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Bayou Salado

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Bayou Salado is an engaging look at the history of a high cool valley in the Rocky Mountains. Now known as South Park, Bayou Salado once attracted Ute and Arapaho hunters as well as European and American explorers and trappers. Virginia McConnell Simmons's colorful accounts of some of the valley's more notable residents - such as Father Dyer, the skiing Methodist minister-mailman, and Silver Heels, the dancer who lost her legendary beauty while tending to the ill during a small pox epidemic - bring the valley's storied past to life.

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CHAPTER ONE The Virgin Land

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If ever there was a land of subtle, magnetic charms, South Park is that place. Rich in beauty, sparkling rivers, game, mineral wealth, range land, and legend, the valley and its ring of mountains have held the promise of fulfillment to all who have come there through the centuries. This magical place has seldom failed them. Instead, the caprice and frailty of the men themselves have led to the occasional disappointments that the park has witnessed. That South Park’s resources have outlasted man’s effort to exploit them is part of its mystical allure.

Today South Park attracts another kind of searcher, too. Here in the heart of the Rockies, accessible to travel, yet remote enough to be spared modern man’s defacement of its virgin beauty, the park beckons him to make peace with his twentieth-century restlessness and neuroses. The gentleness and the savagery alike of this unspoiled land speak to a fundamental need of our new searcher, our civilized man who cannot find himself, lost in a journey among his own endeavors.

 

CHAPTER TWO The Indian Hunting Ground

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At the time that the first white people, the Spaniards, entered North America in the 1500’s, the Ute Indians were well entrenched in the Central Rockies. The Utes roamed throughout the mountains of the area later known as Colorado. Their domain extended even into Utah, although the tribe numbered only about 10,000.

Who occupied these mountains prior to the Utes is unknown. The prehistoric migration of Asians over the Bering Strait occurred more than 20,000 years ago; but it is supposed that the Utes, a Shoshonean tribe, entered the Colorado Rockies only a thousand years ago. The Woodland Indians came to eastern Colorado at least by 400 A.D., probably from Nebraska. They occupied the lower foothills of the Front Range near the plains, but whether they entered the mountains and South Park is unknown; nor is it certain whether the Utes came into contact with them near the foothills and plains.

The short, dark-skinned Utes were related linguistically to tribes north, west, and south of Colorado. The tribe did no farming and had but the crudest weapons of stone. Their utensils were stone or basketware with almost no pottery. Blankets, sandals, and some clothing were woven from vegetable fibers, such as juniper and yucca, but also were made of skin.

 

CHAPTER THREE The Ancient Quests in a New Land

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Spaniards came into the Southwest seeking gold. Having conquered the Aztec and Inca empires in Mexico, the quest of more gold for Spain drew Coronado north in 1541 to what is now New Mexico. He also briefly penetrated the high plains of eastern Colorado and western Kansas, the region called Quivera by the Spaniards. It is known that during the 1600’s Spaniards entered the San Luis Valley, where they hunted buffalo and opened up gold and silver mines. But on the whole, the mountain land north of New Mexico in the territory called Teguayo or Tetago remained unvisited, although a proposal was made in 1678 to explore it. Even when Hurtado traveled as far north as the junction of the South and North Platte Rivers in Nebraska in 1714 and 1715, he stayed east of the mountains.

By that time the French had reached the Central Rockies and soon visited South Park. The French had been pushing farther and farther west during the 1600’s, never understanding how much more land lay beyond their outposts but expecting that sooner or later they would find Chinamen. (When Nicolet arrived at Green Bay in 1634, he had draped himself in a damask robe before stepping ashore to visit the “orientals” from the nearby wickiups.) Especially in the north, where New France authorized trading posts in the early 1700’s, the traders were expected also to act as explorers to find the supposed waterway to the Northwest and the Orient.

 

CHAPTER FOUR Mining: 1859-1860

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The Spanish quest for gold in North America was long forgotten, the French and American fur trappers were gone, and for a few short years the Indians were once again in sole possession of the Bayou Salado. But in 1858 a motley group of Cherokee Indians and white Georgians, organized by Green Russell, were poking about in the stream beds of the park. Although they found some gold, it was not in interesting quantities.

They were not surprised to find gold in the park. Pursley in 1806 had reported it was there. Also, a French voyageur named Du Chet had shown people in Santa Fe a pouchful of nuggets which he had picked up in South Park in the 1830’s. When the New Mexicans hired him to guide them to the spot, though, he could not find it again. Parson Bill Williams had found a few nuggets while he was trapping in the Bayou Salado in the fall of 1848. And Colonel William Gilpin, a promoter who later was the first governor of Colorado Territory, reported that he had found gold at Cherry Creek, Clear Creek, the Cache la Poudre River, Pikes Peak, and South Park while he was leading troops against hostile Indians during the Mexican War.

 

CHAPTER FIVE Mining: 1861-1870

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In 1860 about 11,000 Americans had converged upon South Park, most of them being men. In all of Colorado in that year there were about 48,000 people. When the snows of the long, unusually severe winter of 1860-61 finally melted away, about 8,000 or 10,000 prospectors returned to work the placers of South Park; but in the entire Territory of Colorado the population reached only a little over 25,000. Thus, while the activity in the territory as a whole decreased, the importance of South Park increased proportionally in 1861.

Transportation was an important part of the life of the mining camps. The Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company was running two coaches a week from Denver to Tarryall while the Kansas City Express had a weekly run from Denver on through to Buckskin Joe. William McClelland had charge of the Denver and South Park Stage Line. When activity became greater in Buckskin than in Tarryall in 1861, McClelland transferred the stage offices to Buckskin.

(Later in the 1860’s McClelland left and Robert J. Spotswood, formerly an Indian fighter for Ben Holladay who owned the stage line, became superintendent. After 1865 McClelland and Spotswood together owned the South Park Stage Lines including the franchises of Hughes and Company, Wells-Fargo and Company, and Barlow-Sanderson and Company. In 1877 they extended the Denver and South Park Stage Lines to Leadville but quit the business shortly after the railroads reached that booming town.)

 

CHAPTER SIX “In the Hands of Hard Men in an Evil Hour”

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Criminals seem to disrupt and refuse to conform to classification in historical accounts. Such heroes as Kit Carson and Father Dyer obligingly meld into society’s record of accomplishments, but the villainous Espinosas and the Reynolds Gang do not. In order to bring their stories into the period in which they occurred, we must digress from the mining account.

The first of these stories, that of the Espinosas, took place in 1863. It began not in South Park but in the San Luis Valley, when two Mexicans, Vivian and José Espinosa, determined to reap revenge on the Gringos. Whether the real cause of their hatred stemmed from immediate grievances, or whether it was part of a general animosity toward the American victors of the Mexican War who had taken possession of New Mexico, is beclouded in time. It is know that the Espinosa family had come to the San Luis Valley from New Mexico in the 1860’s, Also, one story says that Americans ran off their sheep and killed a young boy in the family, after which brutality the Espinosas avenged themselves by killing some of the law men and ranchers who were responsible.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN Mining: 1871 to the Present

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The historian Frederick Jackson Turner said that the gold rushes in North America ended forever the difference between Indian country and the “civilized” Eastern Seaboard. In South Park the mining boom of the 1860’s did end the era of the Indians. A vacuum followed the first wave of gold mining. The 1870’s did not bring about a re-establishment of the Indian, of course, but instead a second wave of miners and the establishment of some permanent settlements.

In this second wave, silver was king. Silver had consistently appeared mixed with the gold panned and mined in South Fork in the 1860’s. But not until 1871 were rich deposits found in large quantities there.

Although silver mining had begun in Georgetown in the previous decade, the first good silver mine in Colorado was the Moose Mine high on Mt. Bross. The discovery, made by Captain Plummer in 1871, was located at 13,860 feet.

The Moose was worked that first winter by its owners—Plummer, J. H. Dudley, and a Mr. Myers—possibly of Montgomery. The following summer, 1872, the area was thronging with down-on-their luck prospectors, while the Moose ownership was transferred to Dudley, A. W. Gill, and a McNab. In the five years that followed the discovery of the Moose, other rich deposits of ore were located on Mt. Bross and Mt. Lincoln—the Dolly Varden in 1872, the Russia, the Hiawatha, and the Australia being the best. The Australia was within 300 feet of the top of 14,284-foot Mt. Lincoln. The Present Help was higher at 14,200 feet.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT A Half Century of Railroading

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Just as South Park’s location had resulted in its being crisscrossed by trails and wagon roads, so too it presented a logical route for railroads. First the narrow-gauge tracks of the Denver, South Park and Pacific entered the park from Denver by way of the Platte Canyon, and later the broad-gauged Colorado Midland reached the area from Colorado Springs by way of Ute Pass.

The DSP&P route was originally considered as early as 1868, when railroads were first being projected through the West. At that time Governor Evans envisioned Denver as a great rail center. He proposed a network of lines, including one to run up Platte Canyon to South Park and on to the Blue River. In addition, in 1868 a survey was run from Denver to Santa Fe by way of the Platte River, South Park, and Trout Creek Pass.

In 1872 the budding Denver, South Park and Pacific set out ambitiously for South Park. The route from Denver for the narrow gauge was planned to be by way of Bear Creek to Buffalo Creek and so to South Park because the lower Platte Canyon was thought to be too difficult. However, the railroad’s advance was only as far as the site of Morrison where the railroad investors also owned quarries which were to be exploited. The original officers and directors in these enterprises are familiar names in Colorado history—Evans, Cheesman, Kountz, and Moffat as well as others.

 

CHAPTER NINE The Salt Works

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A unique chapter in South Park’s early history was that of the salt works near Antero Junction. A square chimney, nestling between the hills northeast of the junction, still can be seen at the site where salt was being produced a century ago.

The works were built at a spring near Salt Creek. The salts found in the area around Antero Reservoir existed originally in a salt sea of the Pennsylvanian Age in geological time. They now seep up in alkaline marshes of the area, and a small saline pond called Salt Lake existed in the early days where the reservoir now lies. The compound in the Salt Spring was sodium chloride. Although there is another salt spring about four miles northwest of the salt works, the spring at the works was more heavily mineralized and was the better known.

In the area of the spring, herds of buffalo and antelope had gathered, attracting in turn bands of Utes who hunted and camped there frequently. The Indians found this gathering place of animals a fine hunting area but used the salt, too.

 

CHAPTER TEN The Bountiful Ranch Land

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High in the Rocky Mountain upland, South Park has a short summer and growing season. Winter temperatures drop to twenty-five degrees below zero on occasion, and seldom do summer temperatures go above eighty degrees. Despite an abundance of water flowing across the park from the surrounding mountains, the mean precipitation is only about thirteen and a half inches. South Park is high and cool, but it is a semi-arid land. It is not a country for gardens, but it is a land of lush hay fields and cattle and sheep ranges.

Ranching was undertaken within a year or two after the first gold strikes. By 1861 the first ditch rights for agricultural purposes had been recorded. However, farming as such was not attempted. Food supplies like corn, potatoes, onions, and cabbage were shipped in to the mining settlements from farms along the Arkansas of the Huerfano region.

Nevertheless, when Nathan C. Meeker came to Colorado in 1869 to report on the agricultural possibilities of the territory for the New York Tribune, he was greatly impressed with South Park’s fertility and climate—so much so, in fact, that he enthusiastically determined to establish an agricultural colony in the section of the park around today’s Elevenmile Canyon Reservoir.

 

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