The Crestone Eagle • August, 2020
The Villa Grove connection
by Mary Lowers
Villa Grove is the gateway to the San Luis Valley (SLV) on the northern end. Anglo settlement in the area began in 1865 when soldiers mustering out of the Union Army from Ft. Garland settled along Kerber Creek. The creek was named after Captain Charles Kerber who homesteaded in the area in the 1860s One could call it the town with many names: originally it was known as Norton’s Villa after stage coach agent Frank Norton. In 1870 the name of the town was changed to Garibaldi after Guiseppe Garibaldi, the Italian revolutionary. In 1872 it went to the less political Villa Grove, with the grove referring to the welcoming shady grove of cottonwoods around the community. In 1894 the name was changed again to Villagrove and then in 1950 it was changed for the last time back to Villa Grove.
Before the advent of the railroad in the northern SLV, the little settlement was a stagecoach stop where teams of horses would be switched before the stage coach carrying mail, supplies and settlers from the north side of Poncha Pass continued its journey. There is much to learn about how the stage lines operated.
The way it worked was a team of horses in the front were known as leaders. The two horses on the wagon tongue were known as wheelers. The leaders guided the wheelers and then the stagecoach itself around obstacles. The wheelers’ job was to turn the coach at just the right moment so the vehicle would not leave the track or cut corners too sharply. George Harlan says in his history Postmarks and Places, “A good lead team learned the road so well that they had little difficulty following a path they knew even in the darkest night.”
For many years Hank Brahm was a well known figure in Villa Grove. He was the driver on the Cañon City/Saguache stage route. Brahm was known for having a deep understanding and trust of his team of horses. The story goes that there was unusually heavy rainfall on the mesa south of Round Mtn. Many were wondering if the stage could make the summit of Poncha Pass due to extremely muddy conditions. But Brahm had a schedule to keep and had the stage hands hitch up two of the most experienced teams to the stagecoach. The stage then disappeared into the fierce storm.
A rider coming through Villa Grove the following day reported that Brahm had indeed made it over the pass! When asked about the trip later, Brahm said, “I just gave the horses their heads and hung on.”
Stage lines came into the SLV after the American Civil War. Stage routes often were routes used by Native Americans, fur trappers, settlers and traders. Stages allowed regular mail delivery. Teams of horses were switched every fifteen miles or so. Coaches tended to be of the Concordia variety. Mountain routes required a team of six equines while quick trips down the middle of the SLV used a team of four horses.
When the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG) came to the SLV in 1878, stage lines began to disappear. In 1880 a narrow gauge railway line was laid out from Salida to Villa Grove to haul mineral ore out of the SLV and bring in settlers and supplies for miners, farmers, ranchers and merchants. By the 1890s the railroad wound its way down the valley to Alamosa, where it connected with the D&RG line coming into the SLV over La Veta Pass. The railroad got much of its business from hauling gold, silver and iron ore from mines east and west of Villa Grove.
Like the town of Moffat to the south, Villa Grove was a hub for mining, farming and ranching interests. It boasted the best hotel around with excellent food. Naturally there was a railroad depot there, a post office, and stores. In his SLV history, Land of the Blue Sky People, Luther Bean says, “In the 1890s an Episcopal Church was organized in Villa Grove and when it closed its doors Little Shepherd of the Hills Episcopal Church in Crestone received much of their alter equipment.”
Mining was an important industry east and west of Villa Grove. The SLV is home to at least two turquoise mines. The so-called King Mine east of Manassa at the southern end of the SLV has been worked since Neolithic times. Turquoise from this mine has been found in archaeological sites from the Pacific Northwest to the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula. Another less well known site is the turquoise mine five miles northwest of Villa Grove often referred to as the Hall Mine. This mine was worked by Native Americans for centuries. Virginia McConnell Simmons in her book, SLV Land of the Six Armed Cross, she states, “The Pueblo Indians were attracted to visit the SLV not only for game and fowl but also by turquoise, a material they especially prized.” Villa Grove turquoise is famous for its rare robin’s egg blue color.
Going further west of Villa Grove along Kerber Creek and up the nooks and crannies of the San Juan Mountains, silver and gold were discovered and exploited from the 1880s in towns such as Sedgewick, Exchequer, Spook City and Bonanza. Bonanza is the only one of these mining camps that is still there today. A few years ago it had so few residents that it was almost a ghost town.
The first gold strike along Kerber Creek was at the Exchequer Mine in 1880. Soon after, mining claims were produced and the Bonanza strike kicked off the mining boom along Kerber Creek. The town of Bonanza popped up quickly, sixteen miles west of Villa Grove. In its heyday Bonanza was the center of the mining district and reached a peak population of fifteen hundred. Anne Ellis, who moved as a girl to the mining camp of Exchequer, in her wonderful book Life of an Ordinary Woman, said, “In speaking of population you didn’t count people anyway. You counted saloons and dance halls.”
Bonanza became an incorporated town and had an Oxford University-educated Justice of the Peace. Among the speculators who rushed out to the northern SLV to get a piece of this action was former president US Grant who toured the area with a group of investors in 1880. Mines in the district began to close as the price of silver declined drastically in 1882. The devaluation of silver in 1893 was a devastating blow to all silver camps in the region. Gold continued to be mined in Bonanza off and on until 1945.
Orient & Haumann Mines
To the east of Villa Grove about seven miles were the enduring iron deposits of Orient. The iron camp of Orient was actually three different communities: Haumann, Old or Upper Orient and New Orient. Gold and silver were also taken from claims around this area but its main money-making mineral was iron, discovered in a magnetite deposit east of Villa Grove in and around Orient Canyon. This deposit was known since the days of Spanish and later Mexican rule in the SLV which ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1847.
In 1881 Haumann got a narrow gauge railroad with the station designated as Hot Springs due to the presence of hot mineral springs in the area. In 1881 Haumann got a post office. In a statement on its application for postal service the town was said to have two hundred residents with four hundred from the region using the new mail facility.
In 1881 Haumann claims were leased by Colorado Coal and Iron Company (later, CF&I) of Pueblo which was one of few iron smelters producing steel west of the Mississippi River. These claims became known as the Orient Mines. The mining town of Old/Upper Orient located around a mile up Iron Gulch had a fluctuating population: in 1897 the population was recorded at 15 and in 1899 it had jumped to 400. The Orient mines were one of three regional mines from which CF&I got iron ore to smelt at their Minnequa Works in Pueblo. Mines in Wyoming and New Mexico also were sources of ore for CF&I.
In 1893 through 1895 over two hundred men were employed in the iron mines and nearly seven hundred tons of ore were mined daily. Mine number four had an “ore body from fifty to one hundred and fifty feet in length.”
Orient took care of the miners and their families. There was a boarding house, a company store, a public school and a reading room stocked with newspapers, magazines and books. Water was gravity-fed to convenient faucets in Orient from a reservoir three thousand feet up the canyon. In addition to staff and managers, the mines employed a doctor who lived in Villa Grove.
Old/Upper Orient was abandoned in 1905 when CF&I lost the lease on the mines. The iron mines were then worked by Lewt Gulligan with his sons Jim and Luke. After a 1918 accident in Mine Number Four the Gulligans relinquished the lease. In Mine Number Four the remaining iron ore was in “pillars” which were holding up the mine’s roof. The removal of these pillars along with the vibrations from blasting and drilling, caused the roof to collapse. This left seven miners buried under tons of dirt. The mine mules were saved because they were up at the rail head dumping ore into waiting rail cars.
The people who remained after the mines closed got their supplies from John Everson’s store at Valley View Hot Springs one mile south of Orient. Everson always had cash on hand at the store so the miners could cash their paychecks. Payroll ran around $9000 a week. In Postmarks and Places, George Harlan tells of how the money got from the bank in Saguache to the Everson Store. “As a young man Milo Means of Saguache fondly recalls taking the Orient payroll to Valley View. At the Saguache National Bank he was handed a paper bag containing the payroll which he tucked under his buggy seat for the trip.”
The mining company created the Valley View Bathhouse with cement tubs for soaking for mine personnel. Bet this was a lifesaver after a long physically stressful day mining iron ore!
The final incarnation of Orient happened in 1920 with the advent of the New Orient Camp located directly below the iron mines. In 1932 the open pit Sunrise Mine in Wyoming proved to be a cheaper source of iron ore. The iron mines of Orient were pretty well abandoned. Miners were invited to go work at a feldspar mine near Wagon Wheel Gap. The narrow gauge railway line to Orient was closed in 1940 and tracks removed in 1942.
The mining activities east and west of Villa Grove along with farming and ranching in the surrounding area made Villa Grove a thriving center, a role which it continued to hold to a dwindling degree until the trains stopped running between Villa Grove and Alamosa.
Villa Grove today is an unincorporated community bisected by Hwy. 285. A bit of an art and agricultural center, the burg boasts of having two potteries. La Escuela Art School holds a raku pottery celebration in Villa Grove in early September. There are shops and a cafe. Where Hwy. 285 splits off to Hwy. 17, running down the east side of the valley, you will find County Rd. GG which will take you to Valley View Hot Springs where the Orient Mines were. Go just a tad north of Villa Grove and you can follow the road west to the old mining town of Bonanza.