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Lathrop State Park/Huajatolla Park: Where the buffalo roamed

by Nancy Christofferson
WALSENBURG — Huajatolla Park at Martin Lake was formally opened as Walsenburg’s watery playground on April 23, 1949. A little over two months later, around the first of July, the state health department condemned the lake as unsafe for humans and it was closed.
Walsenburg had leased and used the land around the lake, and Martin Lake itself, for many years, but until the city had purchased the company that owned the water rights – Coler Ditch and Reservoir Company – city council had little responsibility for its legal use.
The city laboriously had the lake and environs cleared and cleaned, but Martin Lake was off limits for the 1949 season. By October, it was thought “maybe” it would be approved as a swimming area the following summer.
But in the summer of 1950, the Sportsmens Club called Martin Lake “an alkaline mud hole”. Members proposed to drain the lake, kill the fish, clean the bottom and refill it.
Thus began a two-year project to clean both Martin and Horseshoe Lakes of undesirable fish species and vegetation. The lakes were then slowly refilled and restocked.
City council proposed in 1952 an old archway over the entrance into Huajatolla Park be removed, and it was. In 1953 the city took title to 160 more acres of land it had purchased from Ben Valdez to expand the recreational facilities.
Now Huajatolla Park meant to hit its stride. Alas, the early 1950s were drought years that affected both the quality and quantity of water. This drought proved even longer than that of the 1930s. Finally, in 1957, the drought appeared to be over and good old water sounded pretty attractive to everyone.
City council in 1958 passed an ordinance allowing boating once again on the lake. That summer saw between 5,000 and 6,000 people in attendance for speed and other boat races along with water skiing demonstrations and aerobatics. Participants came from six states.
In 1959 council set fees for parking and boating and by mid-July had collected more than $2,000 from these, and that was just before the Spanish Peaks Regatta and Waterama was scheduled.
About this time city council had evidently grown tired of the responsibilities of managing its own large recreational park, not to mention financing it. In the summer of 1960 the city began plans for a development around the lake to include home sites, a golf course, a small airport and more lakes and ponds on the 1,200 acres. About the same time, Harold W. Lathrop, first and, at that time, only director of the state park and recreation board, visited and was “favorably impressed” with Martin Lake for recreational development.
In April 1961, the city signed contracts to transfer Martin and Horseshoe Lakes to the state. The Colorado Game and Fish Department (as it was known then), purchased 280 more acres near the lakes, and put out invitations to bid on construction of dams and other structures. Ozzello Construction of Trinidad won the bid for the Horseshoe Lake improvements for $46,189.50. Harold Lathrop died in 1961, but he had started the ball rolling and there was no turning back. The state approved the name of Lathrop for its new park as proposed by Colorado Senate Joint Resolution No. 12.
April 1962 brought news of the parks and recreation board’s plans to add overnight camping facilities, parking lots, boat ramps and picnic areas. A formal dedication of the park was set for June 9, 1962.
Thus Lathrop State Park was the first Colorado state park so dedicated. It is not the oldest state park in the system, but was nevertheless the first to be dedicated as such.
By the time of the official dedication, the park had 50 picnic tables, three restroom structures and buoys set in the lake to delineate boating from fishing from swimming areas. Thousands attended the dedication. Governor Steve McNichols was the principal speaker. Attendance for the park’s first month of life reached 35,700, for an average of 305 people per day.
Somebody at the Game, Fish and Parks Commission had a bright idea in 1964 – “let’s add some buffalo!” And so it was done. The first 10 animals, including two bulls, arrived in April 1965. By then a fence had been constructed and everyone concerned was pleased with the new acquisitions. The fist calf was born that June. Tourists loved them! It was a wonder there were no more pileups than usual on Highway 160 as gawkers slowed down to eye the shaggy beasts. Alas, buffalo can be considered a type of double-edged sword. The herd of 24 in 1973 included some escape artists who led the rest of them west and into Navajo Ranch Resorts for the winter. They came back the next May, voluntarily it seems. As a result, fences were reinforced. Then there was the fact of life called reproduction. By 1969 the park had 19 cows, 12 bulls and 12 calves. Four bulls were killed as surplus. An annual “harvest” was being held. In 1971 Walsenburg Club paid $210 for a three-year-old bull to use its meat for burgers at the next year’s 4th of July celebration. Opinions – and strong ones at that – varied as to the humanity of murdering/harvesting bull buffalo. Around 1974 the herd was seen no more.
1965 was not just the year the buffalo came, it was also the year the golf course was started. The city’s old course, on Capitol Hill, had been destroyed by vandals and otherwise proved inadequate, so was turned into a gravel pit. Duffers leased land west of Walsen and next to Martin Lake in 1957, but little could be financed to start construction. A cadre of golfers determined to locate a course on the new state park’s land.
The Walsenburg Golf Association was formed in October 1965 with members pledging various amounts. Approval was received to use 80 acres of Lathrop State Park, and $40,000 was allocated for construction by the Land and Water Conservation Fund, to be met with matching funds. The course opened for play in March 1967 but was not formally dedicated until July 4, 1968. Lathrop was, and is, the only state park to have its own golf course.
To be continued