ROCKWOOD - More than 125 years ago, hardworking San Juan pioneers built a wagon road from the struggling mining camp of Silverton to the Animas Valley.
Now, under a proposed U.S. Forest Service land exchange, a portion of that historic road on public land will be destroyed, reshaped and reconfigured into an exclusive
private golf course with expensive residential building lots at the Glacier Club.
Four times, I've walked sections of the road from the Chris Park group campground to Haviland Lake and from the Haviland Lake campground, campsite No. 39, north to where the road disappeared under Electra Lake in 1905. Each time, I've found silence, solitude and a natural setting largely unchanged in the last century. It's a marvelous feeling to walk in the steps of our La Plata County pioneers on the same ground the miners, prospectors, stagecoach drivers, sheepherders and cowboys once traversed. The route offers a passport back in time, and is protected under federal legislation.
In 1966, the U.S. Congress, appalled at the damage caused by the Interstate Highway System approved a decade earlier, passed the National Historic Preservation Act and created the National Register of Historic Places. The White House is on the National Register, and so is downtown Durango, Silverton, the Durango & Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railroad and a few
select mines, mills and historic structures in the high country. The 30-mile-long Animas City to Silverton Toll Road, also called the Animas Canyon Toll Road, has been determined eligible for listing on the National Register by the Colorado State Historic Preservation Office. This vital pioneer link connecting La Plata and San Juan counties provides a unique preservation opportunity.
The toll road's exact route is uncertain as it descends through the dark timber north of Electra Lake down to the Animas River and beyond. Major portions of it became the roadbed for the D&SNG railroad, while other sections, amazingly, still are intact - complete with graded turnouts so two wagons could meet. On steep sections, there are original dry-laid stone retaining walls and heavy wooden snubbing posts set deep so ropes could be used to brace wagons and slow their descent.
"The wagon road is one of the last links in the county to our pioneer past," said La Plata County Commissioner Wally White. He added, "Protecting the heritage of our pioneer families is important, and it fits with our strategic plan."
Built by the Animas Canyon Toll Road Co. beginning on Oct. 15, 1876, and finished in early 1877, the route ran approximately 32 miles from a toll booth at Baker's Bridge to a toll booth a mile south of Silverton on the east side of the river. Investors spent a whopping $23,000 to connect fledgling farms in the Animas Valley to miners and prospectors in Silverton who needed melons and vegetables, as well as hay and feed for burros and mules.
Durango didn't exist yet, and the Animas Canyon Toll Road linked Parrott City in the La Platas, at that time the county seat, with Silverton's mining district. As the area boomed, in 1880, Frederick Steineger received a $10,000 mail contract to carry as many as five sacks a day between the thriving communities. A year later, he sold the mail route to the famous H.A.W. Tabor, Leadville's Silver King. Entrepreneurs added a stagecoach line, way stations, cabins and even 1ÃÂ½-story log houses hand-hewn with axes and adzes.
Way stations or stagestops became post offices at Cascade House and Needleton, and at Elk Park travelers relished suppers served by John and Almina Shaw. Mules carried 250 pounds uphill and 350 pounds
downhill, with burros averaging 200 pounds. In the late 1870s, fuel needs for Silverton were 65,000 bushels of coal required by assayers, blacksmiths, mines and the smelter - all of it brought in via the toll road by teams and wagons. The wagon road literally opened up the country. As the Forest Service interpretive sign at Chris Park stated, "Listen, and you might hear the sounds of mules straining under a heavy load or the creak of a wagon wheel as it 'makes the grade' on this 1-mile section of the historic wagon road."
Rockwood resident Richard Robinson believes the toll road provides an abiding sense of place. He said,
"Silverton needed supplies, and
Hermosa was a great agricultural area. There was coal near Durango, and Silverton needed fuel. What a match!"
Robinson actively has campaigned to protect the wagon road, and he has a historic site nomination pending with the La Plata County Historical Commission.
Frank Pinkerton's great-grandfather came into the country in 1875, and Pinkerton explained that the toll road "made a huge difference for farmers in the Animas Valley to get their produce to miners in the Silverton area."
He adds that his ancestor "became La Plata County judge, and utilized the road for travel to Silverton in connection with his legal duties."
Historical archaeologist Jon Horn is adamant that, "The toll road may be the most intact example of an early wagon road in Colorado - and perhaps anywhere in the country." Horn notes, "Some wonderfully intact segments of the toll road still exist both above and below Electra Lake, and these are extremely unusual because they have retained their historical integrity and have not been modified or used by vehicles of any sort since their abandonment in 1882."
Horn adds, "Much of the trail is in country that has not seen development, and provides visitors a unique opportunity to experience a historic travel route in a setting that is virtually the same as when the toll road was in use more than 125 years ago. Such opportunities for authentic historical experiences are rare."
So here's the dilemma:
As part of the proposed land exchange, the Forest Service would receive private inholdings on the Hermosa Creek drainage that can be used to re-establish endangered Colorado River cutthroat trout and perhaps even a new federal wilderness area west of U.S. Highway 550.
That's a good thing. But just as the USFS has critical environmental responsibilities, so must it protect cultural resources under the National Historic Preservation Act (1966) and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (1979).
The Draft Environmental Impact Statement explains that 1,620 feet or "approximately .6 miles of the site (wagon road) would be transferred out of federal ownership" and would "potentially be disturbed or obliterated." So now is the time to act.
Under federal law, if a cultural resource is to be lost, then that loss must be "mitigated" or compensated for in some way. Here the mitigation measures should be simple: The USFS must evaluate, identify, document, record and nominate the remaining sections of the wagon road to the peer-reviewed standards of the National Register of Historic Places, in a process that goes through the State Historic Preservation Office and ultimately to the Keeper of the Register at the National Park Service. If the land exchange goes through, then the Glacier Club should willingly pay all associated costs, including establishing new trail segments, where necessary, to guarantee public access by foot or on horseback.
"The Animas Canyon Toll Road has been a part of my family," says Jeannie Wheeldon. "This forest retreat and historic toll road should be kept for the general public for easily accessible recreation and historical reasons. Tamarron has already taken its toll by destroying some of the toll road, and the remainder needs to be preserved for future generations to enjoy."
Costs are minimal compared to the heritage tourism benefits both for residents and visitors who will come to hike the trail and then perhaps take the train into either Silverton or Durango. What an opportunity to experience authentic Western history in the rugged San Juans!