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Historic Downtown Pagosa Springs

Historic Site or District
Historic Downtown Pagosa Springs – Markus Hughes

Self guided walking tour is available.

Download map at

Map also fatured on information kiosk in downtown Pagosa Springs, in river overlook parking area.

A Brief History of Pagosa Springs

Pagosa Springs, named after The Great Pagosa Hot Springs, is an area which encompasses some of the best of what the West has to offer. Like much of the Southwest and Four Corners region, the history of Pagosa Springs is punctuated by a series of events. History centers on the divergent people from several cultures who moved through the area. The influences from the past have blended together to create the cultures and lifestyles that we see today.

Taking in an area bounded on the north by the beautiful , Weminuche Wilderness and the Continental Divide, the south by the Colorado-New Mexico border, the west by the Yellow Jacket Pass Country, and the east by the San Juan Mountains, Pagosa Springs is a microcosm where history and the present come together. The area is rich in beauty and natural resources.

Describing the appearance of the boiling, bubbling spring, the ancient Utes called it Pah-gosa ("pah" - water, "gosa" - boiling). Modern usage and advertising has changed the orthography to "Pagosa" and the meaning to "healing waters."

The Utes were not the first inhabitants of the area. Evidence at the Chimney Rock Archaeological Area indicates that Ancestral Puebloans lived in and around the site until about 1125 AD. The "Ancient Ones" had a thriving civilization here. There is evidence of several kivas and pueblo-like residences in the area. The two pinnacles of rock that gave Chimney Rock its name may have been of religious significance to the Ancestral Puebloans and the reason for a civilization being located there. Whatever the reason for their departure, they left intriguing evidence of their presence at Chimney Rock.

After the Ancestral Puebloans, the history of Pagosa Springs moves on into the era of the more "modern" Indian peoples. Navajo, Ute, and Apache tribes have lived and hunted in Pagosa Springs for centuries. Revered by the Indians, the Great Pagosa Hot Spring was frequented by
many of the tribes. Accounts from the early Anglo explorers in the area describe well worn trails from all directions converging on the springs, and depressions and sweat lodges, located around the seeps and cavities near the big spring.

Local legend tells of a battle to settle the rights of ownership of the spring between the Navajos and Utes. The battle is said to have taken place around 1867. The tribes skirmished, but neither gained any advantage. Both tribes agreed to settle the dispute by each sending a single representative to fight for their respective tribes, in what can be assumed was a battle to the death . The Navajos chose a huge brave to represent them; the Utes gave the privilege to a white man. Colonel Albert Pfeiffer, an Indian agent and friend to the Utes, agreed to represent them. Knives were chosen for weapons. The legend ends with the smaller, more agile Pfeiffer outmaneuvering the larger Navajo brave and killing him with a thrust to the heart.

The Utes control over the Great Spring was relatively short lived. The Brunot Agreement of 1874 signed the control of the springs over to the white man, signaling the beginning of the end for the open, free-ranging control of the Utes in Colorado. Three bands of the original seven confederate bands, which made up the Ute Indian tribe, are still located in the Pagosa area. The Moache and Capote bands are headquartered in Ignacio, Colorado on the Southern Ute Indian Tribe Reservation. The Weminuche band is headquartered at Towaoc, Colorado, on the Ute
Mountain Indian Tribe Reservation. Many local names and much of the Pagosa Springs history are attributable to the Ute Indians.

Another local legend, The Legend of Treasure Mountain, tells of a large expedition of Frenchmen who were exploring, mining, and prospecting for gold in the Ured ill the 1790's. The caravan was said to have camped in the vicinity of Treasure Mountain. Disease, Indians, and severe weather forced the Frenchmen to cache the gold they had found. Only 17 men survived to reach the French outpost of Leavenworth, Kansas and only two had maps of the gold caches. There has been evidence of the caravan found in the area, but the $5 million in gold remains hidden to this day.

By the early 1500's, the Spanish had conquered and settled Mexico and had moved to within 200 miles of Pagosa Springs. The process of conquest and colonization was slowed considerably by Indians and the rugged Rocky Mountains. The Spanish government, which was
centered in Santa Fe, New Mexico, sent Don Juan Maria de Rivera on an exploratory mission in 1765. Rivera led a party northwest out of Santa Fe in search of gold and silver. The party traveled through Pagosa Springs and the San Juan Mountains to the Gunnison River.

In 1776, the authorities in Santa Fe switched some of their focus from gold exploration to developing a trade route which would connect the Santa Fe, Rio Grande Valley and Northern Mexico settlements with the thriving Spanish colonies in California. On July 29, Padre Francisco Atanasio Dominquez and his secretary, Silvestre Velez de Escalante led an expedition out of Santa Fe to explore a possible trade route to California. They had a guide with them, Jaoquin Lain, and eight others, who had been on the Rivera expedition.

The Dominquez-Escalante expedition entered Pagosa Springs near what is now Carracas. Their campsite, near Carracas, was called "Nuestra Senora de las Nieves, which means "Our Lady of Snows." The party explored much of the area before moving west through the Allison and
Tiffany area and on into Utah.

The route that the Dominquez-Escalante expedition opened became known as the western portion of the Old Spanish Trail. This trail passing through Pagosa Springs was a major corridor for opening the country to travel and settlement. Countless trappers, traders. horse and mule
caravans, explorers, and travelers used the trail over the years.

The first Anglos or English speaking white men, to enter Pagosa Springs were undoubtedly the trappers and explorers who would later become known as the "mountain men." Mexico won her independence from Spain in 1821. Pagosa Springs was Mexican territory at that time and the new government was eager to develop trade with the United States. Trapping and other trade was encouraged.

The mountain men who frequented the San Juan's and the Pagosa area were generally working out of Taos, New Mexico. The "Southern Trappers," as they are called in the history books, had an abundant supply of game and fur bearing animals to hunt and trap in this area. Some of
the colorful characters who trapped and wandered this country were Pegleg Smith, Jacob Fowler, Antoine Robidoux. Etienne Provost. Francois Leclerc, Ewing Young, Isaac Slover, and William Wolfskill, to name a few.

Kit Carson is said to have built a cabin on, or near the Navajo River. In the fall of 1833, he accompanied a party led by Captain Richard Bland Lee, which followed the Old Spanish Trail out of Abiquiu, New Mexico, through Pagosa Springs to Ouray to the northwest. Some of the "Northern Trappers" came down through the country in the late fall to winter in the warmer southern climates as well.

The honor of the first recorded visit to the Great Pagosa Hot Spring is given to Captain John N. Macomb. Leading an expedition for the United States Topographical Engineers, Macomb first sighted and described the springs in July 1859. His party also came up out of Santa Fe; split near Tierra Amarilla and entered Pagosa Springs from the southeast. Macomb's group entered near Edith and proceeded up through Coyote Park across the Blanco River where they camped and were joined by the other group, and then proceeded on to the Great Pagosa Hot Spring.

The discovery of gold in the Rocky Mountains and rumors of gold in the San Juan Mountains led to a great influx of prospectors and miners into Pagosa Springs in the 1860's and early 70's. As more and more white men came into the area, over the mountains and up the Old Spanish Trail
tensions between the Ute Indians and the miners increased. The military needed to take action and established an Army post in the area. The site of the Great Pagosa Hot Springs was chosen for a military outpost.

Camp Lewis, later called Fort Lewis, was erected on the West Bank of the San Juan River opposite the Great Spring in the fall of 1878. Private claim, had already been staked around the spring, although a one square mile area around the big spring had been declared a townsite on May 22, 1877, by presidential order. A six square mile area centered on the spring was declared a military reservation on January 28, 1879.

With the establishment of the Fort, more settlers began to move into the country. Many were gambling that the railroad would come through Pagosa Springs. Roads were improved with wagon and toll roads coming through Pagosa Springs from New Mexico and over the mountains from the San Luis Valley settlements. Fort Lewis remained in Pagosa Springs until January of 1880 when it was moved west to the banks of the La Plata River. The outpost that remained was designated Camp Pagosa Springs. Due to the railroad bypassing Pagosa Springs and the extensive amount of mining going on, more settlers were located in the Durango Silverton area than in the Pagosa area.

Although it was short lived, Fort Lewis played a major role in the settlement of Pagosa Springs. By the time the last soldier pulled out, Pagosa Springs was well on its way to becoming a town.

The settlement of Pagosa Springs occurred rather quickly. Once the news of the Great Hot Springs got out, travelers began to arrive to partake in the reported medicinal qualities of the bubbling mineral springs. Drawn by the springs and the fertile surrounding area, many pioneers began to stay by the early 1880's. The early settlers raised cattle and sheep, hay, grains, and vegetables. They established businesses catering to the soldiers and travelers through Pagosa Springs. Bathhouses sprang up around the Great Pagosa Hot Spring. Motels and saloons were available. Some residents were seasonal, moving back and forth between the mining areas and Pagosa Springs.

In May of 1883, the townsite of Pagosa Springs was surveyed and platted. Archuleta County was established in 1885, named in honor of Antonio D. Archuleta who sponsored the legislation. Pagosa Springs was incorporated on March 2, 1891. This action marked a turning point from a rough and tumble frontier village to a growing town. With the growth of cattle and sheep ranching, and the development of the lumber industry, Pagosa Springs began to flourish in the 1890's and early 1900's.

Two large lumber mills and many smaller ones were established in the area. The large mills helped bring in the long awaited train to Pagosa Springs facilitating travel and movement of trade and commerce. A great influx of workers and support businesses moved into the area. The lumber boom lasted almost into the 1920's by which time the easily accessible timber had all been logged.

The Town of Pagosa Springs was growing. Churches, mercantiles, blacksmith shops, hotels, bathhouses, schools, newspapers and civic organizations were thriving. With the opening of Wolf Creek Pass on August 21, 1916, the entire Sun Juan Basin was opened to greater economic development and commerce. Automobile travel was the key to future development and the new all -weather road unlocked the isolation of the entire Southwest.

Pagosa Springs today is a land in transition. Lumber, ranching, and commerce is still carried on. Many or the area residents can trace their heritage back to the early settlers and some are still involved in the businesses of their forefathers. Tourism is, however, the number one industry these days. Travelers come to the region to enjoy the splendid natural resources and scenery that the region abounds in. The Great Pagosa Hot Springs attracts visitors and health seekers. Travelers and new residents come to the region for the solitude and unspoiled atmosphere that characterizes Pagosa Springs today.

Time Period Represented

1883 - present


Seasons Open

Year Round

Nearby Places