History of the East Fork/ Old Military Trail
by Norm Vance
Consider that the San Juan Mountain area was one of the last conquered places in our country. The ruggedness and altitude of the Continental Divide stopped most people from entering the area. Indians traveled the area in summer on hunting trips. Whiteman learned to navigate and travel east -west by detouring many miles south of the mountains on what became the Santa Fe and Old Spanish Trails. Many people traveled these routes moving west to California. The California Gold Rush and settlement of most of the rest of the country was over while the San Juan remained an unknown wilderness.
The Indian populations lived south of the highest mountains and hunted the high country but left very little trace of their passing. They followed river ways into the mountains camping and processing deer and other game meat in wide places along river banks. They traveled up the San Juan River and its East and West Forks and Wolf Creek. All three tributaries have their head waters in a large bend in the Continental Divide that focuses their waters into a single river, The San Juan. They also traveled along the Rio Grande on the east side of the divide and made connections on trails across the divide.
Lt. McCauley, an army engineer, traveled the area and noted the Indian trails across the divide. One was a trail from the east and down the East Fork of the San Juan and west along the San Juan to the hot spring. The spring was the center of a greater newwork of trails from all directions. It was McCauley’s information that ultimately led to the military road being built on the East fork trail.
The Spanish claimed this area and other vast territories. In 1821 the Mexican Independence War left Mexican rule and later in 1848 the American-Mexican War left America in charge.
In the early 1800’s fur and particularly beaver fur, became highly valued back in the United States and Europe for coats, hats, and trim. Reports of almost unlimited wildlife in the San Juan brought trappers known as Mountain Men, into the area. There are many historic references of trapping along the San Juan River, and we can surmise they both trapped the East Fork River and traveled the Indian trail over the divide.
In the 1790’s, according to old stories, a team of French explorers found their way into the area of the divide close to the Upper East Fork River and found gold in great quantities. They were preparing to haul the gold out when disease and Indians attacked the party. They buried the gold and left. Only one of them survived to return to France. Other expeditions failed to retrieve the gold. A large mountain near the summit of the East Fork is named “Treasure Mountain”. The treasure has never been found.
By 1860, a half century later, gold had been found and mined in the area west of Denver. A clever prospector named Charles Baker made a realization that as prospectors fanned out from the mining area west of Denver, the only direction that they continued to find ore was to the southwest but the rough mountains slowed prospecting adventures. Baker realized that if he could find another way to enter the southwest mountains he might find more gold. He organized a party of four other men and entered the San Juan Mountains from Santa Fe to the south.
Prospectors “pan” for gold in rivers. When they find gold they work their way up river to find the place where the ore is eroding into the river. Baker’s team worked from the east side to near the divide. The prospects looked good during the summer of 1870, but the party failed to legally stake a claim. They did tell others, however, and spring of 1871 saw a hoard of prospectors working the area. Prospectors named Peterson and Brandt made the find at Summitville.
The summit of Summit Mountain was loaded with gold. By 1875 Surnmitville was a large mine and town. 1,000 or more hardy people operated the mine, hotel, bars, a general store, a school, a church, and a newspaper. Other mines were opened and back down the valley to the east the town of Del Norte sprang to life as a supply center for the mining area.
Baker also forged west to the Animas River and up the Animas until he found gold. This gold town he named Eurika. It is now a ghost town just outside of Silverton. Baker gave life to the first two gold strikes and towns in southwest Colorado and began the movement that would bring civilization to this remote land.
Between 1870 and 1875 as Summitville was growing several parties explored westward. One of these was in 1873 when a Mr. Salle, his daughter Mrs. M.O. Brown, and her son Tom Reavis had an adventure following the Indian trail down the East Fork from Summitville to the Pagosa Spring. This trip, which was recorded in early history records, took three weeks. This is the same route is now a one day jeep tour.
In about 1876 Welch Nossaman made the trek from Summitville along the trail. Nossaman realized the potential of a town around the Pagosa hot spring and filed for the right to build and operate a toll-road from Summitville down the East Fork and to Pagosa. Welch improved the trail and was the first to drive wagons down the East Fork trail and the first to build a cabin at the Pagosa hot spring.
All of the people who helped clear the East Fork Road is not known. It was probably a combination of Nossaman, the few men at the Elwood mine site and others. In 1873 Army engineer Lt. E.H. Ruffner began to survey various paths across the divide in order to connect Fort Garland with the newly planned Fort Lewis at the Pagosa hot spring. Ruffner recommended against the East Fork path because of it’s roughness but by 1879 the Army was building the road. The road was called the Old Government Road or the Old Military Road for many years.
It was during this same time an entirely different story was playing out. There was man in Pennsylvania who was a civil engineer and a person of some standing and intellect. He was a Free Mason which was a group of men that studied religion. For reasons unknown he killed a man. Aided by Masons he changed his name to Joe Mann, escaped and fled the United States for the west. Being a wanted man he was looking for a place to settle so remote from civilization that he would feel secure. He traveled until he found the East Fork Valley. Joe built a cabin in the valley at about the same time that prospectors were discovering gold just over the divide.
Joe worked at various jobs transporting supplies for the army and carrying mail along the East Fork Road to Surnmitville. He became a respected member of the area. He died in 1912 and is buried near his garden on his homestead.
The Joe Mann homestead is in ruins but is still there. As you climb a mild hill there is a turn to the left on an unimproved road/trail by a few aspen. It is a short distance and it is best to stop on the main road and walk up to the homestead.
A Mr. E. L. Wood and a few men operated a small mine along the East Fork. The site is now between the two river crossings on the road marked by a sign carved into an aspen tree saying, Elwood Pass. No signs of the camp exist now but it was all close to the tree. Wood’s initials and name was shortened to Elwood and became the name of the pass.
The East Fork route was used as a path for a large natural gas pipeline. Evidence of this pipeline can be seen along the road at a valve station in the lower valley.
So, although the East Fork Valley has seen some real history it remains the same enchanting and lovely valley that it has been for millennia. A four wheel drive off road tour up the East Fork Road and over Elwood Pass is a joy and now you know the history it should be more interesting.