originally published: February 2020
Mosca, Colorado: Then & now
by Mary Lowers
One of the biggest revelations I came across when researching this story is that Mosca, the small unincorporated town south of Hooper and north of Alamosa, while it is indeed named for Mosca Pass which can be seen from the little town east across the valley to the Great Sand Dunes . . . it does not in fact mean Fly, CO. It turns out, the pass was actually named for an early Spanish explorer Luis de Moscoso Alvarado and not stamped by ignorant Anglos with the strange name of Fly, CO, which is how the corruption of Moscoso into Mosca translates. This was a relief to me.
The trail over Mosca Pass went from a route heavily used by indigenous people to a road traversed by early Spanish/Mexican and then American settlers. Luther Bean in his history, Land of the Blue Sky People, says of the historic trail, “It left the Trappers Trail at Badito on the Huerfano River and followed the stream westward toward its source passing near the towns of Farista, Gardner, and Redwing. It crossed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains through Mosca Pass sometimes called Robdeaux Pass. At the west end of the pass, it skirted south of the Sand Dunes and branched, one road turning southward and the other branch turning toward Saguache and Cochetopa Pass.”
In 1871 a toll road was built over Mosca Pass which included a stage station and a supply town right at the base of the pass. The town, called Mosca, got a post office in 1890. The road however failed to compete with other similar roads into the valley. The supply town of Mosca at the base of the pass became a ghost town. The toll road was abandoned in 1901 when the railroads came into the San Luis Valley (SLV). The flooding which hit the state in 1911 destroyed what remained of the road. The toll road is now a forest trail.
The advent of the railroads’ incursion into the SLV, chiefly the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG), accelerated settlement and marketing of the valley to hopeful farmers and entrepreneurs. The town we know as Mosca was first settled in the 1880s by a group of settlers from Illinos who named the burg Streator after their old home town. Streator got its post office in 1888. As land speculators or developers bought up opportunities in real estate, they established so called “town companies” which platted streets, brought in services, and sold the new communities off to hopeful immigrants. Streator was swallowed up by a town company that changed the town’s name to Mosca. The new town got a post office in 1890.
The name change from Streator to Mosca was part of a big marketing campaign in the northern SLV fueled by the extension of the D&RG railroad from Villa Grove along the path of our Hwy. 17, to Alamosa. Land speculators/developers such as the infamous TC Henry bought up rich farmland around the Hooper/Mosca area like crazy, creating irrigation systems and mapping and platting real estate. A railroad depot was constructed in Mosca and according to Virginia McConnel Simmons in her history of the SLV, this Mosca Depot was where ranchers drove their herds ready-for-market across the eastern sandy plains. This livestock drive was made up of large numbers of cattle and sheep from the area of Zapata and Medano, near Blanca Peak. “Livestock were shipped by freight from the depot. It was even suggested at the time that a railroad over Mosca Pass would transform Mosca into an important railroad junction.”
The Mosca Land and Farm Company boomed. They set up a tenant farm to attract labor and hired folks with insufficient capital to buy their own land to work the farm. The marketing made the SLV seem like heaven on earth with easily cultivated land and a healthful climate. By 1891 Mosca could boast about having a flour mill. The Roller Mills flour processing facility in Mosca was the largest in the SLV, boasting a seven-hundred-and-fifty-barrel capacity.
In the 1890s farmers in the Hooper/Mosca area began to grow wheat. Subirrigation, which was used back then, increased crop yield. That fueled the development of grain elevators and flour mills. According to Luther Bean, “farmers found they could not grow wheat every year due to decreased yield and quantity. Subirrigation brought up the alkali and some of the soil became waterlogged.” About 1900 alfalfa became a new crop grown in the SLV. Potatoes have been grown here since earliest settlement by Spanish and later Mexican farmers. All of the above-mentioned crops flourished around Mosca.
At the turn of the twentieth century the town of Mosca had two grain elevators, two lumber yards, two hotels, two barbers, two blacksmiths, two druggists, two lumber yards, two churches and one saloon. The town’s first newspaper, the Mosca Herald, began in the town’s early days and was published in various forms until the first decade of the 1960s.
In 1891 AR Pelton of Salida published the San Luis Valley Illustrated which was republished in 2003 by Ron Kessler with the Adobe Village Press in Monte Vista. It is a historically accurate facsimile. This volume was definitely a sales tool encouraging SLV development and land sales. Pelton writes, “Although but a year old, Mosca is the largest town in Costilla County (it is in Alamosa County now but there was no Alamosa County until March 8, 1913!), and is the largest town on the D&RG Villa Grove extension. It does double the amount of shipping of any other shipping point.”
Mosca also boasted a school that included a high school, which was unusual at the turn of the twentieth century when most people only went to school through the eighth grade. A town literary society met weekly. The nearby San Luis Lakes were advertised as top hunting and fishing spots. Scenery was lavishly described.
Pelton goes on about the town, “The Mosca Town Company is composed of men of well known business sagacity, who recognizing the fact that there must be a town of importance in this region.” The development company would send town managers to each new company town. They served a similar function to a mayor in today’s SLV. Their job was selling the new towns to settlers and investors. The Mosca Town Company managers were Mr. Terry and Mr. Oiratt, who sold reasonably priced lots with easy terms. The homes were cheap, the land irrigated with an abundance of water. Irrigated land sold for $10 to $15 per acre.
The two churches in Mosca were Baptist- and Methodist-affiliated.The 120-year-old Methodist Church is still there with an active congregation. Pelton said, “ A deeply religious sentiment prevails in this community.” This, along with a healthy climate and picturesque scenery, made Mosca sound like a lovely town to settle down in. With tuberculosis, which was known as consumption back, then killing people of all social and economic classes indiscriminately across the country, the clean air and dry climate of the west in general and the SLV in particular were thought to be an inoculation against this virulent disease.
As the agriculture- and railroad-fueled boom slowed down around Mosca, attempts were made to discover oil and gas in commercial quantities in the region. According to Virginia McConnel Simmons, “For years farmers in the Hooper/Mosca region have captured escaping gas from their artesian wells and have used it for lighting and heating their homes.” In his history The Story of the SLV, Frank Spencer says, “Drilling for oil took place a few miles east of Mosca and again near Hooper. A strong flow of hot water was reached at a depth of a little over two thousand feet.” This was how the wonderful Hooper Pool aka Sand Dunes Recreation came into being in 1929. They never did hit oil.
The excitement of these boom years has never reached a level comparable to the turn of the twentieth century but Mosca has continued to grow and change. In June of 1943 the Mosca Hooper Conservation District of 462,000 acres was established. Of this real estate 317,000 is private land and 145,000 is public lands. Conservation districts work with landowners to conserve and promote healthy soil, water and wildlife. The Crestone/Baca Land Trust serves a similar function today. One of the older conservation districts in Colorado, the Mosca Hooper Conservation District, has been around for seventy-six years.
Agriculture is still the main industry and employer in Mosca. White Mountain Farms, named after Mount Blanca, the highest peak in the SLV, was started by the New family in the 1930s The farms went into organic agriculture. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the main crops grown were: organic wheat, alfalfa, and sheep. In 1984 they began experimenting with quinoa, potatoes, rye and various vegetable crops. In 1987 White Mountain Farms became incorporated and was growing certified-organic quinoa along with potatoes. They are the first large-scale quinoa producer in North America. White Mountain Farms has a modern and busy distribution warehouse in Mosca today.
Mosca’s a quiet agricultural town these days. It is home to the Sangre de Cristo School District which educates students from kindergarten to high school. If you want to get to know this community better, take a minute to stop for coffee and a snack at the Mosca Pit Stop on the west side of Hwy. 17 as you drive south on Hwy. 17 from Hooper.