by Mary Lowers
Arcadia Publishing’s latest volume in the Images of America series is a compelling history in pictures called Along the Huerfano River by southern Colorado author Kay Beth Faris Avery. The author uses select images carefully gleaned from sources ranging from official state archives, regional heritage centers, county historical societies, city libraries, and private collections. These images draw you for a walk through the region’s history and along the Huerfano River’s trails. The unique cultural mix of the Huerfano Valley over time is fleshed out through the historic images. Historically relevant captions, insightful and well written by Avery, complete the historic stroll down the Huerfano River.
The Huerfano River is not a long stream. It begins at Lily Lake up on Mount Blanca and joins the Arkansas River in Pueblo County. It’s had ancient and varied relationships with humans. Prior to European appearance on the scene, Native Americans, including Ute, Apache, and Taos Pueblo peoples, had established trading and hunting trails into what’s now southwestern Colorado. One of these trails wound north into the San Luis Valley, ascending Sangre de Cristo Pass on the east flank of Mount Blanca. From there it follows Oak Creek to the Huerfano River. The trail follows the Huerfano to where the river merges with the Arkansas River. As the book picks up momentum we flow along effortlessly with Avery through illustrated tales of the Huerfano Valley.
Spanish and other explorers used the Native American trails to become familiar with all the routes that crossed the Huerfano River. After the Louisiana Purchase (1803), American Zebulon Pike was sent on a mission to explore/spy on the Spanish territories in Colorado and New Mexico. Pike was detained near Conejos and Antonito by Mexican soldiers and eventually sent to a prison in Mexico for a time. This incursion resulted in the Spanish Governor of the territory, Fercundo Melgares, establishing a fort in 1819 on south Oak Creek, near the top of Sangre de Cristo Pass five miles above the Huerfano River.
Avery tells readers that the part of the trail along the Huerfano River that was probably the busiest and most profitable was the Mountain Branch of the Old Spanish Trail. Established after Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, the trail ran from Santa Fe to Missouri. Avery talks of amazing deals that were made. One of the first traders to reach Santa Fe by this route was William Becknell. Upon reaching the city of faith he “managed to exchange three hundred dollars in trade goods for six thousand in Mexican silver.” In 1843 the traffic on this route was two hundred and thirty wagons hauling goods from the United States as far south as Chihuahua, Mexico.
The lucrative trade in beaver pelts and buffalo robes was also carried on along the Huerfano River. Quite a few traders set up forts along the Huerfano and other drainages onto the eastern plains. The most well known of these is probably Fort St. Vrain set up near present day La Junta by the Bent brothers and Ceran St. Vrain in 1833. In 1842 mountain man George Simpson built a fort known as El Pueblo where Fountain Creek flows into the Arkansas River. In trade for pelts and robes trappers could get “horses, guns, ammunition, coffee, sugar, flour, corn, copper kettles, caste iron skillets, cotton cloth, thread, buttons, shawls, knives, axes, farming tools, and whiskey . . . which locals called Taos Lightening.”
The advent of the Colorado Gold Rush sent meat and produce down the Huerfano to the booming Denver area. When the train came in the 1870s there was considerably less traffic down the Huerfano Valley. Trails then were used mainly by cattle ranchers and sheep men who would fatten stock on the rich Huerfano Valley grasses before sending them off to market. Avery tells readers that by 1913 Huerfano County was home to immigrants from thirty-one countries who spoke twenty-seven languages. They called the Huerfano Valley home and worked for the railroad, in the stockyards, as cowboys or for coal companies.
Things were pretty quiet until the “hippie counterculture invaded Huerfano County in 1968. Countercultural artists established Libre Commune in the foothills of Greenhorn Mountain near Turkey Creek and the Huerfano River.” There were five communes in total in the area. “Each was unique in form and structure but together they left a mark upon the land.”
Avery comments, “The last fifty years has seen people leave Huerfano County. Coal mines have shut; railroad operations have slowed to a few freight trains that pass through Walsenburg each day without coming to a full stop.” Many ranchers have sold out land and water rights to oil companies or developers. Economic schemes including ski resorts have come and gone. But, as Avery points out, “From the windswept plains south of Pueblo to the pristine lakes near the summit of Mount Blanca, the land along the Huerfano continues to offer so much to its visitors.” The earth endures. The river flows.