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Good and bad times

LA VETA — May of 1899 was, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, the best of times and the worst of times for the town of La Veta. La Veta’s future was intrinsically entwined with the success of the Denver and Rio Grande Railway. The railroad had built its narrow gauge line into town in the summer of 1876, directly causing La Veta’s first “boom” including incorporation. The town quickly became reliant on the railroad. In 1893, D&RG sent in to determine where a route for a standard, or broad, gauge line might be built. Opinions varied, but the grade was broadened between Walsenburg and La Veta and new, heavier rails were installed. After that time, all freight had to be unloaded and reloaded at La Veta as it was transferred between standard and narrow gauge cars. This included tons of mining equipment, ore, livestock, timber, potatoes, and all other commodities traveling between eastern suppliers and smelters and the western gold and silver mines, forests, stockraisers and farmers. On one day in November 1896 alone, 52 carloads were transferred, and during January 1898, 600 narrow gauge carloads of wheat from Monte Vista had to be reloaded onto the larger cars. Railroad officials had every intention of completing the re-gauging project into the San Luis Valley but the financial panic of 1893 intervened. Not until 1898 had they chosen the new route – a few miles south of the narrow gauge across the mountains – and began serious preparation. By January 1899, La Veta was hosting numerous railroad contractors surveying the line and submitting their bids. Also anticipating the construction were gamblers, prostitutes, and speculators looking to cash in on the presence of hundreds of railroad workers and their paychecks. In January, the biggest part of the project was awarded to the contracting firm of Clough and Anderson of Colorado Springs for a bid of $500,000. The first new saloon was opened in La Veta in January by Dave Farr of Walsenburg. Soon, there would be three or four more. Cafes, rooming houses and rental homes proliferated. Merchants were increasing their stocks of clothing, shoes and other necessities. Arriving daily were building supplies from steel rails and bridge girders to dynamite, ties and spikes, tons of food, tents. Then the heavy work horses and mules were shipped in and housed in various pastures and livery stables. Ranchers not only rented their land but many contracted out their work teams. Farmers were ecstatic to have a new and apparently inexhaustible market for their hay and grains. Cattlemen sold their beef to the camps, and women their milk, eggs and butter. Lumber and hardware dealers, blacksmiths and sawmill operators had the

opportunity to sell their services and wares. A daily stage line was established between town and the camps. A “hot tamale emporium” was opened. Then the graders themselves began trickling into town, bound for at least four tent camps strung along Middle Creek west of town. The trickle turned into a flood, and by the first of February, about 800 graders were at work. More were coming. Local residents were hired as camp cooks, wagon drivers, day laborers. La Veta was even graced with its first Chinese laundry. Everyone was happy. Well, everyone but the town’s newspaper editor. He reminded Town Board of the need for extra law enforcement, and went farther to suggest beefing up the calaboose since it would be seeing increased occupancy. About the time the town was undergoing its usual winter illnesses, la grippe (flu), scarlet fever, diphtheria, chicken pox and measles, a report from Cucharas was received about the presence of smallpox. Cucharas, east of Walsenburg, was a major point on the D&RG, where the lines split to go either south or west. The graders were hampered in their work by copious snow and sub-zero temperatures. Many simply threw down their shovels and left, others sought the warmth of whiskey in their throats, and the rest merely endured. In March, the school was closed due to the number of scarlet fever cases and the fear the sickness would spread. La Veta’s editor said not a word about the progression of disease from Cucharas to La Veta. The Walsenburg editor was not so reticent, and in his April 27 issue noted 14 cases of smallpox had been reported in La Veta, and the hotel had closed. Meanwhile, La Veta Town Board had discussed the horror, sent three physicians to investigate, and set up a quarantine beginning Saturday, April 22. By then, about 10 men had been sent into a quarantine hospital in town. A special Sunday meeting of the board was called with the town and county attorneys. A few days later, doctors’ bills began arriving at the town clerk’s desk. Another special meeting of the board was convened on May 7. The town fathers decreed no man could come into town on the railroad from any direction, that Clough and Anderson must move their quarantine hospital to a location out of town limits and that they not allow any grader to enter town, and that anyone affected must have his home disinfected and his family, if any, vaccinated. By this time, some of the local residents had contracted the disease and schools and churches were closed and public gatherings forbidden. Families who had farms or ranches, or relatives who did, moved their children out of town. Clough and Anderson not only ignored some of the board’s resolutions, but even refused to pay for medicine, care or housing of any employee with the disease, nor for coffins or interment. Their premise was that it was the town’s responsibility because the company had done its duty by bringing in the infected for treatment. The contractors did, however, buy extra tents and referred to them as their “hospital”. They set them up near town, too near. A week later they were persuaded to move ”the hospital” three miles from La Veta. By May 1, the railroad insisted on travelers having certificates showing they were free of smallpox before they could board a train. Construction workers were delivered not to the depot but a mile or two west of town. Business houses were fumigating. The resident undertaker was advertising $2.00 coffins. As smallpox sufferers kept turning up (two were found lying in the street one day), residents were placated with “sure fire” cures. One relied on the magic of onions. Some hysteria occurred where neighbors reported neighbors as having the disease but refusing to obey the quarantine. Most of these were found to be sporting rashes from their brand new smallpox vaccinations. Throughout May, the illness raged. It was never reported how many graders died, though some two dozen were in the hospital, and while the remains of some were shipped back to their hometowns, others went into unmarked graves in the town cemetery. Among the townspeople, up to a dozen were claimed. Three were young adults, aged 20 to 22. One family lost two members, but no family was unaffected. By June 3, the quarantine had been lifted. On June 10 the town had $1,700 in bills. In July, the county agreed to foot some of the bills, which totaled up to $2,975.32. Thus, construction of the long awaited standard gauge enriched La Veta. It was a classic example of the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for.”