There is More to Pagosa Country than Mountains
With the “Tracks Across Borders Byway” project becoming a reality over the last few years there is renewed interest in southern Pagosa Country. There is more pioneer history and places of interest south of Pagosa than north. One can discover this fact by reading John Motter’s weekly column in The SUN Newspaper. From characters of high respect to outlaw gangs, the area along the Colorado – New Mexico border has a fascinating history. The historic and prehistoric Native Americans also had populations living in this area.
Please visit the History Section of this website for various articles on the pioneer Hispanic population, ranches, lumber mills and subjects related to the southern area of Archuleta County.
What is the Tracks Across Borders Byway?
See a photo essay of Tracks Across Borders here.
See this map in larger format here.
The Tracks Across Borders Byway is along the Colorado and New Mexico border between Durango, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico. The Byway travels along two states, Native American cultures, breathtaking countryside, treaties and technology, across ancient and historic time, and varied communities of the present day.
The Byway’s primary feature is one of Colorado’s greatest stories – the creation and development of the state’s first, and ultimately the nation’s largest, narrow gauge railroad system – the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG).
The Byway passes through the Southern Ute Indian Tribe reservation land, whose headquarters and superlative Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum are located in Ignacio, Colorado.
The Byway skirts the north end of Navajo Lake, a little-known environmental and recreational gem in the Colorado and New Mexico State Parks systems. Chimney Rock National Monument is an essential thematic feature of national significance on the Byway. The round-trip spur provides access and increased exposure to the unparalleled natural beauty to one of America’s newest National Monuments.
What is the Value in Scenic Byway Designation?
A byway designation would help with the identification and protection of significant – and irreplaceable – resources along the route.
Information about the Byway will serve to inform and educate the traveler on the need to respect and protect sovereign tribal lands.
Byway designation will assist in promoting economic development by providing common goals for collaboration among the communities and major land owners.
Byway designation is expected to have direct beneficial economic impacts on visitor traffic, visitor expenditures, and total retail sales – all important in rural communities.
In 1935 the San Juan Branch stopped operation for freight shipment completely, in 1951 it discontinued daily passenger service, and in 1968 it was abandoned between Chama and Durango. The Cumbres-Toltec (in Chama, 505-756-2151) and Durango-Silverton (888-872-4607 in Durango) lines, which continue in operation today as tourist lines, are all that remain of the San Juan Branch. It doesn’t take a railroad buff to enjoy the sound of a steam engine and the rhythmic clack of wheels on the narrow gauge, and the mountain scenery is enchanting.
The greatest significance of this corridor today is the fact that it connects the sovereign nations of the Jicarilla Apache in New Mexico and the Southern Ute in Colorado. J-9 facilitates the exchange of commodities and religious and cultural heritage between the two tribes.
The Utes are the oldest continuous residents of Colorado. Two of the seven original Ute bands, the Mouache and Capote, make up the present day Southern Ute Indian Tribe. They reside on approximately 800,000 acres in southern Colorado. The Jicarilla Tribe consists of two bands: the Llaneros, or plains people, and the Olleros, or mountain valley people. They once roamed a large part of northeastern New Mexico and southern Colorado. In 1887, they were given a permanent reservation in north central New Mexico, which now encompasses one million acres.
J-9 now parallels or overlays about ten miles of the old railroad bed from Dulce northeast to the Colorado border. Most of the original track has been removed, but a short segment remains at the junction of US 64 and J-9 (called Narrow Gauge Street here) in Dulce. Two old D&RGW wooden boxcars sit next to the Jicarilla Culture Center. Several yellow frame buildings with rust trim along the road in town were obviously associated with the D&RGW, but they have second careers as tribal administration buildings.
The canyon closes in on the paved road as it continues northwest alongside Amargo Creek. After about four miles, the pavement and the creek disappear. The station stop of Navajo was here at the confluence of Amargo Creek and the Navajo River. Still present to testify to the presence of busier times are a round yellow water tank with rust red roof and timber supports and a steel truss bridge across the river. A plaque on the bridge says that this was once the D&RGWRR Royal Gorge Route Scenic Line. Where tracks once were, planks were laid to allow cars over the bridge. It outlived even that use and has now been bypassed completely by a modern concrete bridge to the west. Fortunately, it has been allowed to remain, an elegant witness of earlier times.
Continuing north, the road narrows, and rock outcrops and tall pines loom down from either side. Horses graze by the river, which at this time of year is iced over completely in some places. Where you can see it, black water races to Colorado. This is not a road to drive in wet or very cold weather. Where it isn’t snow-packed, it is deeply rutted by previous travelers who may or may not have had the luck (like I did) to have been rescued by one of the eight Game and Fish Officers who patrol the reservation’s one million acres.
Riding in a train through these narrow, winding canyons must have been an adventure in the late 1800s. Traveling this road is still an adventure, even in the comfort of an automobile.