pueblo, made steel at full output, and railroads hauled goods and troops at full capacity. World War II cast southeastern Colorado into its present mold, for at this time various facilities that are still in use were built. Foremost among these was Camp (later Fort) Carson, placed just south of Colorado Springs. Pueblo got an army depot, while La Junta was given an air base. These military additions strengthened the economy of this region, while bringing in new population. After the war, many newcomers remained and helped further develop local industry and services. While agriculture was predominant in the San Luis Valley, South Park, and on the lower Arkansas during the 1950's, Pueblo, Colorado Springs, and, to a lesser extent, Trinidad, saw new growth. Coal mines that closed down during the 1930's were replaced by service industries. Tourism, for instance, took up some of the economic slack. Trinidad, gateway to Raton Pass, got a boost when Interstate Highway 25 was built through that city. Fast food places, motels, and other service facilities helped fuel the local economy. Schools like junior colleges also grew, thanks to an influx of World War II veterans. Pueblo, Alamosa, Trinidad, and Lamar all had either four-year or two-year institutions of higher learning that saw student population increases as a result of the recent war.

The last twenty years in southeastern Colorado have been stable and moderately prosperous. Agriculture, mainly wheat, is the mainstay of the plains. Coal is still mined for CF&I in the Purgatoire Valley, and oil is being discovered in the Raton Basin, the San Luis Valley and, of course, around Florence. There has been fairly low recent population growth, although Pueblo suffers from pollution caused by autos, more people, and Denver's "brown cloud" drifting southward. Tourism still remains a major force in this region. Subdivisions are scattered throughout the Wet Mountain Valley, west of Pueblo, and in other spots like South Park. They appeal to the summer home resident, but are generally not well developed. Skiing, something new in this area, is taking hold. Conquistador, in the Wet Mountain Valley, is showing signs of becoming a serious tourist area. Westcliffe caters to both winter and summer visitors these days. Canon City serves tourists who come to ogle the Royal Gorge, drive scenic U.S. 50 to Buena Vista, or do a little camping in the surrounding national forests. Longer term visitors are housed in a new State Prison located east of Canon City. Pueblo now suffers from hard times because its main industry, steel, is not in demand. Unemployment is high, and city fathers worry about their future. The San Luis Valley remains timeless. There really has not been much change since the early 1900's. Agriculture still dominates the Valley. Potatoes, corn, wheat, barley, and other grains provide a stable economy. Tourists come into the Valley to see the Great Sand Dunes National Monument or pass through on their way into nearby national forests, but this is hardly a booming trade in visitors. The Valley remains quiet, "pristine," and possibly the most charming region in this State. To visit this place is truly a pleasure.

The southeast corner of Colorado is, perhaps, one of the least changed areas of this State. The eastern plains have always been, and remain, agricultural. Towns along the front range, like Pueblo and Trinidad, were traditionally industrial or supply cities. They are still that. South Park, after mining peaked, reverted to agriculture, like cattle raising. It remains a livestock area. Leadville is still highly dependent upon mining, although not silver. The Wet Mountain Valley, originally settled for mining purposes, is presently used by ranchers. The San Luis Valley was and still is predominantly agricultural in nature. The land, its people, and its dreams remain much the same as one hundred years ago. As time moves forward, changes are bound to occur here; but if the past is an indicator, they will not be massive, and they may not be permanent. This region's history is like that.

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Last Updated: 20-Nov-2008