The River of Sorrows:
The History of the Lower Dolores River Valley
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Local histories strike a responsive chord in the hearts and minds of most Americans. Whether tracing the family genealogy, following the boom and bust cycle of a Rocky Mountain mining camp or chronicling the progress of a "hell on wheels" high plains railroad town, local histories can provide an insightful glance into the development of the American character. When this look combines an eye for colorful detail with a regional or national perspective, local histories become a valuable archival and public resource.

The history of the Lower Dolores River Valley in southwestern Colorado achieves this historical synthesis. The four essays show how the rugged land itself shaped the valley's past and will determine its future. The very geographical factors which hindered permanent settlement—steep canyon walls, high altitude and poor soil—have today attracted the intense interest of Bureau of Reclamation hydrologists as an ideal site for a storage reservoir.

Duane Smith in his overview, "Valley of the River of Sorrows," traces the slow, yet methodical, historical progress of the valley. Although initially explored by the Franciscan Dominguez-Escalante expedition of 1776, the valley was destined to languish almost a century before settlement. Yet, assured of a thriving market for their goods in the nearby mining community of Rico, a dependable transportation network and psychological security with the removal of the Ute Indians, pioneers began homesteading the valley in the 1870's and 1880's.

The three essays which follow that of Smith's examine in greater detail the significant historical events and themes within the valley. While settlers south of Dolores lamented the limited acreage available for farming, their neighbors in the adjacent Montezuma Valley faced an even greater challenge. The valley lacked water. Maureen Gerhold illustrates how frontier initiative and technology succeeded in bringing water to the fertile Montezuma Valley. Organized by James W. Hanna, the Montezuma Irrigation System channeled water from the Dolores River through a steep divide by blasting, drilling and excavating a 5,400 foot tunnel and a 4,000 foot "Great Cut." The system represents one of the earliest large-scale, privately funded and continuously operating irrigation projects in the southwestern United States.

Settlement of the lower river valley followed a familiar Western pattern. Hyperbole and frontier "boosterism" were soon stripped away, leaving harsh reality. In the third essay, Linda Dishman relates how pioneers overcame isolation and the limitations of the land itself; their determination punctuated with the continuation of homesteading even after passage of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 which severely curtailed homesteading in the West.

Although agriculture was fated to remain small-scale, the New Mexico Lumber Company's milling operation at McPhee grew at an astounding rate. In the final essay, Lisa Mausolf traces the birth, growth and eventual demise of the company town of McPhee. Founded in 1924, the company town soon became Colorado's most productive lumber operation. Capitalizing on the successful purchase of four million board feet of timber within Montezuma National Forest, the lumber company constructed its mill and town five miles south of Dolores. Like many industrialists locating their companies in isolated rural areas, William McPhee chose to build a company town to house his employees and to attract a more stable work force. The town featured a large stone mill, ethnically segregated housing for more than 1400 employees and the last logging railroad in southwestern Colorado.

The sounds historically associated with the New Mexico Lumber Company mill and town no longer echo through the river valley; and, only skeletal frames of the once numerous homesteads remain scattered along the river valley. The Bureau of Reclamation will build a large reservoir, flooding the valley in order to store the river's waters. By so doing, the Bureau will realize the aspirations held by those first, farsighted entrepreneurs who more than a century earlier, began construction of the Montezuma Valley Irrigation System. The historical essays, photographs and architectural drawings which follow will hopefully provide a lasting testimony to those hardworking pioneers who settled the Lower Dolores River Valley.


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Last Updated: 01-Feb-2008