Life as it was for cowboys, Indians, Spanish colonists, and miners in Rio Grande country of Colorado
by Josephine S. Pierce
South Fork, Monte Vista, and Del Norte, Colorado
Rio Grande Country in Colorado encompasses the towns of Monte Vista, Del Norte and South Fork. Monte Vista owes its origins to railroad expansion. In 1881, when the railroad was extended from Alamosa to Del Norte, a siding named Lariat was placed at what is now Fullenwider Park. This siding, with a switch, water tank, and section house served the early settlers from Swede Lane and Rock Creek, as did the small general store opened by Lillian Fassett.
During 1882, Theodore C. Henry, who was looking for new canal ventures, arrived bringing investors from the east. In 1884, Chauncey S. and Henry J. Aldrich joined Henry to purchase the Lariat town site from Maurice Pelton, and incorporated the new town of “Henry,” on May 1, 1884. Yet an accumulation of debt motivated Henry’s sudden departure from “Henry,” and in 1886, with the town’s development having been taken over by different parties, it was renamed Monte Vista (Spanish for “mountain view”). One of Monte Vista’s greatest triumphs was the acquisition, in 1892, of the State Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home (present State Veterans Center). Ski-Hi Stampede, established in 1919 and held each July, is the oldest Pro Rodeo in Colorado. Each spring the Crane Festival is held in Monte Vista and nearby Wildlife Refuge.
Nestled in the shadows of the San Juan Mountains, the visceral beauty of Del Norte drew Spanish settlers to the area in the 1850s, but its history dates back 10,000 years earlier when the region was inhabited by the Folsom peoples (followed by the Anasazi, Navajos, and the Utes). In the 1870s, when word spread like wildfire about the gold and silver found in the San Juan Mountains, prospectors and miners arrived and changed the complexion of the town. For a more in-depth look at the area’s history, visit the Rio Grande County Museum and Cultural Center which houses an expansive collection of artifacts, photographs, and more, chronicling life as it was for cowboys, Indians, Spanish colonists, and miners, who played a part in the shaping of Del Norte.
South Fork, located at the junction of the famous Rio Grande River and its south fork, is surrounded by nearly two million acres of national forest. The town was initially developed to support mining and lumber. In 1881, a water tower, stockyards and section houses were constructed: the water tower still stands today, along with cabins at Chinook Lodge. An 1893 railroad depot now serves a scenic excursion system, along with DNRGW Engine No. 40, the oldest surviving diesel-electric locomotive (running time: 1942-1954).
Spruce Lodge, built in 1927 by the Galbreth brothers, served as a hotel for their lumber business and other holdings in the area including the first post office. When the Spruce was originally built, there was a pool hall, barber shop, kitchen, dining room and nine guest rooms. It has operated as a hotel/B&B since the day it opened.
Wolf Creek Pass began in 1913 as a narrow, treacherous road just wide enough for a single vehicle. Highway 149, now called the Silver Thread, began as a spur of the Barlow and Sanderson stage line, transporting people and goods from mines in Creede and Lake City.
As timber and agriculture declined, residents realized tourism was the next big thing for South Fork, offering unsurpassed hunting and fishing among other outdoor activities. Following World War II, skiing began in 1940 with a tow rope at Wolf Creek and the Pomalift in 1955. The communities of Baxterville and South Fork merged in 1956 to form South Fork, which was officially incorporated in May of 1992.
This article appeared on page 39 of HighCountry Magazine 2010.