By Ruth Lambert
San Juan Mountains Association
In 1880, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad pushed west from Antonito through Chama, New Mexico, and along the Navajo and San Juan rivers. By 1881, the railroad arrived at Arboles and entered La Plata County to head west through Allison, Tiffany, La Boca and Ignacio, arriving in Durango in August 1881. Although the news of the day heralded the impact to the fledgling town of Durango, the railroad made long-lasting changes to several small communities along lonely stretches of the San Juan River.
As early as the 1870s, Hispano migrants from the San Luis Valley and the Tierra Amarilla area had established small, self-sustaining farms and ranches along the river. Three settlements – Gato/Pagosa Junction, Juanita and Trujillo – grew after the arrival of the railroad and developed mercantile stores, post offices, schools, mission Catholic churches, railroad facilities, portable saw mills and cemeteries. However, they remained small and isolated with few external influences. The settlements persisted until the 1930s through 1950s, when train service was discontinued and many residents moved away.
Today, deteriorating buildings dot the landscape. At Gato and Trujillo, the mission churches still celebrate one Mass for their patron saint, but few other intact structures remain. The small cemeteries are visible as a poignant reminder of the lives lived and lost in these isolated places.
Recently, the San Juan Mountains Association began a study of the Hispano cemeteries at the historic settlements of Gato/Pagosa Junction, Juanita and Trujillo in Archuleta County. The cemeteries are reported to date to the early 1880s, and they chronicle the lives of the early settlers. Each of the cemeteries provides an important glimpse into early Hispano life and burial practices. Graves display Hispano traditions through language, religious iconography and statuary, and unique folk art that creatively incorporates local materials and objects.
Although the marked graves date from the early 1900s, many earlier burials occurred at the cemeteries, and research for this project should provide information to confirm earlier burials. The cemeteries are still used, although burials occur infrequently. The Gato and Juanita cemeteries are located along the Tracks Across Borders Byway that extends from Chama, New Mexico, to Durango. The Trujillo Cemetery is located on a major byway access route and a short detour from the main river byway route.
This study will assemble existing information, conduct additional historical research, and perform field work to photograph, map and document the cemeteries and the headstones. There will be no ground-disturbing activities associated with this project. This project will produce a report with information about the historic settlements and a list of cemetery burials.
Volunteers are currently being recruited for the project. Project volunteers will receive training in research and field methods and assist with documentation. If you are interested in volunteer opportunities or learning more about the project, please contact Ruth Lambert at 385-1267 or email@example.com. The San Juan Mountains Association gratefully acknowledges our project funders: the State Historical Fund, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Ballantine Family Fund and the members of SJMA.
Ruth Lambert is cultural program director with San Juan Mountains Association, a nonprofit dedicated to public land stewardship and education. Email her at Ruth@sjma.org.