The River of Sorrows:
The History of the Lower Dolores River Valley
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Duane A. Smith


El Rio de Nuestra Senora de Dolores, the Spanish called it, River of Our Lady of Sorrows. To later Americans it was known simply as the Dolores River. For centuries the Indians called it home, but by the time the Europeans arrived they were gone. In the two centuries since that unheralded day, the Dolores Valley has been a microcosm of the passing frontier, and, later, the growth of the West. Success and failure characterize its history; it has known sorrows, as well as its share of joys. Across the valley moved the devoted Catholic padre, exploitative fur trapper, searching miner, determined cattleman, fugitive Ute, optimistic town builder, enthusiastic railroadman, hardworking farmer, and noisy logger. Each dug and plowed the land and chopped the trees, while the river rolled on. Now a dam is proposed to slow that river and flood a portion of that valley. This is a part of the historical record of what transpired there before the quiet reservoir waters creep in to cover it forever.

Ranch Locations in the Dolores Valley. (click on image for a PDF version)

1776—year of war, year of the Declaration of Independence, year of trial for the thirteen barely united colonies fighting against England, the world's greatest power. 1776—year of the first recorded penetration of the Dolores Valley by Europeans. Neither event took much note of the other, but the two initiated a chain of reactions which, a century later, brought settlement to the valley, now part of the bustling United States.

Santa Fe languished a long way from the Atlantic coast, the scene of the fighting, and was literally part of another world—a world dominated by Spanish culture and the Catholic religion, both mellowed by contact with the Pueblo and other Indians who farmed and roamed the Rio Grande Valley. Compared to the revolutionary British colonies, New Mexico seemed unenlightened, tranquil, and submissive, the product of an earlier era. Isolated, economically retarded, militarily weak, sparsely populated, New Mexico took no part in the world war that grew out of the shots fired on the Lexington green that April morning a year earlier, even though mother country Spain reluctantly joined the struggle.

The Declaration of Independence was still unknown on the Rio Grande when, on a warm July morning, a ten-man missionary exploring party headed by two Franciscans, Fray Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Fray Francisco Silvestre Velez de Escalante, left Santa Fe. Their primary goal was to find a route to California and the missions being established there, especially Monterey. [1]

Leaving Santa Fe on July 29, they traveled north to the little settlement of Abiquiu, then started angling northwest. Entering what became Colorado, the little party marched just south of today's Durango and north of Mancos before reaching El Rio de Nuestra Senora de Dolores, very near the present site of Dolores, on August 12. Here the party camped for two days to rest. Turning to their journal:

On the 13th we made camp, both to allow the padre (Dominguez had caught a bad cold) to improve some more in order to go ahead, and to take a bearing on the polar elevation of this site and meadow of El Rio de los Dolores, where we found ourselves. The bearing was taken by the sun, and we saw that we were at 38° 13-1/2' latitude. Here there is everything that a good settlement needs for its establishment and maintenance as regards irrigable lands, pasturage, timber and firewood. Upon an elevation on the river's south side, there was in ancient times a small settlement of the same type as those of the Indians of New Mexico, as the ruins which we purposely inspected show. Padre Fray Francisco Atanasio got better, and we decided to continue our journey the following day.

On the 14th we set out from the meadow and Rio de Dolores toward the north, and after a quarter league of travel we continued northwest for one league and to the northwest by west for five leagues over a rather troublesome stretch of sagebrush..... [2]

Here Dominguez and Escalante left the part of the Dolores Valley under discussion. They were far from finished; their journey would take them deep into Utah (but never to California) before they were thwarted by the oncoming winter, the unknown distance yet to go, and the ruggedness of the terrain. They returned to Santa Fe on January 2, 1777, having traveled over 1700 miles.

Dominguez and Escalante had not accomplished what they set out to do. No road followed their wandering path, far short as it was of California, and no missions were planted in the land they passed through. They had little enough time even to spread the faith to the Indians they visited, primarily Utes in Colorado. For these reasons, the expedition is regarded as a failure.

However, these men had penetrated a vast, unknown region, the earliest known European exploration of parts of Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. Their daily journal remains the first written description of the area they crossed and the people they visited. They managed this without conflict with the people they visited. For these reasons Dominguez and Escalante deserve the accolade historian Herbert Bolton gave to their exploit: "one of the most notable explorations" in North American history. [3] That no missions followed in their wake was not their fault; conditions in New Mexico had deteriorated, Spain's power declined, and the missionary efforts dropped accordingly.

Dominguez and Escalante had spent only a short time in the Dolores Valley, yet they correctly forecast its potential. It had "everything" needed for a "good settlement." Time and circumstances had not yet coalesced sufficiently for that to happen.

The days from Dominguez and Escalante to permanent American settlement in the Dolores River Valley covered one century. The difference between the two periods was startling, from horse to railroad and from colony to nation, but the changes in the valley were hardly noticeable. The Spanish and Mexicans left little of permanence on their later trading expeditions; neither did the fur trappers who tramped up the valley to trap beaver in the San Juans.

Far to the east, beyond the crest of the Continental Divide, the discovery of gold in 1858 and the Pike's Peak gold rush of 1859 foretold changes. As early as 1860-61, prospectors ventured into the park where Silverton would one day be and which sat only a couple of mountains away from the Dolores River. Isolation, Ute hostility, and too-small gold pockets ended that excitement, though not the interest in the San Juans as a potential mining region.

In 1869 prospectors actually moved up the Dolores River, to what became Rico. [4] Another decade passed, however, before this mining region got a permanent start. These first men no doubt panned a little in the river near the site of the future town of Dolores. Discouraged by scarce mineral indications in the pan or on land, they moved on and the mining frontier bypassed this portion of the valley.

Thanks to the mining frontier, however, settlement did come at last. Miners and mining camps provided a lucrative market for agricultural products, from hay and vegetables to meat. In their scramble for riches, miners wasted none of their own time in raising crops; they had the money to pay others for supplies, a tempting opportunity for ranchers and farmers to exploit.

Ranchers were the first to settle permanently on the site of the future Dolores dam and reservoir, arriving about 1877, according to the best available information. [5] The area was then part of La Plata County; not until 1889 would it be separated to become Montezuma County. [6] Few spots were more isolated from the rest of the county, from the neighboring mining districts, and from the whole state. This remained a fact of life until the coming of the railroad in the 1890's. Even with some promotion of the "fine, fertile" valley and the "most magnificent" water courses, the Dolores region failed to attract much interest. [7] As the Dolores News, September 11, 1879, forecast, it awaited ". . . the slow march of population and capital to the west. . ." The wait proved to be a frustrating one.

An ambitious project was quickly proposed. The Dolores, Lost Canyon and Montezuma Ditch Company hoped to start irrigation in the region in 1878. [8] Neither settlement, transportation, nor financial resources warranted such development; the project died almost on the planning board. Like other Coloradans of their generation, these early Dolores residents thought big.

Another small hamlet appeared at one of the sweeping bends of the river, not a planned settlement, simply a concentration of people who chose to group together. It assumed the name Big Bend or "The Bend" although the post office was first known as Dolores and was originally located at a local ranch in April 1878. [9] Settlement proceeded slowly; in addition to its isolation, the area was continually threatened by Ute Indians who roamed into the valley to hunt and camp from their reservation just to the south.

Mrs. S.O. Morton, whose husband George became a prominent local merchant, recalled the trials. She and her family came over from Costilla County in 1880, and her initial reaction was anything but good. "To me it did not look like a favorable location for a home so far from what had been my home." They purchased forty acres and started to build a store but gave up and returned to their former home when winter approached. Indian troubles prevented their return to Big Bend for two years. When the situation appeared to be more favorable, they returned and established a general merchandise store. [10] Told that the railroad would reach the settlement within a year, the Mortons and their neighbors were doomed to a decade of disappointment.

The Indian troubles Mrs. Morton described dogged the early history of Big Bend, delaying settlement and tarnishing the region's reputation. Investors would not go where "savages" still lurked. All this land had once belonged to the Utes, who lost title to it after the Meeker massacre and Ute troubles of 1879. The miners never wanted the Utes as neighbors, nor did the ranchers down the valley. "The Utes Must Go" was a familiar cry. They finally went, but not far. Trouble brewed between the "cowboys" and the Utes in the early 1880's, when the whites blamed the Indians for stealing horses, slaughtering cattle, and making a general nuisance of themselves. Albert Puett, resident of the Dolores Valley, wrote the Durango Record as early as May 16, 1881, to complain about Ute depredations and plead, "Take them bodily from us . . ." Neither side was blameless, and the result of this cultural clash was the tragedy known as the Beaver Creek Massacre.

Tension and friction which had been building for several years exploded on June 19, 1885, when a group of Utes was attacked at the mouth of Beaver Creek. The immediate trouble had been brewing for some weeks. The commanding officer of Fort Lewis, a day's ride from the Dolores, had been sending and receiving dispatches regarding possible Indian trouble. Most of the pressure for action by military came from Durango, the region's largest community. It wanted the Utes confined to their reservation, which happened to pass within four miles of the town. [11] Neither the army nor civilian authorities could subdue the hostilities that had been accumulating for too long.

The small community of Big Bend reached its heyday in the 1880's supporting a population of 100 people and claiming a variety of frontier shops and saloon. The business community, however, quickly relocated to the town of Dolores when the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad by-passed Big Bend in 1891. (Dolores Archeological Program Records, Dolores, Co)

Six Utes—men, women and children—were killed in the daybreak attack by some "white scoundrels," as reported by the Ute agent. The Utes and their agent maintained that the party was a peaceful one; not so, counter-charged the settlers. Apprehension over the attack and the killings lingered for years. Mrs. Howard Porter remembered it as "not a thing to talk of" in those days because of fear of government and Indian reprisals. Years later she called it an "unfortunate affair," an apt description. [12]

The commander of Fort Lewis immediately dispatched troops to the site, accompanied by Ute Indian police, Agent Stollsteimer, and Ute leaders. Other patrols went out to reassure panicky settlers that a general outbreak was not imminent. The revenge killing of a settler and the serious wounding of his wife by a group of Utes put everyone on edge. Settlers in the Dolores Valley fled to the Porter ranch, which contained a stone barn, and other stockmen gathered at Narraguinnep Spring some twenty miles away, where they hastily threw together a log "fort."

The harassed commander of Fort Lewis, Col. P.T. Swaine, received calls for protection from as near as Mancos and as far as Bluff, Utah. He politely, but firmly, declined Colorado Governor Benjamin Eaton's offer to send state troops. Even the Denver press was aroused over the Ute "outbreak." Swaine spent a difficult two weeks checking out rumors, calming Ute fears, and putting out "brush fire" reports that a general Indian war had commenced. His coolness did much to avert that very thing. By early July the panic had subsided and settlers were returning to their homes. Patrols stayed in the field to assure them of the army's continued presence. [13] Now only the recriminations remained.

Settlers who had spent uneasy nights sleeping in the brush away from their cabins or huddled together in makeshift camps were in no mood to listen to discussions of who caused what and why; they wanted the Utes removed from their southern reservations. The local newspapers supported their demands. Editorial comments bristled with anger. Rico's Dolores News, June 27, 1885, shouted in support: after all the Indian outrages, " is no wonder the cowmen took the method they did, and they can only be censured for failing to notify the neighboring settlers. . ." The editorial in that issue considered the question, "Ought Squaws to be Killed?" It concluded that because they practiced torture and were far more bloodthirsty than the bucks, nothing wrong took place. Editor and publisher Charles Jones harkened back to a similar earlier "battle" and wrote,

The motto of the frontiersman is, and ought to be 'Shoot to kill and spare nothing.' On that famous and blessed day for Colorado when the Sand Creek fight occurred, Chivington drew up his men in line and said, 'Men, I have no order to give as whom to kill, or whom not to kill: remember our murdered wives and children.' It is the only sensible way to deal with them . . . .

Durango's The Idea was hardly less vitriolic, although it called for severe punishment of the white men who instigated the trouble, not because they killed the Utes, but because they failed to warn nearby settlers. "This paper will do as much and risk as much as anybody who hires fighting done, to put down the Indian curse in this country. The Indian atrocities must be stopped." In an extra edition, Tuesday, June 23, the paper got to the heart of the matter in an emotional outburst. "The progressive white people and the lousey, (sic.) greasy Indians cannot occupy this country together." William May, Dolores rancher and county commissioner, concurred in a letter to The Idea: ". . . every man to defend his person and property and to shoot every Indian that may be found in the country, no matter what his business may be." [14]

Having thus expressed themselves, the editors and letter writers calmed down, and other topics diverted their attention. The Idea took one parting shot on July 4, however:

Another policy of this paper is to kill every Ute Indian who commits a depredation if it is necessary to follow the red brutes to the door of the agency or the shadow of the dome of the national capitol and to kill every Indian . . . .

One wonders why the newspapers took such a strong position on a minor incident in a generally ignored part of Colorado. Obviously, the old idea that the Utes should go played a prominent role. No one cared where they went, just so they did. Greed and fear stirred trouble, as did cultural differences. Explanations aside, the outbreak damaged the local image and adversely affected investment. Back on June 27, The Idea had clearly stated: "The recent trouble has given us a black eye for the years, and the injury that the advertisement abroad will give us is incalculable." Nor was there much love for those who took the Utes' part; in all, it was a typical western reaction to a white/Indian confrontation.

Who was to blame for this deplorable affair? Southwestern Coloradans blamed the government's Indian policy and the Utes. Agent Sollsteimer defended the government's role and lamented "the foul murder" with these words: "An Indian is hardly considered a human being by a certain class of Whites with which this part of the country is disgraced. There can be no excuse for this foul crime, and it will always be a foul blot upon the reputation of this country. [15]

Stollsteimer was right; the cowboys, never really identified, caused the trouble. Swaine pointed out, however, that the government's ration policy of only one pound of beef and 3-1/2 pounds of flour per week per head of a Ute family had forced the Indians off the reservation to hunt. This was most likely what the Utes were doing when they were attacked, and it probably helps account for the reports of cattle being killed. Swaine, who called the attack "most barbarous," also laid the blame on the cowboys. [16] The Utes did not go, and their relations with their neighbors did not improve. The hostility declined over the years and the Beaver Creek massacre was soon forgotten, despite Stollsteimer's statement to the contrary.

Big Bend returned to normal after the massacre. Even with so much activity centered just a few miles from it, the settlement never attracted much attention from any of the newspapers. Colorado conducted a state census that same year, but the census takers completely overlooked the Big Bend district. This was not unusual; the federal census takers had not appeared in 1880, and not until 1890 did they count the Dolores precinct. In any case, only residents of the valley were listed; Big Bend was completely overlooked.

Such neglect was undeserved. A small settlement slowly grew in the eighties, as evidenced by its business district. Crofutt's Grip Sack Guide of 1881 listed one store, called a trading post, which supplied the needs of the people, whose chief occupation was stock raising. The two general merchandise stores of 1884 had become three by 1887, joined by a blacksmith, feed stable, and a saloon. By 1891, the last year of its existence, Big Bend could claim a hotel, sawmill, office of land and canal company and a meat market, while the number of general merchants had slipped to two. [17] Unlike the neighboring mining camps which sometimes boomed and busted in a season or two, Big Bend reflected the steadier, slower pattern of agricultural growth. All evidence supports the conclusion that perhaps slightly more than 100 people lived in and around the community at its peak; the rest of the trade came from adjoining farmers and ranchers. The only time the number may have gone significantly higher was at the time a canal was being built in 1886-88 to take water from the Dolores to the neighboring Montezuma Valley.

Life at Big Bend was generally tranquil. Community activities, particularly Christmas celebrations, centered at the schoolhouse. Church services, conducted by itinerant ministers, were held there as well. Mary Blake, who went to Big Bend in 1885, remembered dancing as the favorite amusement. These lively evenings highlighted the "social season." Occasionally a cowboy would get drunk and shoot out some of the kerosene bracket lamps, which glowed softly over dances and church services. Except for the momentary excitement, Mary seemed unperturbed. [18]

Mrs. W.R. Ordway pictured life as "primitive but comfortable." Mrs. Morton remembered one snow-bound winter when foodstuffs ran short, and a real crisis when tobacco dwindled. That shortage "seemed to hit the hardest." Fred Taylor, a hardy rancher and sheepman, recollected the election spree of 1883, which involved a "great deal of drinking," with cowboys lying drunk beside the road, unable to return home. [19]

In November of 1885, hardy workers, including nearby ranchers and farmers who would later benefit from the irrigation system, began drilling, blasting and excavating the 5,400 foot Montezuma Valley Water supply Company Tunnel. The outlet of the tunnel, shown here, was later reinforced in the winter of 1963-64 with steel arches. sleeping Ute Mountain can be seen in the distance. (Jet Lowe, HAER)

One of the major problems Big Bend could never overcome was its isolation. Trails went out to Durango, Rico, and south and west into the ranching country. They tested the tempers of the users—the one to Rico reportedly crossed the Dolores River fifty-six times in fewer than fifty miles, all unbridged. The increased time and costs involved in shipping supplies over these trails were evident in the prices of goods. In the fall enough provisions had to be freighted from Durango, the nearest railhead, to last the snow-locked winter months. Only pack horses came through then, and sometimes nothing was able to conquer the drifts. No community could hope to mature with such tenuous transportation; Big Bend was doomed unless it could be improved. Winter prices increased even more, especially when shortages occurred.

Agnes Lupke told of carrying her butter and eggs to sell at Harris' store to supplement the family income. By the 1890's Harris Brothers had become the most prosperous store in town, and Ohio-born John and his brother Andrew the leading citizens. Agnes spoke, too, of the arduous trips to Rico to sell corn, hogs, and vegetables to a community eager for fresh items. These infrequent trips resulted in their returning with supplies purchased from Rico's wider selection and larger business district. [20] Trapping supplemented incomes in the winter during the early years, until it nearly exterminated the local animal supply. This enterprise accounts for the fur buyer who appeared in several of the business directories.

Pioneering at Big Bend was full of the same hard work, loneliness, disease, death, and heartache that accompanied the opening of any frontier. Facilities remained primitive throughout its existence. For example, no doctor could afford to practice there; the solution, at least for a while, was for settlers on the Dolores to contribute a retainer for a Durango doctor to come when needed. The medical situation improved when Cortez was established in 1886 in the Montezuma Valley. [21]

Situated on a high point in the valley, which afforded the settlers a magnificent view, Cortez started with some decided handicaps. It was far from any railroad, planted in a semi-arid land, and devoid of any nearby water supply which could support a significant amount of development. Water was the "lifeblood" of the future; the community could not hope to grow when it had to be hauled from Mitchell Springs at a reported cost of $.25 per barrel. [22] Thus, almost instantaneously with its birth, Cortez came face to face with the most pressing problem of the next fifty years. Transportation, climate, land and economic problems could be overcome in time. Water, however, could not wait. The planning of, and even some work on, a large-scale irrigation and water project antedated Cortez' beginnings. The project seemed simple: to tunnel or blast a cut through the narrow ridge that separated the Dolores River Valley from the Montezuma Valley and let the water through. Work started on a tunnel for that purpose in February, 1886, underwritten by Boston money and promoted by James Hanna. The Montezuma Valley Water Supply Company displayed frontier initiative and faith at its best. [23]

It was one thing to scheme and plan, another to tunnel 5,400 feet through the Dolores Divide. Before the tunnel was completed two years later, the company had been reorganized, and a rival was on the scene to challenge it for the potential market. This rival company, the Dolores Land and Canal Company (known locally as "The No. 2 Company"), blasted and dug a cut through the divide about 4,000 feet long. There were not enough potential buyers for both companies to succeed. Fortunately, the two compromised their ambitions and consolidated into the Colorado Consolidated Lands and Water Company in 1889 before bankruptcy could end both their efforts.

By 1890, over 100 miles of canals had been constructed without federal assistance and utilizing both local and eastern capital. Water was channeled and flow regulated with liftgates such as this one. Concrete replaced the wooden liftgate components in the late 1940's. (Jet Lowe, HAER)

The project was far from completed when water was carried from the Dolores River through the divide to the Montezuma Valley. By 1890 over 100 miles of canals had been built, one storage reservoir partly constructed, others planned, and diverting dams were channeling the flow of water, reported to be 1,300 cubic feet of water per second. [24] The Durango Herald was not indulging solely in journalistic rhetoric when it said of the project in April, 1888:

Tunneling of Dolores mountain in order to get water over the Montezuma Valley is one of the greatest irrigating enterprises, not only in the state, but in the West and reflects credit upon those who have had the work in charge. [25]

Cortez' new Montezuma Journal, on April 23, expressed the feelings of the home folks and offered a toast:

The event should receive that public and enthusiastic recognition by the people of Montezuma Valley, that its close association with their future interest and prosperity warrants. Let's celebrate, and let it be a novel one by all taking WATER.

The association between the town of Cortez and the water company was closer than a hasty glance might indicate. The water company and Hanna also controlled the town company, called the Cortez Land and Improvement Company. Hanna, in fact, is given credit for suggesting the name of the community. [26] It was not unusual for the developing company to take advantage of land promotion; the Denver and Rio Grande did the same thing in Durango, as did others elsewhere in the West.

The intent was to have water in Cortez by May 1888, but not until July did it flow to the town. Fred Taylor, an 1880's pioneer, accused the company of being so anxious to get the water there that it diverted $80,000 from ditch building to construction of a three-mile flume to bring the water to Cortez. He felt this shortchanged other phases of the project and led to financial problems, which resulted in the aforementioned merger. [27] Perhaps it did, but the end appeared to justify the means, and Cortez had its desperately needed water.

Mary Blake remembered how they yearned for that water. For the first July Fourth celebration in 1887, local people hauled several dozen trees into town and set them out to make it look like trees were growing there, "just for the occasion." Trees were not only good for shade on that barren mound, they were also a sign of progressiveness and of permanent settlement. By the time water arrived via the ditch a year later, trees had been planted and were being tenderly cared for and watered. Blake recalled, "we put all wash water, even such slop as not too greasy on the trees to keep them alive." [28] They kept those trees, their town, and themselves alive while awaiting that water. Now that it was there, Cortez' crisis was over.

Big Bend's new rival soon surpassed it in every way. The land available for farming on the Dolores was severely circumscribed by the narrowness of the valley and the poor quality of the soil south of the town. While Cortez blossomed into a thriving, progressive farm community, Big Bend began to wither.

Time was running out for it, but it was not Cortez that delivered the coup de grace; the Rio Grande Southern Railroad did that. Rico, and Ophir and Telluride beyond, desperately needed railroad connections and were able to promise what Big Bend never could, a thriving market for shipments in and out. Otto Mears, San Juan road and railroad builder, matched the opportunity and plans; construction soon followed the survey. At last a railroad connection, but alas, the survey missed Big Bend by two miles up river. Why? "Owing to the topography and the unimportance" of Big Bend, the line went elsewhere. On Thanksgiving Day, 1891, track was laid as near as it would come and then looped up the valley. The first through train from Durango to Ridgeway puffed over the still-unfinished line on January 2, 1892. [29]

Construction of the Bureau of Reclamation's new McPhee Reservoir was well underway during the summer of 1981. The construction of the storage reservoir completes the cycle began by those far-sighted entrepreneurs who began the Montezuma Valley Irrigation system a century earlier. (Jet Lowe, HAER)

On that same Thanksgiving Day the construction crew laid track through the new townsite of Dolores. Big Bend had nothing to be thankful for; it had been betrayed by its friends, as well as the railroad. The new townsite was owned by railroad officials and the Harris brothers, among others. For the Harrises the step was not unexpected. They had come west to work for William Palmer, founder of the Denver and Rio Grande, and had followed construction of that road before moving to Big Bend. They knew what would happen to a railroad-bypassed community. And they were right. They were joined in the exodus by the entire Big Bend business community, which formed the nucleus of Dolores. [30] The post office came with them, and by mid-summer, 1892, the older village had been gutted of businesses and residents. Big Bend had joined the ranks of might-have-beens, a promise that faded into the forgotten past. It found plenty of company, even in southwestern Colorado.

In the more than ten years of its existence, Big Bend had met the needs of its area. Bypassed by the railroad, it served no purpose. The community never fulfilled the expectations that motivated those first settlers who came slightly over a decade before. Isolation plagued it, growth never came, and investors shied away; more attractive possibilities were always present to lure their money elsewhere. Neither local leadership nor resources could surmount these difficulties. The limited agricultural and range land failed to provide enough support for a thriving local economy. Big Bend was a community whose future never came. The site of the town soon reverted to a meadow. It was later farmed a little but eventually became unrecognizable as having supported a settlement. Such was the epitaph of Big Bend.

The coming of the Rio Grande Southern presaged a new era for the Dolores Valley, one of rapid transportation and connections with the rest of Colorado and beyond. Ranchers and farmers found new markets opening to them, and supplies could be shipped and received with ease. Dolores grew and assumed the role that Big Bend had hoped to win.

Homesteaders moved into the northwesterly bending valley, settling where the earlier hamlet had once been. Some of the pioneer settlers sold out, replaced by optimistic newcomers. Although the railroad's arrival improved some aspects, it did not help the soil; this segment of the valley could not keep pace with neighboring Cortez or the richer land above Dolores in farm productivity.

The New Mexico Lumber Company and its company town of McPhee featured housing for approximately 1400 people as well as a company store, church and school. (Robert Orr Collection)

The Town of McPhee

In the 1920's, industry came to the valley and brought a major change in its cultural profile. The nearby mountains harbored valuable stands of western yellow pine, and lumbermen saw profits if it could be logged, milled, and transported to market. When nearby New Mexico forests showed signs of being logged out of their profitable timber, attention turned to southwestern Colorado. In January, 1924, the U.S. Forest Service announced a sale of four million board feet in Montezuma National Forest. The New Mexico Lumber Company, leaser of adjacent holdings, successfully bid on the timber and then turned to the task of locating its mill. [31]

The mill site selected was five miles from Dolores on the west side of the river. By the end of February crews began arriving from the soon-to-be-abandoned mining community of El Vado, New Mexico, to start work on the new camp. Surveyors, engineers, grading crews, carpenters, and others showed up in the weeks that followed, not only to build the town but also to survey and grade a railroad route and lay tracks from the Rio Grande Southern at Dolores. [32] So much activity was unprecedented in this part of the valley, and it generated excitement throughout the Dolores-Cortez region.

It was estimated that it would take eighteen to twenty years to complete the lumbering operation; once the tracks were completed, work accelerated. Some buildings were transported from El Vado, others constructed on the site. As the town emerged, other crews were establishing logging camps in the timber, and rails stretched out to reach them. Meanwhile, the work at the mill continued unabated in order to have everything nearly complete by the time the logs arrived. The goal was not quite reached when the first log train arrived on September 29. Not until late October was the mill ready, and then it would be more than a month before all the "bugs" were worked out and full operation could begin. [33]

During these first months of the New Mexico Lumber Company's operation the valley was a beehive of activity. A town was established, and the all-important mill constructed. Some discussion ensued about a name; Ventura and Escalante were suggested before McPhee was finally chosen. The community was named for William McPhee, one of the company's owners.

The Dolores Star watched all this activity and eventually ran a McPhee column. The Rio Grande Southern was busier than it had been since the early 1890's. McPhee was a company town owned and operated by New Mexico Lumber. It spread out beyond the mill at a beautiful, wide spot in the valley. The site had been selected because of its proximity both to the forests and the railroad. For the next two decades it served as home for the workers and company officials. In August the company-owned store opened and advertised itself as "ready to supply your wants" and pay "top prices" for farmers' produce. A school was started that fall, and the first "good old fashioned" charivari saluted newlyweds. [34] The social whirl had reached McPhee. When winter arrived, McPhee was a going concern.

The Montezuma Lumber Company purchased the New Mexico Lumber Company during the Great Depression. Although reducing the company's dependence on railroads, the operation continued to operate and to maintain two rod locomotives which were probably purchased second-hand from the Denver & Rio Grande or Rio Grande southern Railroad. (R. W. Richardson, Colorado Railroad Museum)

The 1920's were generally prosperous years for New Mexico Lumber. After the initial troubles in the mill operation had been resolved, the plant ran smoothly and claimed to be the largest in Colorado. In the spring of 1925 the company reported 41 miles of narrow gauge track running from McPhee to the sites of logging operations. The trackage advanced and receded as new areas opened and older areas closed.

The 1920's may have roared in the large metropolitan areas, but McPhee mostly displayed traits of small-town nineteenth century America, modernized to some degree by the radio and current fads. There being no church building, Sunday School was held in the school, as were the PTA meetings. Eventually a Catholic church was built, but the Protestant residents had to be content with an itinerant minister. One of these men put his finger on a fact of life at McPhee, ". . . there is in a place like this an ever-changing population." Loggers and workers moved in and out of the region, as they did in other logging areas; there was nothing unusual about this, but it did tend to undermine community efforts.

In August, 1926, McPhee was featured in the Dolores Star, along with photographs of the mill town, and logging train. The underlying theme of the article was how proud the people of Dolores were of McPhee and that they felt it had become part of their community. At this time approximately 350 men were on the payroll of New Mexico Lumber, the largest employer in the area, and McPhee had an estimated population of 800. The company had branched out by then to include a coal mine in its operations. Located beside the railroad tracks leading to its Beaver Creek camp, the mine produced about twenty tons per day, all consumed by the company operations. [35]

In these days of prosperity the New Mexico Company proved to be a generous benefactor. Its community spirit was displayed in the "modern well equipped" school and church buildings it provided. The annual company picnic and the McPhee baseball team showed commendable spirit. The company also furnished homes with electric lights, even if they had to be turned out at ten when the generating plant shut down for the night. For two dollars a month for married, a dollar for single men, the company furnished a doctor and dispensary for workers and townspeople.

Charles Artz, long time McPhee resident and company official, reminisced about his years there. The employees received forty percent of their wages in scrip, that being the amount estimated for living expenses per month, plus rent. The remainder was paid in cash. The thin, coin-shaped metal scrip was intended for use in the company-owned store, or commissary, as it was called. The employees were charged cost plus ten percent. What goods were not available there were generally ordered from Montgomery Ward. [36]

The housing available to the workers varied. The Mexican-American employees rented small homes constructed of unfinished lumber for five dollars per month. The larger and more modern Anglos' homes rented for ten dollars. Both had electricity. Tacit segregation put the Mexican-Americans in their own section west of the mill, called "Chihuahua" or simply the Mexican sector. In the early days of McPhee some Penitente activity apparently occurred, having come directly from El Vado, where the movement had been quite strong. Religious activity, however, centered primarily around the Catholic church, completed in 1929.

Although the twenties generally evidenced prosperity, signs of recession appeared as the decade neared an end. In 1928, William McPhee sold his stock to John Zalaha, who had ambitious plans that included new railroad lines and more production. A year later Zalaha, backed by Chicago investors, purchased the entire company stock and assumed sole ownership. Unfortunately, his plans collapsed soon after the stock market failure ushered in the Depression. The mill closed, Zalaha defaulted on his payments, and the original owners regained control in November, 1930. This reversion could not save the faltering operation and the New Mexico Lumber company slipped into receivership in the hands of the International Trust Company. Not until 1932 was it sold and the mill reopened in August of that year. [37]

The lumber mill began operation in 1924 and by 1925 processing 27,445,360 board feet of lumber or approximately 61 percent of the total production for the state of Colorado. (Robert Orr Collection)

The economic morass of the early 1930's was certainly the primary contributor to the end of the McPhee operation. However, the company also found to its dismay that large stands of the timber it had purchased proved too sparse for profitable cutting. Gradual changes in the railroad rates wiped out the advantages McPhee once enjoyed in shipping and closed much of the market. When the depression hit, all these deterrents proved to be too much. The McPhee plant closed and people began to move away.

With the resumption of logging, the population, which had dipped under 500, slowly started to climb again, reaching an estimated 1,400 residents in 1940-1941. So great was the demand for jobs that when the mill reopened in 1932 the Dolores Star, August 19, warned readers that only limited numbers of men were needed and preference would be given to former employees. That failed to stem the tide, and the town was "flooded with men seeking employment."

Not until 1935, after a reorganization under the federal bankruptcy law and a name change to the Montezuma Lumber Company, did McPhee take on its former appearance. From then until World War II prosperity prevailed. An astonished 1940 visitor said, "A person would have to see the operation with his own eyes to realize how much lumber they really put out in a day's time." [38]

A few changes came during the 1930's. In July, 1933, the railroad logging came to an end, replaced by trucks; the branch from McPhee to Dolores continued to operate and was used for years by McPhee residents to travel to Saturday night movies and dances. In 1939 the company endured a brief strike, which ended with a complete victory for management when it shut down the entire facility after the mill workers struck. The non-union loggers, who deplored their loss of pay, put enough pressure on the mill workers, according to Artz, that the latter voted to leave the union. Thus ended the strike. [39]

Chris Gomez, who worked at McPhee during these years, described it in this manner, "I hope that I never have to go back to the lumber business." The wages, he joked, seemed too low for the twelve hours "they gave you" to do a day's work. Yet as he pointed out, the mill was a good place for the uneducated to work—it was "either this or herd sheep." Accidents happened all too frequently; unfortunately, workers had to be laid up more than ten days before they could collect compensation. Also, any breakdown of longer than fifteen minutes were repaired on the workers' time and lost hours had to be made up. "You worked because you had to," said Gomez, "and you earned your wages." [40]

The mill produced "box shook" (precut boards for boxes), material for sash and door factories, railroad ties, and lumber for construction. One thing which hurt McPhee, as Gomez saw it, was the fact that the lumber was handled too many times from tree to finished product.

Despite such problems, the company's future looked promising in mid-1941. Government contracts to supply wartime needs gave it a new lease on life. A spectacular fire on June 30, which gutted the sawmill, ended that possibility. A loss estimated at over $150,000 put the company in dire straights. The promised rebuilding did not materialize, and when a second fire on June 19, 1942, burned the machine shop, the Montezuma Lumber Company seemed to be jinxed. It continued to operate by diverting to smaller sawmills along the Rio Grande Southern tracks. As a result, McPhee played a much less important role in the total operations.

A shortage of labor further hindered company efforts, as higher-paying war industries lured workers away. The "McPhee News" column in the Star reported that many families were moving out and only a few were moving in to replace them. But the town's patriotism did not lag. This tidbit appeared in the Star, October 30, 1942:

Boys, did you know McPhee would help you join the Navy? If you have no means of transportation to the recruiting office in Durango call at the filling station and means of transportation will be furnished. [41]

As World War II dragged to a close, McPhee took another fork in its history. In February, 1944, the town and logging operation were sold. The new owners promised far-reaching plans for the enterprise, but these did not include rebuilding the McPhee mill, and it was even hinted that the town might be abandoned. Neither proved to be true. A new mill was built, and McPhee became once more the center of the logging operation. [42]

Such an encouraging turn of events did not alter the fact that time was running out for McPhee. The original estimate of eighteen to twenty years of logging had now passed. Had it not been for the period of nonwork in the early thirties, the area's timber would have been nearly exhausted. The company still was impeded by the quality of that timber, not nearly so good as originally assumed. Indicating the waning importance of the community, the McPhee column disappeared as a semi-regular feature in the Dolores Star. Little news of any type about logging or the town found its way into the paper.

The end came in January, 1948, when the mill burned once more. That Monday, January 19, fire did an estimated $100,000 damage to machinery and buildings. Firemen from Dolores, Cortez, and McPhee managed to keep the flames from spreading, but as the Star said, "The loss is a serious blow . . . (to the company), to the men who are employed at the mill and to the community as well." Insurance covered only one-third of the value. [43]

The Montezuma Lumber Company decided not to rebuild, but to operate out of its smaller camps nearer the lumbering areas. Dolores became the headquarters of the company, doing to McPhee what it had earlier to Big Bend. The Star, February 6, laconically noted that the owners "....decided there was no point in keeping a plant going at McPhee any longer...." Once the decision was made they moved fast. Within weeks scrap from the burned mill had been sold, as had the railroad tracks from McPhee to Dolores. Several houses were moved to Dolores, along with some equipment. At the end of March the Star reported the demise of McPhee when the land on which the town stood was sold. [44] Several buildings still needed to be dismantled and/or relocated, but that came soon and the town disappeared. The post office was closed in July, 1948, just two months short of its twenty-fourth anniversary.

Lumbering was not finished in the area until 1976, but McPhee's role in it had ended. The pattern it had followed was typical of the earlier lumber operations, in New Mexico, for example. McPhee had been developed after other areas declined; it drew life from their death, to the point of transporting houses to the new site. Then after its usefulness was past, the company abandoned McPhee, moving what buildings it needed and disposing of the remainder. Unlike Big Bend, the townsite is marked by cement foundations, the logging pond, and a small cemetery near the spot where the church once stood. In its day McPhee was a vital factor in the local economy and one of the most important logging operations in Colorado. The mill was one of the most modern for its time, the 1920's. As Chris Gomez mentioned, the mill did provide jobs for the unskilled and semi-skilled, and, after rebounding from the troubles in the early 1930's, was an important factor in supplying work during the Depression.

The story of McPhee is the story of logging operations throughout the West. That it occurred in the twentieth century does not mean that the pattern was significantly different from the nineteenth. The one main difference was the introduction and use of cars and trucks to replace horses and trains. The fact that McPhee was a company town is not unusual, and it did not display some of the worst aspects of the more isolated communities of this type. McPhee was located within a few miles of several other communities, and to its credit, the company did not insist on paying its employees solely in scrip which could be used only at the company store. Like other lumbering communities, McPhee's population was transitory and, even in the prosperous days of the 1920's, much of the local news involved the migration of people in and out of town.

McPhee's passing was scarcely noticed on the state scene, just as its development had been only sketchily followed. Situated in Colorado's southwest corner, neither it nor the region was considered newsworthy. Although appreciated locally, McPhee languished in the larger arena. When the end came, McPhee was only briefly mourned, even by its neighbors, who were caught up in the rush of fast-changing, post-war America.


1David Miller ed., The Route of Dominguez-Escalante Expedition (Dominguez-Escalante Bicentennial commission: 1976). Fray Angelico Chavez trans. and Ted Warner ed., The Dominguez-Escalante Journal (Provo: Brigham Young University, 1976) xiv-xvii. Fray Dominguez was the actual leader of the expedition and Escalante's ecclesiastical superior, but the latter was given credit for writing the journal and leadership by several historians. They actually served as a very effective team and co-authors of the journal.

2Chavez and Warner, Journal, p. 14. The Escalante Ruin" might be the site of the one visited. The calculation was too high; actually it was 37° 15'. The party probably crossed the river at the site of later McPhee.

3Herbert Bolton, Pageant in the Wilderness (Salt Lake: Utah State Historical Society, 1950), p. 127. See also Miller, Route, v. Chavez and Warner, Journal, xvii.

4Dolores News (Rico), 28 August, 23 September 1879.

5Dolores Star, 5 August 1938. Ira Freeman, A History of Montezuma County, Colorado (Boulder: Johnson, 1958), p. 50. A.W. Dillon, paper read Pioneers' Reunion, 1908, Colorado Work Administration (CWA) File. There is some indication that settlers failed in earlier attempts.

6Frederick Paxton, "The County Boundaries of Colorado," University of Colorado Studies (1906), pp. 205 and 212.

7Frank Fossett, Colorado (New York: C.G. Crawford, 1879), p 538. Dolores News, 11 September 1879.

8Rocky Mountain News, 24 January 1878.

9The Dolores post office actually preceded Big Bend, having been established in April, 1878, at a local ranch and later moved. This is why the Colorado business directories refer to it as Dolores throughout the 1880's. Old time resident Mary Taylor referred to it as "The Bend" in a CWA interview in March, 1935; apparently the name was flexible.

10Mrs. S.O. Morton Manuscript, CWA File.

11Commanding Office District of New Mexico to Commanding Officer, Ft. Lewis, 13 June; General Department of New Mexico to Commanding Office Ft. Lewis, 19 June; and Commander Ft. Lewis to Adj. General, Fort Leavenworth, 19 June 1885, Letters sent and received, June-July, 1885, Fort Lewis Records, Center of Southwest Studies, Fort Lewis College.

12Mrs. Howard Porter, CWA interview. Report of C.F. Stollsteimer, U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1885), p. 15. There are various figures as to how many were killed, as high as 11, but Agent Stollsteimer visited the site soon after and counted six. Although some sources say the head of Beaver Creek, it seems most likely the massacre occurred near the mouth, where it runs into the Dolores River.

13Commanding Officer District of New Mexico to Commander, Ft. Lewis, 22, 25 June and 3, 6 July 1885; Col. P.T. Swaine to Major David Perry, 22 June 1885; Swaine to Adj. General, Santa Fe, 21, 27 June and 4 July 1885; 1st Lt. E.W. Casey to Capt. Matt Hooten, 3 July 1885 and to Capt. G. Henderson, 10 July 1885, Ft. Lewis records. Avon Denham, "Narraguinnep Fort," Colorado Magazine (March, 1942), p. 78.

14The Idea, 24 June 1885. This was the weekly edition which quoted comments from the now lost daily editions.

15U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Annual Report, p. 15. The Idea, 27 June 1885.

16Swaine to Adj. General, Fort Leavenworth, 19 June 1885; to Adj. General, Santa Fe, 22, 28 June 1885.

17George Crofutt, Crofutt's Grip-Sack Guide of Colorado (Omaha: Overland Publishing Co., 1881), p. 92. Colorado State Business Directory, 1884-1891 (Denver: Ives, 1884—91). No mention of Dolores was made in issues before 1884.

18Mary Blake, CWA Interview, Center of Southwest Studies.

19Mrs. W.R. Ordway, CWA Interview. Morton Manuscript. Fred Taylor, "Pioneering in Southwestern Colorado," Colorado Magazine (July, 1935), p. 155. Citizens of the Dolores River and vicinity requested the La Plata County Commissioners to establish an election precinct. This request was granted October 1, 1880, La Plata County Commissioners Minutes, 1 October 1880. p. 52.

20Agnes L. Lupke, CWA Interview. Taylor Interview. Dolores Star, 5 August 1938. Lillian Hartman's Colorado, 29 December 1909, p. 16. Freeman, Montezuma County, pp. 50-55.

21Wilson Rockwell, The Utes (Denver: Sage, 1956), p. 323. For an interesting account of the problems of opening the Cortez region, see Bernard Byrne, A Frontier Army Surgeon (New York: Exposition Press, 1962).

22Sonora Porter, A Cortez History, (Cortez Public Library, typewritten), p. 9.

23Montezuma Journal, 28 April 1888. Hall, History of Colorado, 4 Vols. (Denver, Colorado Tinderman Co., 1927) 4:228.

24The Montezuma Valley in Colorado (Cortez: Colorado Consolidated Land and Water Company, 1890), pp. 37, 40-41.

25Durango Herald, quoted in Montezuma Journal, 28 April 1888.

26Hall, History of Colorado, 4:229.

27Fred Taylor, "Pioneering in Southwestern Colorado," Colorado Magazine (July, 1935), p. 157. Born in 1860, Taylor moved to the Cortez-Dolores area after coming to Durango in 1882.

28Mary Blake Interview, CWA records.

29Dolores Star, 17 December 1909. Mallory H. Ferrell, Silver San Juan: The Rio Grande Southern (Boulder: Pruett, 1973), pp. 55, 82. Copeland Rohrabacher, The Great San Juan of Colorado and New Mexico (Durango: Democrat, 1901), p. 12. Frank Hall, History of the State of Colorado (Chicago: Blakely, 1895), 4:230.

30Dolores Star, 17 December 1909 and 5 August 1938. Lillian Hartman's Colorado, p. 16. Colorado State Business Directories, 1891-93.

31Gordon Chappell, Logging Along the Denver & Rio Grande (Golden: Colorado Railroad Museum, 1971), pp. 145-46. Ferrell, Silver San Juan, pp. 393-94.

32Dolores Star, 15 February, 7 March and 11 April 1924. Chappell, Logging, p. 147.

33Dolores Star, 3 October and 14, 21 November 1924. Chappell, Logging, p. 147.

34Dolores Star, 1 August, 5 September, 17 October and 14 November 1924. McPhee was much like other lumbering company towns. See James Allen, The Company Town in the American West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966).

35Dolores Star, 13 August 1926, The Rocky Mountain News (Denver), 18 April and 8 August 1927 carried articles on the McPhee and McGinnity Company, which controlled the New Mexico Lumber Co.

36Charles Artz interview in Sylvia McClellan, McPhee, Colorado, (Dolores: Star Press, 1966), pp. 5, 6, 18, 19, 29, 32, and Chappell, Logging, pp. 154-55. Dolores Star, 6, 27 November, 11 December, 6, 13 August, 3 September, 1926, 20 May 1927, and 7 June 1929.

37Chappell, Logging, pp. 157, 162-63. Ferrell, Silver San Juan, pp. 394-95. Dolores Star, 7 June 1929, 14 November 1930, 1 January 1931, 10 June and 19 August, 1932.

38Eastern Colorado Leader (Limon), no date, quoted in Chappell, Logging, p. 165. See also pp. 163-64.

39Dolores Star, 14 July 1939. McClellan, McPhee, pp. 25-26. Chris Gomez Interview, Cortez Public Library, 15 April 1974. For the end of the railroad see Star, 7 July 1933.

40Gomez Interview. McClellan, McPhee, p. 19.

41Dolores Star, 30 October 1942. See also issues 4, 18 July 1941, 9 January, 19 June and 24 July 1942. Durango Herald-Democrat, 30 June 1941.

42Dolores Star, 3 March 1944. Chappell, Logging, pp. 165. The new owners were R.W. Cady, Lewis Mack, and W. Whismant. Only Mack was local.

43Montezuma Valley Journal (Cortez), 22 January 1948. Dolores Star, 23 January 1948. Sampling of the Star, 1945-47, discovered no McPhee column.

44Dolores Star, 6 February and 26 March 1948.

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Last Updated: 01-Feb-2008