by Mary Lowers
Driving US territorial expansion west, a philosophy of the nation called “manifest destiny “made expansion a divine mission.” Coined in 1845, Manifest Destiny took the wheel, driving progress, telling those looking for a fresh start and those wanting to make big bucks this was the time and the west was the place. It seemed as though God himself wanted the nation to expand its dominion, spreading democracy and capitalism from “sea to shining sea.” This divine mission of expansion was used to justify forced removal of Native Americans and other groups from their homes. It caused its share of genocide and environmental disaster. For better or worse it contributed to who we are and where we live today.
By the time railroads snaked across La Veta Pass in the 1890s, the San Luis Valley (SLV), was in the settlement race. The success of the railroads was directly tied up with people as paying passengers and with freight from gold, to grain, to cattle also paying to ride. Entrepreneurs of the day began to buy up real estate along rail routes and map it into towns, created around the trains and the business they generated.
Moffat was one of the first of these new towns. It was laid out in 1890 by the SLV Town and Improvement Company. Principal stockholders in the company included: George Adams of Baca Grant #4; S. N. Woods a retired cashier from first National Bank of Denver; and J.W. Gilluly, Treasurer of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG), along with other railroad officials. To create Moffat the D&RG and the Town Improvement Company spent some $50,000 in town construction to make it attractive to business and settlement while providing jobs for its citizens. They spent $10,000 on a hotel and also erected a train depot, extensive side tracks, a stockyard and a number of artesian wells. They named the new town Moffat after D&RG President, David Moffat.
George Harlan in Postmarks and Places says, “because of its location the SLV Town and Improvement Company expected Moffat to be the railroad center of the SLV. There would be elaborate shops and sidings with traffic from four railroads converging on Moffat from four directions.” And from 1890 to 1910 Moffat lived up to its promise as “queen city of the Valley.” There were two passenger trains arriving daily except on Sunday and each was met with a nine-piece brass band. The 2,500 residents and the great grain producing potential for areas around Moffat, adding cargos of cattle and gold from Crestone all needing to ride the rails, encouraged David Moffat to expand the line from Villa Grove all the way to Alamosa. It looked like a sure thing.
Alas, after the gold from Crestone ran out and the national financial panic of 1892 caused businesses to go belly up or let go of assets, the SLV Town and Improvement Company failed. Moffat was very quiet for a few years until what’s been called the second boom. The Oklahoma Land and Colonization Company obtained the majority of Moffat town lots and set about selling them through a lottery.
The first land drawing took place in 1910. Though the lottery five-, ten- and fifteen-acre tracts could be “won”. A $200 entry fee allowed the buyer to participate in the land drawing. On lots in the business district, the company put up structures which, according to F.A. McKinny’s 1911 business directory for Moffat, included: a bank, five stores, two saloons, two newspapers, five real estate offices, three liveries, four hotels, one garage, two blacksmiths, a barber, a lumber yard, two well-drillers, a commercial club, a church, a telephone company, four contractors, an electrician, a milliner, two doctors, a jeweler, a restaurant and a town marshal’s office.
The second planting of Moffat took firm hold and the town remained a livestock center until the advent of semi trucks and demise of the railroads for shipping stock to market. For a while Moffat ranked second in the state as a livestock loading location. Virginia McConnell Simmons describes this period in her excellent history The San Luis Valley: Land of the Six-Armed Cross, “after fall roundups, ranchers would pitch tents around the Moffat Stockyards and for a week as the cattle were sold and loaded there was a festive air. Stockmen renewed friendships and yarns of the season past were swapped.”
This was when there were few fences in the SLV and ranchers worked together rounding up livestock and driving them to Moffat. Haying was its own culture then. For many people in Moffat their only occupation for pay was working the hay fields in the summer. And things in the little town quieted down more. Today the hope of quick riches are drawing people to Moffat again. The Green Rush is like the Gold Rush in many ways; times are tough and human hope springs eternal. In researching this article I discovered Moffat is again gearing up for a boom as the marijuana-friendly town of the SLV. How ever we feel about it, we can’t argue with the fact that Moffat may resurrect itself with this new marketing. It’s happened before.
The town just south of Moffat along Hwy. 17 which we know as Hooper began its history in 1891 as the town of Garrison. It was named after William Garrison, the Texas rancher who sold his homestead to the Garrison Town Company. Garrison was backed by the likes of EH Shotwell, President and manager of the Garrison Town Company. Shotwell was said to have been the first to successfully raise wheat in the vicinity. Shares of the company were sold for $25 each with the proceeds going toward the development of a town, The town company furnished lots and water for a community garden.
The first buildings in the new town went up in March 1891. Soon the town had a hardware store, a blacksmith, and a livery stable. Harlan says, “The Garrison Meat Market kept a wagon on the road that supplied the country for miles around.” There was the firm of Taylor and Etlinge, “Buyers of grain, hay, and potatoes.” There were folks in the trades such as carpenters, masons and bricklayers. By 1892 EK Mullens of Denver constructed the Garrison Mill and elevator Company. But prosperity took a dive in the financial panic of 1893 and the Garrison Bank failed twice. The bank building was the community center for the young town. Its second floor housed the first school and hosted the Methodist Church every Sunday.
The little community got right back up and changed the town’s name from Garrison to Hooper in 1896. It was called Hooper to honor Major Hooper, General Passenger Agent of the D&RG. One story says the US Post Office wanted the change because Garrison got mixed up with Gunnison, causing mail confusion. The railroad came to town where, according to Virginia McConnell Simmons, “the D&RG purchased 2300 acres of land to be used as switch yards and depot grounds. D&RG’s water tank . . . was supplied from an artesian well with the capacity of 700,000 gallons per day.” By 1897 the grain elevator capacity at Hooper had the capacity of 125,000 bushels. The mill in Hooper produced three hundred barrels of Sunlight Flour daily. A third rail line was added to Alamosa to supply livestock and farm products.Hooper was being billed as the “trade center of a great agricultural district.”
In 1896-97 the incredible productivity of the area around Hooper was threatened because the practice of subirrigation had caused the underground water table to rise to where it broke through the surface in many places. Subirrigation it turned out was unsuited to the land which had a high water table and poor drainage. Too much water ruined the soil with salts that came up with it. Harlin says, “By the 1920’s many acres had become either too waterlogged or alkaline or both and had to be abandoned to greasewood and rabbit brush.” People have tried ever since to fix this problem. One thing the Closed Basin Project was going to do was to restore land for agricultural use by lowering the water table.
Many farms were being abandoned in the district when in 1913 Hooper became part of the newly created Alamosa County. The town had been part of Costilla County. At the heart of farm abandonment around 1916 it’s thought between three hundred and five hundred thousand acres of land was left to sagebrush. By the 1950s Hooper, like Moffat, lost business as trucking took over and the railroads criss crossing the SLV became a memory or a tourist attraction.
The company towns did much to settle the SLV. They were created by mostly well meaning people with clear economic goals. In the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s large tracts of land were again divided and plated for sale. The Baca Grande is one such covenanted community; so are Wild Horse Mesa near San Luis and Carson Estates west of Taos, NM. Growth is returning to the nearly forgotten northern end of the San Luis Valley.