Banded Peaks, Charlie Hughes and a Red Race Car
I almost fell out of my chair! I was reading last month’s Automobile Magazine and came across an article I recognized parts of as being a history that touches both me and Pagosa Springs. The article was about a fellow purchasing a classic Mercedes Benz sports car. The model was a Gullwing Coupe, a sports car with doors that open upward. They are sought after and very expensive. He discovered the engine in the car was not the one that came from the factory in the car. That lowers the value by about 10%, or around $100,000 in this case. He immediately began a search for the power plant. Chances were low as the engine was pulled out over a half century ago. Amazingly, he sent out “feelers” and got a positive reply. It seems the engine was transplanted into a custom race car of the mid 1950s. As the story unfolded one of the builders of the car was identified as “Charles Hughes of Denver, Colorado, the scion of a wealthy local family.” That is when the “falling from the chair” began. I realized that I was told the story of this very car 30 some years ago by Charles Hughes himself.
Many people now living in Pagosa Country have never heard of the Hughes or the history of Banded Peaks Ranch also known as the Tierra Amarilla Land Grant. The ranch/grant is the large white area in the lower right hand of your forest service map. The name, “Banded Peaks” comes from the mountain range boarding the ranch. The area was originally a Spanish land grant. It later went into private hands. The story/legend goes that a Charles Hughes Jr. won it in a $500.00 poker game in the Strater Hotel in the late 1800s. Charles Hughes Jr. was a very important person in the history of Colorado.
Charles James Hughes Jr. was a Democratic U.S. Senator from Colorado. Born in Kingston, Missouri, Hughes attended the common schools and graduated from Richmond (Mo.) College in 1871. He then graduated from the law department of the University of Missouri in Columbia in 1873, was admitted to the bar in 1877, and commenced practice at Richmond, Missouri. He moved to Denver, Colorado in 1879.
Hughes was a presidential elector on the Democratic ticket in 1900. He was professor of mining law in the law school of the University of Denver and Harvard University. He was elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate and served from March 4, 1909, until his death in Denver on January 11, 1911. He was interred in Fairmount Cemetery, Denver.
Charles Hughes III was the Charlie I knew. He was born with a “silver spoon” in his mouth and knew how to use it! This is not a history of his life, I only knew him briefly as an elderly gentleman, but I know enough to tell a few tales about him.
When Ruth and I moved to Pagosa Ruth worked for Dr. Wienpahl at the community clinic. Charlie and his wife. Dusty, were patients. One day Dusty told Ruth she had company coming and asked if Ruth would like to come to the ranch and help her with the party. She offered a good sum and Ruth jumped at the chance.
Charlie and Dusty had a place in San Diego near the yacht club. Dusty went to the post office one day and saw a face she thought she knew. She approached the man and he turned out to be a fellow she knew in high school. They had a clique called “The Dirty Dozen”. Dusty was the only girl. The fellow had contact information on a couple of the other boys and they knew others and soon the old gang was in communication. Dusty invited them all to a party at Banded Peaks and they all showed up. Charlie had built a guest house on the ranch with a dozen bedrooms each with its own motif including bordello and safari. The party theme was “A Christmas in July” and I was called in to help Charlie find, cut and haul a 20 foot blue spruce Christmas tree. That is when I first started hearing Charlie talk of the past.
After the party Dusty had Ruth and, at times, both of us back. There were reasons given, but mostly for listening to them talk.
Charlie had a degree in physics and served his country in the Navy working in aviation. He and a small consortium owned the famous racing sailing boat, the 12- meter Intrepid. They ultimately gave the boat to the Seattle Sailing Foundation, a museum in Seattle, Washington. He liked to tell stories about sailing, dropping names of various Hollywood stars of the time sailing with him. He also talked of racing cars and that is when the story of the Mercedes powered car came up.
The car was designed and built by Kurt Kircher for Charles Hughes of the Denver Region SCCA in 1953, this special was far ahead of others running at the time. Initially, power was from a modified Jaguar XK120 and later changed to the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing motor and transmission. The chassis was liberally drilled chrome-moly tubing with torsion bar independent suspension and inboard drum brakes in the rear and quick-change differential. The aluminum body was fashioned by hand by Charles Lyon in a bi-valve design so the top half can be removed for service. It contested and won many SCCA events through the 1950s with a professional driver.
So, now you know a little more about a large portion of Pagosa Country and a couple of people who made it what it is. Dusty set up “The Charles Hughes Foundation” which continues to help with grants for education. I can say it was a joy knowing Charlie and listening to his stories and that, when Charlie passed, there was a Mercedes Benz in his garage.