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A saint, a rat and a defective donkey: The passes of Las Animas County

by Nancy Christofferson
LAS ANIMAS —  According to the authors of Colorado pass books and maps, Las Animas County has at least eight passes. Two of these are shared with Huerfano County, two with Costilla County, both in Colorado, and the rest go into Colfax County, New Mexico except for the easternmost that leads into in Union County.
The earliest accounts we have concerning the knowledge and use by Europeans over these passages dates back to 1706, when one General Juan de Ulibarri was sent by Spain to find and bring back some Picuris tribal members who had escaped to the northeast and were living out on the prairie – somewhere. Their village, called Quartelejo, has been placed geographically everywhere between eastern central Colorado to Wichita, Kansas.  It’s now believed to be in western Kansas.

Ulibarri had gone from Santa Fe to Taos, leading 28 soldiers, 12 militiamen and about 100 Pueblo natives. Then he headed east across Colfax County east as far as “Urac Creek”. If one presumes Urac is Urraca then this would be southwest of Cimarron. From there he was said to have traveled north across the mountains to the Purgatoire Valley, then upriver to Cucharas Pass and up and over until he reached Greenhorn Mountain and the Arkansas River. Which pass he crossed is unknown, and there are several to choose from.
Interesting. But true? Some historians believe Ulibarri went east so far he entered Colorado south of Mesa de Mayo.

When Governor Antonio Valverde came into Colorado 13 years after Ulibarri with the intent of punishing certain Utes and Comanches that had been harassing and raiding Apache settlements, he was thought to have taken the same route as his predecessor until he reached the Purgatoire, when he went east and camped on the site now Trinidad. He was followed a year later by Don Pedro de Villasur on his quest to Quartelejo but precious little is known of the journey because he and most of his soldiers and volunteers were killed by Pawnees.

As early as 1825, Francis Xavier Aubrey, the famous Santa Fe Trail speed record holder, used a new wagon trail called Manco Burro Pass. Manco is Spanish for lame, crippled, defective.
Manco Burro Pass was best known for being the site of an 1848 attack by Jicarillas and Utes on a party of Bent’s Fort employees, and their pack horses loaded with deerskins, and civilians. Fourteen of their number were killed (notably the Bent Brothers’ longtime good friend Charles Towne) or wounded. This included Lucien Maxwell, well known even then as an “up and comer”, Major Elliott Lee, a Black Hawk and/or Indian George, and two children. This is not the sort of incident that popularizes a place and Manco Burro ceased to be an attractive crossing.

The summit of the pass , at 7,762 feet, is in Colfax County, north of the later Yankee coal camp and railroad town some 10 miles northeast of Raton and not far south from Sugarite. The pass itself is in Yankee Canyon closer to Raton.  On the Las Animas side, it leads to Chicorica Creek and the vicinity around Barela.  In Las Animas County, it was known as San Francisco Pass. An early name for it was Ahogadero Pass and was the site of a drowning of some 900 sheep in 1849. It is probably what was also called Sugarite Pass.
Now, funny thing about San Francisco Pass – early residents or travelers must have been very fond of Saint Francis, for there are three passes named for him in Las Animas County alone.

The middle and westernmost  routes of the three Franciscos head south  together from Stonewall to the old communities of Torres and Tercio coal camp. A few miles south of Tercio the western San Francisco takes off up a valley to, up and over the Sangre de Cristos at 9,500 feet to enter Costilla County near the little community of, you guessed it, San Francisco. This became a stage road and, in 1890, was targeted as the route of a proposed railroad, the Costilla Branch of the Union Pacific, Denver and Gulf Grande, that never got built. It was sometimes called Costilla Pass.

The middle San Francisco continues up North Vermejo Creek, more or less due south of Tercio to cross at 8,560 feet into New Mexico. Some people refer to it as Vermejo Pass road as it the only surviving trail between Vermejo Ranch and the Purgatoire Valley and, as such, the route of employees of Colorado working at the ranch.

So much for the saint and the donkey.
While we’re on the west end of Las Animas County, a short explanation of the area’s highest mountain pass is in order. Or, it WOULD have been the highest had it ever been completed, as well as the highest in the entire Sangre de Cristo range. This was Whiskey Creek Pass at a respectable 12,802 feet.

Whiskey Creek road was a Works Progress Administration project of the 1930s. The trail goes west from Highway 12 just south of Monument Lake resort, wanders through the foothills to the north, then tackles the steep upper part leading to a tunnel. The tunnel is matched on the other side and was driven in a good distance both ways before the high altitude suggested it would not be suitable for vehicles because they “choked out” way in the thin air. Both ends were abandoned, and the future state highway is in the past. It might have been called by its alternative, Culebra Pass, had it become a reality.

Heading east along the Las Animas-Colfax counties border, Long’s Pass, or Long Pass, is just 15 miles or so west of Raton. The name is somewhat fluid in that both Long and Long’s are used for it, to memorialize Major Stephen H. Long who notably followed this trail in 1820 on his exploratory trip to the west. It is said by at least one historian that he’s the wrong Long, that it was named for an early settler in the canyon. Also, some just call it Long Canyon, perhaps for its length.

Long’s Pass, in Long Canyon, used to be a popular route before Uncle Dick Wootton built his toll road. It is thought some of the early Spanish expeditions into what is now Colorado used this route. Stagecoaches, replaced a railroad that served coal camps, logging camps and sawmills, followed the road between the Purgatoire and Canadian drainages, or, once upon a time, between Sopris coal camp on the north to around the Brilliant area in the south. It is 8,040 feet in altitude at its summit in Colfax County. On the north, it was well traveled and well populated with many of the Penitente belief. Their morada in the canyon had a large and active membership.

East of Long’s is the region’s grand-daddy of them all – Raton Pass. This is an important one and deserves its own space. It must be one of the few passes nationwide named for a rodent, but the packrat won out over several previous titles, including Bent’s Pass or Road for the brothers’ employees being the first to drive wagons across the pass.

Farther east of Trinidad are several lower elevation passes.
Trinchera is an important one of these. This area sprouts Trincheras like water – Trinchera Plaza, Trinchera Canyon, Trinchera Company Ditch, Trinchera Creek. The pass was there first, followed by the settlement and the railroad – namely the Denver, Texas and Fort Worth, later the Colorado and Southern. The platted town and post office were named for the gap in a neighboring mesa, which is the pass. It was endowed with ample forage and drinkable water, so was favored by Charles Goodnight for his cattle herds. Sometimes it is called Cimarron Pass because it connects the Purgatoire Valley with the Dry Cimarron in the northeastern corner of Colfax County.

Beyond Trinchera is the easternmost pass, called Emory Gap and in days past known as Una de Gato. This is at 8,000 feet altitude (according to one source; another says 7,200 feet) and leads one from Branson in Colorado to the Cimarron River of New Mexico around Folsom and Des Moines. This one actually leads into Union County rather than Colfax. The Emery it is named for was one Madison Emery who designed a road through Tollgate/Toll Gate Canyon that became a popular route for the  military and freighters. When the Denver, Texas and Fort Worth railroad constructed its right of way, this was its route.
Unlike the high altitude passes of the west end of Las Animas County, these latter passes cross what might almost be referred to as divides or the high points that separate water courses.