Frontier in Transition: A History of Southwestern Colorado
BLM Cultural Resources Series (Colorado: No. 10)
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Ranching and Agriculture: The Economic Diversification of Southwestern Colorado

Until 1881, agriculture in southwestern Colorado was confined to limited areas, being basically nothing more than a service industry for mining camps and developing towns. Mining was the initial engine for economic growth in the 1870's, gold and silver were the products that brought people and money to the region, and agriculture was the oil that kept the machinery moving. [1] The increasing importance of agriculture, ranching, and fruit growing came about through several events. The removal of the Utes from the Western Slope in 1881 freed the alluvial valleys of the Uncompahgre River, the Gunnison River, and the North Fork of the Gunnison River for agricultural purposes, railroad construction, and permanent settlement. Stimulated by the promotion and construction of irrigation projects, agriculturalists moved away from dry land farming techniques, and began experimenting with a variety of crops on the newly opened lands. By the mid-1880's, the North Fork of the Gunnison River, the lower Uncompahgre River, and the Montezuma valley regions had been discovered to be well-suited for fruit growing. The forested regions near the San Juan River and the Dolores River attracted enterprising lumber companies during the 1890's and after the turn of the century. Valley hay production, and summer grazing in the mountains, had natural advantages over eastern Colorado range conditions, and caused the establishment of a prosperous livestock industry. Finally, the decline in the price of silver after 1893 promoted diversification in regional economics, sending many former miners to the newly developing towns in agricultural areas. [2]

The attraction of open and unused land, a theme which runs throughout the history of the American west, provided the stimulus for the development of ranching and agriculture in southwestern Colorado during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Like early mining however, enterprising ranchers, farmers, and lumbermen began their operations without full knowledge of the extent and vulnerability of the resources they developed. In their minds, the land, the water supply, and forests were abundantly available for their particular purposes. By the turn of the century, another philosophy concerned with land use arose. Motivated by a desire to counter the destructive use and to promote the efficient management of the country's natural resources, conservationists enacted legislation beginning in 1891, that called for the withdrawal of numerous forest reserves throughout Colorado and the west. The creation of the White River Forest Reserve in 1891 and the Battlement Mesa Forest Reserve in 1892 marked the beginning of a different and modern approach to resource use and protection.

The history of contemporary ranching and agriculture in southwestern Colorado was determined, to a large extent, by the federal government's creation of forest reserves, its imposition of public domain regulation, and the promotion of numerous reclamation projects. The idea of conserving the state's and nation's natural resources through regulation was often vehemently opposed by western slope communities, especially its cattle growers. While not an entirely peaceful transition, the assumption on the part of the government, during the twentieth century, for the regulation of the public lands is an important factor in the history of southwestern Colorado. The history of ranching and agriculture from 1881 to 1920 then, is characterized by the attempts of ranchers, farmers, lumbermen, and fruit growers to adapt to the requirements of the land and the resources from which they made their livelihood.

The history of the range livestock industry in southwestern Colorado begins with the establishment of the Los Pinos Indian Agency cow camp, in 1869, on Tomichi Creek just outside present Gunnison. To supply the agency with beef, government agents drove Texas cattle, usually Longhorns, north from New Mexico, through the San Luis Valley, and over Cochetopa Pass. Jim Kelley and Alonzo Hartman, names synonomous with the later growth of the Gunnison country's cattle raising industry, were in charge of the cow camp. They grazed the agency's stock on Tomichi Creek and in Taylor Park. The Longhorns that were procured for agency consumption because of their abundance and low cost, lost favor among western slope ranchers in subsequent years due to their tough meat, and their failure to acclimate to higher altitudes. Southwestern Colorado has been chiefly Shorthorn and Hereford cattle country. Introduced to the region in the 1870's and 1890's respectively, the Shorthorn and Hereford breeds adapted well to the environment of the western slope. Sturdier and stockier than the Texas cattle, these English breeds offered considerably more prime beef. [3]

One of the first herds of Shorthorns, from Missouri, to enter southwestern Colorado was driven by Fernando James and Frank Wadsworth in the early 1870's. When the Utes denied them admittance to southeastern Colorado, James and Wadsworth took their herd over Raton Pass to Santa Fe, and then to Farmington, New Mexico. From Farmington, they persuaded the Utes to allow them to enter present-day Montezuma County. Upon arrival, the cattle were broken up into a number of small herds which were then parcelled out, each placed in the care of an Indian family. The Indians learned to drive their cattle to the high mountain ranges during the summer, bringing them down to the valleys in the fall. For almost a decade, James and Wadsworth furnished supplies and horses to the Utes while receiving a large share of the annual livestock increase. These early Shorthorns became the foundation stock for many of the herds in western Colorado in later years. [4]

Although comparatively smaller in scope than eastern Colorado's cattle industry, southwestern Colorado did experience open range days and "an era of the cattle kings". Beginning in the late 1870's, and lasting until the mid-1890's, large herds of cattle were grazed in the Montezuma Valley, the Paradox and San Miguel Valleys, in the Gunnison country, and along the North Fork of the Gunnison River. Initially with Shorthorns and later with Herefords, the cattle kings extended their herds over large areas of western slope range country, and dominated the political and economic life of the growing towns in their respective regions.

In 1879, the grazing land between the Mancos River and the Dolores River attracted the attention of the prominent Trinidad cattleman, George W. Thompson. Thompson first used the range from the Mancos River to Cross Canyon, on the Dolores River, to graze approximately 5,000 head of cattle. By 1884, Thompson Park cattle, including forty purebred Herefords and fifty purebred Shorthorn bulls, numbered close to 12,000 head. As the townsites of Dolores and Mancos developed and land was increasingly taken up for homesteads, Thompson moved out. In 1884, he trailed his entire herd eastward across the mountains into the San Luis Valley and on to West Las Animas on the Arkansas River, from where they were shipped to Kansas City. [5]

The lower San Miguel and Paradox Valleys, like the Montezuma Valley, were settled by cowmen. In the early 1880's, W. H. Nelson, travelling from Lathrop, Colorado by way of the Gunnison River Valley and Montrose, summered his herd of 600 cattle at Iron Springs Mesa, about ten miles northwest of Placerville. Nelson soon established a summer range camp near the base of the Lone Cone in southern San Miguel County, a fall range camp on Dry Creek, west of the Lone Cone camp in what is now referred to as the "Basin", and a winter range camp at the junction of Gypsum Creek and the Dolores River. [6] In 1883, James P. Galloway brought 1,200 head from Wagon Wheel Gap and settled in the Paradox Valley near Bedrock, close to Nelson's winter grazing operation. Galloway established a 1,600-acre ranch from where he managed his herds. The San Miguel Cattle Company and the Club Ranch established their headquarters near the site of modern Uravan, and ran cattle between the San Miguel River and East Paradox during the early 1880's. In 1884, Harry B. Adsit, with about 1,000 head, settled in the Lone Cone region. In 1885, these and other cattlemen formed a headquarters near their fall and spring ranges, and called it Norwood. Each spring during the late 1880's, ranchers from the San Miguel and Paradox Valleys gathered their respective herds and trailed them through Norwood en route to summer range in Beaver Park and on Goshorn Flats in the Big Cone and Little Cone areas in southern San Miguel County. In the fall, the cattle were herded back through Norwood and driven north to the freighting centers of Montrose and Delta. In 1890, when the Rio Grande Southern was built, cattle were trailed to the Placerville station, from where they were shipped to eastern markets. In 1890, close to 30,000 cattle grazed the Norwood region. [7]

At the same time the Paradox and lower San Miguel River Valleys were opened as cattle country, Sam Hartman, Alonzo's brother, came from Denver by way of Gunnison to settle and graze his herd of Shorthorns in the North Fork of the Gunnison River Valley. Encouraged by the North Fork's potential for cattle operations, Hartman returned to Gunnison in 1882 to purchase more cattle, saddle horses, and 300 pounds of oats. By 1883, Sam Hartman had one of the largest herds in western Colorado, running them in the summer months on Crystal Creek, Curecanti Creek, and Soap Creek, while wintering them near his homestead near the Little Muddy River, below Castle Rock. By this time, other stockmen had come into the North Fork's grazing territory, driving their cattle from Gunnison over Black Mesa via the old Indian trail. Aaron Clough and Sam Angevine put the first cattle on the Minnesota Creek range in 1883, and at about the same time, David and Solomon Stevens drove a herd into the Holy Terror Creek country. Near the headwaters of the North Fork, Enos Hotchkiss and the Wade brothers, more noted for fruit growing in the region, were also the first cattlemen in the Big Muddy territory. [8]

Shorthorns were the pioneer stock of the North Fork cattle country in the 1880's; they were brought in from eastern Colorado by way of Gunnison and Black Mesa. By the early 1890's some Hereford bulls were herded onto the Terror Creek range, and before long the Hereford breed outrivalled their predecessors because of general hardiness and superior lung power. During the 1880's and early 1890's, North Fork cattle were wintered in the valleys near the towns of Crawford, Paonia, and Hotchkiss, and summered in the surrounding mountain ranges. In the fall, herds were driven from their summer ranges to Delta, Glenwood Springs or taken over Black Mesa along the "Hartman Trail" to Sapinero, from where they were shipped to Denver and eastern markets by rail. Approximately 150,000 head roamed Delta County from 1884 to 1890. The last big summer roundup occurred in 1893. By this time the winter ranges along the North Fork Valley had been largely fenced or overgrazed. Thousands of cattle also died during the unusually harsh winter of 1893. [9]

Cattle running on the Ohio creek range near Castleton. Colorado Historical Society

Montrose District map illustrating the major coal fields in the region. (click on image for a PDF version)

A major determinant in the growth of the cattle industry in southwestern Colorado was the arrival of rail transportation. With such facilities, the towns of Durango and Gunnison, during the 1880's, became shipping centers for cattle raisers in their respective regions. Gunnison became a focal point for the cattle industry of west central Colorado when in 1882, the first shipment of marketable steers was made over the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad from that city to Denver. [10] By 1885, Alonzo Hartman had expanded his ranching operation on Tomichi Creek by parlaying his original 160-acre homestead into one of the great ranches of the Gunnison country. The general and expanded use of abundant land for grazing in the vicinity of the Gunnison market place, in Taylor Park, along Ohio Creek, and in the Cebolla-Powderhorn country, made the entire region during the 1880's and 1890's, one of the fastest growing cattle centers in the state. For example, by 1905, Hartman's Dos Rios mansion, from where he managed 2,000 acres of land and ran 2,000 head of cattle, became a landmark for the region. [11]

Attractive not only to cattlemen, southwestern Colorado's valley regions also appealed to homesteaders, farmers, and fruit growers. As these persons took up more land claims, subsequently reducing the extent of open range areas, cattle raising had become, by the turn of the century, a scattered, small-scale enterprise. Cattle grazed on fewer acres of land. This, in turn, depleted natural grasses on available range lands. As cattlemen failed to adapt to a changing situation in southwestern Colorado, they were forced out of business, leaving unoccupied lands open to others. The gradual diminution of the cattle range in southwestern Colorado, was accompanied by two significant developments, the creation of national forest reserves and the emergence of the sheep industry. The conflict that arose at the turn of the century over forest reserve administration, as well as between sheepmen and cattlemen regarding range use, represented the beginnings of a new direction within the range industry in southwestern Colorado. Administration of the public lands and the question of grazing rights, while they had their origins about 1890, remain fundamental and inter-related issues today. A clause in the General Revision Act of 1891 stated that:

The President of the United States may, from time to time, set apart and reserve in any State or Territory . . . any part of the public lands wholly or in part covered by timber or undergrowth, whether of commercial value or not, as public reservations, and the President shall, by public proclamation, declare the establishment of such reservations and the limits thereof [12]

On October 16, 1891, in accordance with the General Revision Act, President Benjamin Harrison created the White River Timber Land Reserve (White River Forest Reserve), the second such forest reserve in the United States and the first in Colorado. In the following year, on Christmas Eve, the most imposing withdrawal of the state's forested land to that date, the Battlement Mesa Forest Reserve was created. Important to conservation efforts, this reserve, which was composed of land in Gunnison and Delta Counties, sealed off from homestead entry the entire watershed of the North Fork of the Gunnison River. Reaction among southwestern Coloradans was mixed. On the one hand, farmers and fruit growers in the vicinity of the towns of Delta and Montrose were enthusiastic about the protection of their interests through the conservation of natural water supplies. On the other hand, cattlemen in the region were skeptical about the reserve, for in 1892, no administrative plan for its use had been spelled out. In the spring of 1898, Secretary of the Interior Hoke Smith established a grazing permit and quota system, whereby signatures were required from all applicants who wished to use the grazing lands within the reservation. Despite the initial furor over the creation of forest reserves in Colorado, some cattlemen favored the conservation program. They argued that unless overgrazing was stopped, the cattle industry faced certain extinction on the western slope. The permit system, if administered properly, might prove beneficial to the "little man", while restricting the cattle barons. Finally, cattlemen favored the permit and quota system on the grounds that it protected them from encroaching sheep populations. [13] At the turn of the century, large numbers of sheep entered the grazing lands in the southwestern corner of the state from Utah and New Mexico. By 1910 for example, the sheep population of Archuleta, La Plata, Montezuma, and Montrose Counties was 200,031 as compared to 68,508 cattle. [14] Measures which barred the entrance of sheep onto the Battlement Mesa Forest Reserve were fully supported by the area's cattlemen. The attitude of many cattlemen in Gunnison and Delta Counties, who saw an opportunity, through federal management, to keep sheep off the Battlement Mesa Reserve, shifted to the anti-conservation ranks when on April 4, 1900 forest reserve grazing permits, for all livestock, were allowed by the General Land Office. [15] The growing disapproval of the forest reserve concept reached its peak during the period from 1905 to 1907 during the second administration of Theodore Roosevelt.

In May, 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt created the Gunnison Forest Reserve; while in June, the San Juan, Cochetopa, Montezuma, and Uncompahgre Forest Reserves were established. In a period of one month, a total of 3,664,506 acres had been withdrawn in southwestern Colorado. Making matters more detestable to the region's cattle growers was the administration's grazing tax program, which went into effect on January 1, 1906. To graze on the forest reserves, cattlemen were required to pay from twenty-five to thirty-five cents per head during the regular season, and sheepmen paid from five to eight cents under the same conditions. Although initial grazing quotas were generous and rates were fair, cattlemen protested the very idea of government supervision. Verbal protest during the late 1890's turned, at times, to violent threats in the 1910's. Forest Service Rangers such as James Lowell in the Montezuma Forest Reserve and William Kreutzer of the Battlement Mesa and Gunnison Forest Reserves faced intense and often hostile opposition to the imposition of grazing regulation and management. [16]

As much as the federal government attempted to regulate use of the forest reserves for grazing purposes, they were powerless to completely alleviate the persistent tension between sheep and cattle interests. Sheepmen were discouraged from using Gunnison and Delta County ranges by the Cattle Growers' Protective Association, an extra-legal society which often used violence as a weapon to stop sheepmen and their flocks from entering the region. Testimony to the association's effectiveness is the fact that in 1910, only seventy-two sheep were counted in Gunnison County. [17] On the insistence, and under the supervision of the Forest Service, sheep were finally allowed into the Muddy Creek, North Fork, and Taylor Park regions after 1910, but as late as 1917, the Gunnison River was the recognized dividing line between the sheep and cattle country near Sapinero; the north side belonging, by unwritten law, to the cattlemen, while the south side was occupied by sheepmen. [18] Despite a gradual easing of tensions after 1920, controversy over range use and government supervision continued. The livestock industry remains one of the largest contributors to the economy of southwestern Colorado, and as it has developed into modern times so too has federal involvement with it. The enactment of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934, and the creation of the Bureau of Land Management in 1946, are examples of such expanded federal activity. Their importance to southwestern Colorado, will be discussed in the following chapter.

As cattlemen considered grazing lands and the open range on the public domain theirs by right of first use, and as mining operations sought to locate and extract all valuable minerals within reach, so too did southwestern Coloradans, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, perceive forested areas as exploitable and practically limitless resources. Government conservation policies of the 1900's, in affecting the regulation of grazing lands, were aimed directly at stopping the destruction of timberlands themselves. The rapid development of mining, and the construction of townsites and railroads in the 1880's and 1890's were dependent upon the availability of large amounts of timber. Mine-shaft timbers, railroad ties, and building lumber were supplied by abundant forests. For example, the cross-ties used by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad were hand hewn and six and one-half feet long by six inches square each. Millions of board feet of lumber went into the construction of culverts, trestles, bridges, water tanks, and buildings along the railroad. With the exception of railroad contracts, early logging in southwestern Colorado supplied a limited, local market. Yet the available and plentiful timber resources attracted, by the 1890's and 1900's, businessmen interested in developing a lumber industry. The operations of two such lumber companies in the San Juan River Valley and in the Dolores River Valley clearly illustrate that despite conservation legislation, logging interests prevailed for many years after the creation of the national forests.

In February, 1895, Edgar Biggs, C. D. McPhee, and J. J. McGinnity of the New Mexico Lumber Company incorporated the Rio Grande and Pagosa Springs Railroad (RG&PS). They intended to build their line from Lumberton, New Mexico, on the D&RG main line, to the timber regions around Pagosa Springs, establishing saw mills and lumber camps in the vicinity of construction. By the close of 1896, the RG&PS line had been built just within the Colorado border, and on the Rio Navajo, the lumber towns of Edith and Chromo were established. By 1898, the Edith and Chromo mills had a combined daily capacity of 85,000 board feet of lumber. The timber resources around Pagosa Springs also attracted A. T. Sullenberger, who, in April of 1899, incorporated the Rio Grande Pagosa and Northern Railroad (RGP&N). Sullenberger's proposed line would run between Pagosa Junction, on the D&RG main line, to Pagosa Springs. Two weeks after the formation of the RGP&N, Sullenberger expanded his interests by incorporating the Pagosa Lumber Company. The spring of 1899 began what appeared to be a race to the ponderosa pine forests in the San Juan River Valley around Pagosa Springs.

In October, 1900, the "Pagosa and Northern" began regular service; by that time the RG&PS had managed only slight progress north of its Chromo mill site. As a result of no real competition from the New Mexico Lumber Company, the Pagosa Lumber Company quickly expanded its logging operations in all directions from its newly established saw mill at Pagosa Junction. Sullenberger carried out initial operations north of the mill in the vicinity of Dyke. In 1903, the Pagosa Lumber Company built its second saw mill at Dyke. Employing twenty-five to thirty men, this plant, during the ensuing years, turned out several million board feet of lumber. As the area between Pagosa Junction and Dyke, which supplied most of the logs milled at the Junction plant, was progressively stripped of its timber, it seemed to Sullenberger good business to move the main plant nearer the scene of cutting. The most available forests were located north of Pagosa Springs, along the San Juan River and east of the RGP&N line. To fulfill its needs, the Pagosa Lumber Company constructed in 1905, a logging railroad spur which stretched into the hills north of Pagosa Springs for more than a dozen miles, then descended back to the southeast into the San Juan Valley. The large stands of timber, it appeared, would provide profitable work for at least another decade. Their expectations were realized for the timber resources in the San Juan River region were almost completely depleted by 1915. In 1916, the Pagosa Lumber Company pulled up stakes, railroad spurs, plant facilities, and left Pagosa Springs. [19]

Logging in the Edith region, like that near Pagosa Springs, had stripped so much of the available timber that the New Mexico Lumber Company was forced, in 1914, to pull its operations back into New Mexico. However, during the latter stages of logging in the region, Edgar Biggs had set his sights on another potentially rich timber region in southwestern Colorado.

Construction of the Rio Grande Southern, in 1891, formed a large arc of narrow gauge trackage through the heavily forested regions in the La Plata and San Miguel Mountain ranges. In 1901 and 1902, with available railroad facilities for his logging interests at Dolores, Biggs bought cutting rights to large stands of timber north of that town. In 1905, Biggs hired Arthur Ridgway to survey the region for its timber potential. Ridgway's report estimated that 210 square miles or 134,400 acres of prime western yellow pine were available in the area. He also proposed that Biggs construct a sixty-five mile logging railroad with which to harvest close to 135,000 narrow gauge carloads of lumber.

Biggs' original plan was to harvest the timber north of Dolores without New Mexico Lumber Company backing. McPhee caught wind of Biggs' plan however, and purchased the Denver-based lumber company which Biggs had hoped would finance his operation. Although Biggs remained affiliated with New Mexico Lumber until 1917, McPhee and McGinnity, after their coup of 1907, took charge of operations in the Dolores River Valley. Soon after, they extended Biggs' initial holdings by filing on alternate sections of land north and west of Dolores in a checkerboard fashion, isolating intermediate sections and rendering them inaccessible to competitive operations. By 1913, New Mexico Lumber, under the direction of McPhee and McGinnity, had obtained cutting rights in the Dolores region which totalled close to ninety million board feet of lumber.

McPhee focused his attention on his New Mexican timber operations until 1924, when a government timber sale in the Montezuma National Forest was announced. United States District Forester Allen Peck estimated that the timber offered amounted to about seventy million feet of western yellow pine. Beginning seven miles north of Dolores, the forested tract extended fifty-five miles and covered 118,391 acres. With its adjacent holdings, the New Mexico Lumber Company made good its bid for the national forest timber, and began planning its harvesting. The company made plans to erect a mill town approximately four miles north of Dolores, construct a railroad to that town, and extend railroad logging spurs into the available timber stands. In June, 1924, the logging town was named McPhee. By the end of the following year, McPhee's lumber mill was in full operation, the logging railroad extended for over forty miles into the timber stands, and the town bustled with activity. By August, 1926, it was reported that the lumber mill at McPhee produced 125,000 board feet of lumber per day. According to the Denver Post, McPhee, in 1927, had one of the west's biggest saw mills. Employing a crew of about 500, the McPhee plant accounted for more than one-half of the state's sixty million foot production for 1927. While 1927 was the peak year of McPhee's lumber operations; the years that immediately followed were ones of bad luck and failure. Destructive fires in the saw mill and the economic impact of the Great Depression of the 1930's all but shut down the mill and logging operation. By July, 1933, the last of the logs adjacent to the railroad were brought into McPhee. [20]

A perspective on the logging industry in southwestern Colorado is, at best, a two-sided proposition. The lumber which the companies of Sullenberger, Biggs, McPhee, and McGinnity manufactured was indispensable to the development of towns and other industry on the western slope. Their efforts were a valuable contribution to the growth of regional economics. Clearly however, the New Mexico Lumber Company and the Pagosa Lumber Company's operations demonstrated the necessity of establishing rigid guidelines for timber harvesting. The untold damage to the region's forests, animal life, and watersheds through unrestricted cutting severely jeopardized natural reforestation. Timber harvesting in southwestern Colorado at present, while not the prolific or exploitative enterprise of former years, attempts to meet the requirements of lumber users as well as those of forest protection measures.

Similar to ranching and the logging industry, agriculture is dependent upon the availability and productivity of natural resources, suitable climate, soil, and moisture being primary requirements. With agriculture, there is an additional factor; the farmer must experiment with planting methods and wait for results. Pioneer agriculturalists in southwestern Colorado, during the last two decades of the nineteenth century had to answer two fundamental questions as well. Would crops prosper at high elevations, and was there enough water to ensure adequate yields? One of the early experiments in agriculture that proved successful was in the area of fruit growing.

In the fall of 1881, Sam Wade and Enos Hotchkiss visited the North Fork of the Gunnison River. Upon discovering that thorn apple and buffalo berry bushes grew in abundance, they were convinced that many varieties of fruit might be raised in the valley. After returning to Lake City, Wade went back to the North Fork during the following spring, bringing with him a number of experimental fruit trees from Missouri. Wade's fruit cargo consisted of 100 apple trees, ten pear and apricot trees, twenty peach trees, 200 cherry trees, 100 grape vines, 1,000 blackberry plants, and 500 maple trees. [21] He planted them on his homestead, the site of present-day Paonia. In the spring of 1882, Hotchkiss set out a few fruit trees of his own on his homestead, near modern day Hotchkiss. By this time, about 600 acres in the North Fork valley had been taken up for fruit growing, and irrigation ditches were constructed to the various orchards. After the first planting in 1882, Hotchkiss, Wade and others waited anxiously for results. The soil actually exceeded expectations, and although Wade lost close to one-third of his planting during the winter, the remainder of the crop grew well. By 1885, the potential of the North Fork valley received widespread attention after the region's fruit growers displayed their wares at a fair sponsored by the Delta County Board of the State Horticultural Society. [22]

Following the success of North Fork growers, the fruit industry spread to other regions of Delta County and to Montrose County. The Bell orchard, in Montrose County, was planted in 1889, and contained 3,000 apple trees, 3,000 peach trees, 500 pear trees, and seventy-five cherry trees. The Stephens orchard, near Delta, was composed of 950 apple trees, 1,150 peach, and a number of pear, plum, and apricot trees. In 1891, apple, peach, pear, and cherry orchards in Montrose and Delta Counties yielded, for shipment, 31,225 and 198,680 pounds of produce respectively. [23]

While fruit growing prospered in Delta and Montrose Counties during the early years of the twentieth century, similar developments took place in Montezuma County. By the turn of the century, west of Cortez, in McElmo Canyon, apple and peach orchards had been planted. In 1904, McElmo Canyon peaches won national awards at the St. Louis World's Fair. During the years from 1909 to 1912, apple orchards were set out in the vicinity of Lebanon, approximately seven miles north of Cortez. [24] The southwestern Colorado fruit industry, a mainstay in the Montezuma Valley, Uncompahgre Valley, and North Fork's economy by 1910, was developed steadily into the 1920's. In 1920, Delta County ranked first in Colorado for the number of productive apple and apricot trees, and second, behind Mesa County, for peach and pear trees; and in 1925, apple production for southwestern Colorado was more than one-half of the state's total. [25]

A row of York Imperial Apple trees at the Ashenfelter orchard near Montrose, Colorado. Denver Public Library, Western History Department

The development of staple crop and feed crop production in southwestern Colorado progressed in a pattern quite unlike the fruit growing industry. Where fruit growing began as an experimental and entrepreneurial venture, staple and feed crop production was undertaken out of necessity. With rapid population growth during the 1880's and 1890's, arose food supply demands that had not existed earlier. Where the mining camps of the 1870's had imported the bulk of their food requirements from eastern Colorado producers, the large number of settlers who came to the region during the last twenty years of the nineteenth century made arrangements unfeasible. Although meat was easily supplied, cattle and even wild game being used, the attention of early agriculturists was focused on staple crop, subsistence production.

Probably the first staple crop to be grown in southwestern Colorado was wheat. Introduced initially to Colorado by Mexican settlers, wheat was planted in the Montezuma Valley during the early 1880's, and not long after that in the Uncompahgre Valley. [26] To supply herds of cattle during the winter, ranchers bought alfalfa or raised it themselves. Colorado alfalfa was grown as early as the mid-1880's, primarily in the large cattle raising regions of the Montezuma Valley, the Uncompahgre River, Gunnison River, and North Fork Valleys. Alfalfa is not only a good drought resistor, but it is a crop that also adds vital nutrients to the soil. During the 1890's and early twentieth century, crop diversification techniques prompted experimentation in alternating alfalfa with other crops. By the turn of the century, it was found that potatoes, when planted after several seasons of an alfalfa crop, grew abundantly. Introduced to southwestern Colorado by eastern growers and European immigrants, potatoes were grown primarily in the Uncompahgre River Valley. In 1921, potatoes raised near Montrose, Olathe, and Delta yielded for shipment a combined total of 2,350 railroad carloads. [27] Diversification of crop planting in the early twentieth century also led to the successful cultivation of onions and peas. A crop that brought good returns in southwestern Colorado was Pinto or Mexican beans. Successful bean planting resulted from the discovery that beans could be grown without irrigation through dry land farming methods. Thought to have possibly been introduced by prehistoric inhabitants of the Dolores River Valley, twentieth century bean growing occurred largely in sections of Montezuma and Dolores County. Beans, in fact, were Dolores County's major agricultural product. Another crop that was found to grow well in southwestern Colorado soil was sugar beets. Beets were first raised in 1887, on the western slope in Mesa County; the first sugar beet factory was built in Grand Junction in 1899. Sugar beet farming in the Uncompahgre Valley did not get underway until 1904, and except for a few farms in Uncompahgre Park (in Ouray County), all the sugar beets grown in southwestern Colorado were found in Delta and Montrose Counties. [28] Originally shipped to the Grand Junction factory, sugar beets from the Delta and Montrose regions were, after 1920, processed at a newly opened plant at Delta. The Delta sugar beet factory, managed by the Holly Sugar Company, produced at a 600-ton per day capacity by 1926. The beet sugar industry, successful in its own right, also supplemented other agricultural endeavors. Beet pulp, tops and beet molasses, in the diets of cattle and sheep, promoted fattening and increased meat and milk production. [29]

Southwestern Colorado's soils showed potential for high yields from the beginning of agricultural experiments. The accomplishments of fruit growers during the 1880's and 1890's were a good example. Despite early successes however, it was apparent to farmers that diverted or stored water was required to ensure continued production. The beginnings of the sugar beet industry on the western slope was based exclusively on irrigation, as beet crops required watering in the late summer when streams are usually at low levels. As the amount of land taken up for agricultural purposes steadily increased, demands by farmers, fruit growers, and townspeople put a strain on already limited water supplies. The development of irrigation engineering, undertaken from the outset of agricultural experimentation, became necessary even before the turn of the century.

Water rights and water shortage problems have been a part of Colorado history since the early settlement period. Common law or riparian rights, giving land owners the right to water that flowed over their land, even though no beneficial use was made of it, were rejected by Colorado's pioneers. The First Territorial Legislature enacted, in 1861, a law stating that "all persons claiming, owning, or holding a possessory right or title to any land in the Colorado Territory that is on the bank, margin, or neighborhood of any stream of water shall be entitled to its use for agricultural purposes". [30] The Colorado State Constitution upheld this doctrine, by reaffirming "the right to divert the unappropriated water of any natural stream to beneficial uses shall never be denied. Priority of appropriation shall give the better right as between those using the water for the same purposes". [31]

With legal precedents for the diversion of water established, pioneer agriculturalists in southwestern Colorado during the early 1880's, put them to use. Sam Wade, for example, diverted water from the North Fork of the Gunnison River to his orchards at Paonia as soon as they were planted. As the number of water users increased, so too did the size of irrigation projects. By the mid-1880's, the capital to build large irrigation canals was generally raised through the formation of corporations. One of the more successful ventures of this type was organized in the Montezuma Valley.

In November, 1885, James W. Hanna, of Cortez, and a number of wealthy men from outside the area formed the Montezuma Valley Water Supply Company. The company intended to construct an irrigation canal from the Dolores River through the divide that separated that river from the Montezuma Valley. Beginning in 1887, and for two years, crews worked on a 5,400 foot tunnel of the "Great Cut" through the divide. In 1889, the tunnel was completed, and brought water to farmers and ranchers in the Montezuma Valley. At about the same time work was underway on the Montezuma Valley project, a second company, known as the Dolores Number Two Land and Canal Company, was organized. In 1887, construction at the point of the "Great Cut" tunnel intake began. The Dolores Number Two Canal, when finally completed in 1907, carried water, through the Morton Flume, to the Yellow Jacket, Hovenweep, and McElmo Canyon regions. Narraguinnep Reservoir was filled, as well, by this canal. Despite numerous changes in corporate ownership, indebtedness, and dissatisfaction among water users, the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company survived, and to this day continues operations. [32]

The first irrigation project in the Uncompahgre River Valley began in 1882, when O. D. Loutsenhizer built a four-mile ditch from the Uncompahgre River to Montrose. Finding the Loutsenhizer ditch inadequate to meet water demands, the Uncompahgre Ditch and Land Company organized and built, in 1883, the Montrose and Delta Canal. Its outtake was seven miles south of Montrose, and it extended down the valley as far as Delta. Numerous ditches were dug further down the Uncompahgre River around Olathe and Delta, but it was discovered, by 1890, that despite the continued construction of irrigation canals from the river, there was not nearly enough water to meet ever increasing demands. It was estimated, in 1890, that water from the Uncompahgre River could effectively irrigate only 10,000 acres out of a total of 185,000 acres of irrigable land in the valley. This shortage caused the residents of the Uncompahgre Valley to look longingly at the torrent of water plunging through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River, only sixteen miles away. [33] To divert water from the Gunnison River into the Uncompahgre Valley, large amounts of money and machinery were required; needs that neither private individuals or corporations could provide. At the turn of the century, however, federal agencies became interested in the reclamation of irrigable lands, and gave hope to the farmers, ranchers, and fruit growers in the Uncompahgre Valley that such a project could be possible.

The first person to recognize the feasibility of diverting water from the Gunnison River was F. C. Lauzon, of Montrose. Though he spoke tirelessly on the subject at school board and town meetings, he failed to secure funds from property owners for his diversion scheme. In 1900, Mead Hammond, of Paonia, placed a measure before the Colorado House of Representatives that called for a $25,000 appropriation to survey and begin construction of a tunnel from the Gunnison River to the Uncompahgre Valley. Although the bill passed and 800 feet of tunnel was completed, the financing was wholly inadequate to meet the demands of such a large project. [34]

In June, 1902, the Newlands Act was signed by President Theodore Roosevelt. This piece of legislation provided a plan whereby financing for projects like the one on the Gunnison River could take place. The Newlands Act established a fund that would be used for surveying, constructing, and maintaining irrigation works for water storage, diversion, or transmission. Appropriations for individual irrigation projects, as approved by the Department of the Interior, were to be repaid through assessments on the project's reclaimed land. These payments, in turn, would create a revolving fund from which future projects could be financed. In March, 1903, the Bureau of Reclamation, created by the Newlands Act, took over the Gunnison Tunnel Project from the State of Colorado. Construction began in January, 1905 and was not completed until September, 1909. The importance of the Newlands Act, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Gunnison Tunnel can be seen in the growth of farming and irrigation acreage for Gunnison and Delta Counties after 1909.

In the Uncompahgre River Valley, the Montezuma Valley, and in other areas of southwestern Colorado as well, irrigation promoted the development and growth of agriculture in the years after 1900. Tables V and VI illustrate the increased irrigation acreage in southwestern Colorado counties for two separate time periods; Table V demonstrates the general increase in irrigation acreage before 1909; and Table VI points to the fact that after 1930, irrigation began to catch up with the amount of land suitable for agricultural production. Table VII, in relation to Tables V and VI, demonstrates that the increase in irrigation greatly affected the growth in farm acreage, and the increase in the number of farms started in the years between 1900 and 1920.



County1889 18991909

La Plata11,78510,77140,840
San Juan---------
San Miguel2,1255,42514,712



*Twelfth Census of the United States (1900), V., Agriculture, Part 2, p. 832; Thirteenth Census (1910), Agriculture, By States, Alabama-Montana, 227-232. This table was originally found in the Social and Economic History of Southwestern Colorado, 1860-1948, by Dansil Highfill Cummins, p. 670.



County1919 19291939

La Plata63,75594,53275,218
San Juan---------
San Miguel18,63418,24924,250



**Fourteenth Census of the United States (1920), VII, Irrigation and Drainage, 156-161; Fifteenth Census (1930),Irrigation of Agricultural Lands, p. 106-111; Sixteenth Census (1940), Irrigation of Agricultural Lands, p. 216. This table was found in the Social and Economic History of Southwestern Colorado, 1860-1948, by Densil Highfill Cummins, p. 671.


The Number of Farms and Farm Acreage in Southwestern Colorado, 1900-1920***

County Number of FarmsLand in Farms (Acres)
190019101920 190019101920

Archuleta215282420 41,29885,130146,028
Delta8741,7411,741 93,689142,193142,193
Dolores3631186 3,3825,57857,889
Gunnison239277376 52,79583,282121,579
Hinsdale352440 5,2885,43610,633
La Plata2977351,069 60,069151,709305,003
Montezuma2611,004904 46,072159,204192,703
Montrose5241,1381,368 83,349151,375218,255
Ouray128189180 25,67348,83373,010
San Juan600 5500
San Miguel229140334 45,56635,600128,492
State Totals24,70046,17059,934 ---13,532,11324,462,014

***Figures for 1900 and 1910 were taken from the Thirteenth Census of the United States (1910), Agriculture. Vol. IV., (Alabama-Montana) (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1913), pp. 184-232. Figures for 1920 were taken from the United States Census of Agriculture 1925, Colorado (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1927), pp. 203-259.

The year 1905 stands out as a milestone, not only as regards the growth of ranching and agriculture, but for the development of southwestern Colorado in general. In that year, the Bureau of Reclamation began work on the Gunnison Tunnel Project. In May and June of 1905, the Gunnison, San Juan, Montezuma, Cochetopa, and Uncompahgre Forest Reserves were created. The entrance of the federal government into the determination of southwestern Colorado land use is clearly a major transition in the region's history. In all respects, 1905 was the beginning of a new and modern era in southwestern Colorado. Replacing ineffective and wasteful use of the region's natural resources with scientific and planned management, while not always popular, was of great impact. Federal programs for grazing, timber harvesting, reclamation, and public lands leasing affected ranching and agriculture directly in the years from 1905 to 1920, but shaped, as well, those industries which would play an important role in the continued development of southwestern Colorado.

Montrose District map showing the boundaries of the national forests in the region. (click on image for a PDF version)

Chapter IX: Notes

1. Carl Abbott, Colorado: A History of the Centennial State (Boulder: Colorado Associated University Press, 1976), p. 166.

2. See: D. H. Cummins, "Social and Economic History of Southwestern Colorado, 1860-1948" (Ph.D. Thesis: University of Texas, 1951), p. 626.

3. For a general description of the various breeds of cattle in the pioneer range days of Colorado, see: Ora Peake, The Colorado Range Cattle Industry (Glendale, California: A. H. Clark Co., 1937).

See also: Richard Goff, Century in the Saddle (Denver: Colorado Cattlemen's Centennial Commission, 1967).

4. Goff, op. cit., pp. 20-21.

5. Lamar Morre, "George W. Thompson: Cattleman of Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico" Western Range Cattle Industry Series, Colorado State Historical Society, Denver.

6. Walter Gilliam, "First Cattle in Norwood District", Colorado Magazine (XV, No. 2, March, 1938), pp. 76-77.

7. Wilson Rockwell, Uncompahgre Country (Denver: Sage Books, 1965), p. 174.

8. Wilson Rockwell, New Frontier: Sage of the North Fork (Denver: The World Press, Inc., 1938), pp. 71-72.

9. Ibid., pp. 74-75.

10. Ora Peake, op. cit., p. 272.

11. Duane Vandenbusche, Early Days in the Gunnison Country (Gunnison: B & B Printers, 1974), p. 37.

12. Michael G. McCarthy, Hour of Trial (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977), p. 11.

See also: United States, Statutes at Large, Vol. XXVII, p. 1103.

13. McCarthy, op. cit., p. 68.

14. United States, Thirteenth Census of the United States (1910), Vol. IV, Agriculture, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1913), pp. 200-205.

15. E. Louise Peffer, The Closing of the Public Domain (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1951), p. 73.

16. McCarthy, op. cit., pp. 185-186. For an in-depth biography of William Kreutzer, see: Len Shoemaker, Saga of a Forest Ranger (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 1958).

17. United States, Thirteenth Census of the United States, pp. 200-205.

18. Rockwell, New Frontier, p. 169.

19. For the discussion on the logging industry in southwestern Colorado, the principal reference used in this work was Gordon Chappel's, Logging Along the Denver and Rio Grande, (Golden, Colorado: Colorado Railroad Museum, 1971). For specific references for the Pagosa Springs lumber industry, see pages 33 and 77.

20. For specific references for the McPhee lumber industry, see: Chappell, op. cit., pp. 141-157.

21. Alvin Steinel, History of Agriculture in Colorado, (Fort Collins: Colorado A & M University, 1926), pp. 507-508.

22. Rockwell, New Frontier, p. 42.

23. Steinel, op. cit., pp. 508-509.

24. Ira Freeman, A History of Montezuma County Colorado, (Boulder: Johnson Publishing Co., 1953), p. 106.

25. State Board of Immigration, Yearbook of the State of Colorado, (1920), (Denver: Welch-Haffner Printing Co., 1920), p. 187.

26. Freeman, op. cit., pp. 189-190.

27. Denver News, July 28, 1921.

28. Cummins, op. cit., p. 696.

29. Steinel, op. cit., p. 307.

30. Carl Ubbelohde, Maxine Benson, and Duane Smith, A Colorado History, (Boulder: Pruett Press, 1976), p. 197.

31. Abbott, op. cit., p. 151.

See also: Article XVI, Sections 5 and 6, Constitution of the State of Colorado, 1876.

32. Freeman, op. cit., pp. 96-103.

33. Rockwell, Uncompahgre Country, p. 87.

34. Ibid., p. 103.

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Last Updated: 20-Nov-2008