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Lathrop State Park: the early years

by Nancy Christofferson
WALSENBURG — Nothing in Huerfano County ever comes easily. Nothing.
Take, for instance, the simple concept of establishing a Walsenburg city recreation area as envisioned by generations of public spirited citizens and city council members (not that the one precludes the other).
The natural place for this was around Martin Lake, just a brisk walk or a short carriage ride from downtown. As far back as 1889 people were enjoying Dr. T.F. Martin’s hospitality at his lakes, vineyard and orchards as an escape from the summer heat. Fishing, boating, picnicking and swimming were allowed. Even the Lakeside Gun Club enjoyed the premises. Dr. Martin, who served as both Walsenburg’s mayor and postmaster, had ulterior motives, of course. He owned the water rights, and his lake also provided the Town of Walsenburg with a water supply, though it was primitive and unreliable.
Dr. Martin departed the scene early, and by 1898 one W.N. Coler of New York had obtained the most precious of Dr. Martin’s properties – his water rights in Martin Lake. That year Coler attempted to have condemned the land surrounding the lakes, usually called Martin Lakes (which included the later Horseshoe and some smaller ponds), in an effort to expand the city water system and extend the lines. Walsenburg was desperate for a guaranteed supply of water and a comprehensive system to reach all parts of the town.
In response to Coler’s demands, a judge appointed a committee of condemnation, consisting of C.O. Unfug, F.E. Cowing, G.R. Moore, John H. Brown and Peter Krier. The committee found in favor of Coler, but he would have to pay a Frank Bigelow $84 for 19 acres and Clara C. Martin $43 for another eight and one-third acres for the privilege. Gee, $127.
Coler’s little water company turned into the Coler Ditch and Reservoir Company, incorporated for $100,000 in 1907 by Dr. T.D. Baird, J.B. Farr, E.L. Trounstine, Charles Hayden, Adolph Unfug, C.D. Lesher and W.C. Hunt.
Their purpose was to acquire land and water rights and to store water for irrigation and domestic purposes. The company in 1909 laid iron water pipes across Sand Arroyo to bring the water to Martin Lake from higher up the valley. It also built a spillway on Martin Lake in case of high water, and installed a headgate.
Coler’s company reigned supreme for many years, under different entities and owners, but with the same name.
In 1931 the American Legion began casting looks at the lake as a recreational area. The county commissioners fully cooperated and built a road from the highway to the lake, and the Legion announced plans to build not just facilities for water sports but also a pavilion and golf course. They roped off a section for swimming only, placed a diving board and several rafts and installed playground equipment. The Boy Scouts got involved and a city recreational program introduced swimming lessons. Fourth of July activities and water sports occurred at Martin Lake that summer under the Legion’s sponsorship, but their lofty plans for more development were forestalled by the Great Depression and the lack of funding.
The citizens of Walsenburg may have been especially desirous of having their own recreational facilities after noting the major coal camps all had Y.M.C.A. buildings. Inside were swimming pools, bowling alleys, pool and billiard rooms, even rifle ranges. If coal camp denizens had such pleasurable opportunities, why shouldn’t they?
By 1942 the city and county had made arrangements to use the lake and private land surrounding it for recreation. It was named Huajatolla Park, and work began to improve the premises in the summer. The grand opening “of Huajatolla Park at Martin Lake” was held July 15, 1942. There was much to be done, however. Plans were to erect a two-story, 30 by 30 foot building just north of the lake to house a concession stand, dressing rooms and a bandstand. Rustic stone shelters were to be constructed (by the Huerfano County National Defense Association Recreation Committee) around the property. Lions Club members pitched in and built picnic tables and benches. The World-Independent reported that 4,781 people attended the grand opening.
For the next few years, Huajatolla Park was ceremoniously opened for the season every 4th of July with fireworks and races, speeches, boat rides and other novelties. Thousands attended these celebrations. Closing of the season took place on Labor Day.
In 1943 the Utt family donated 40 acres of beach and land adjoining the lake for expansion. The city and the Utts had a certain history over use of the lake and its seepage, so this was a generous gesture.
The only problem with Martin Lake was that it was still owned by private parties.
In 1948 Walsenburg City Council voted to purchase Coler Ditch and Reservoir Company, which had suggested the sale itself. The purchase price was to be $50,000. Arrangements were made to offer $85,000 in bonds at 2.75% interest through Boettcher and Company of Denver to finance the move. This is when Murphy’s Law kicked in, and many problems arose with the abstracts. The entire project had to be shelved and then restarted the following year.
With the purchase finalized in the spring of 1949, more plans materialized. Another grand opening took place, this one for the City of Walsenburg’s very own Huajatolla Park, on April 23, 1949. $50,000 worth of improvements were to be made. The lake itself was thrown open for year-round fishing. Murphy raised his ugly head again, however, and the Health Department condemned the lake for swimming in early July 1949.
To be continued

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