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Spanish Peaks playground

by Nancy Christofferson

HUERFANO — A hundred years ago, Huerfano County business people were continuing an old quest for a piece of the tourism market. Since the first newspapers published here, to the advertisements of the Denver and Rio Grande railroad, both in the mid-1870s, tourists were a favorite target to financially augment the usual agricultural and mining industries.

A publication of 1916 identifies some of what their authors thought were the highlights of a scenic tour in the Spanish Peaks country.

Authors of the articles “La Veta – The Garden Spot of Colorado,” written by S.J. Capps, and “Magnificent Scenic Attractions of This County,” the Rev. C.M. Bissell, along with a “staff writer” who penned “Cuchara Camps, Colorado’s Natural Camping Grounds,” inform readers of the splendid sights, climate, and beneficial breezes free to all comers. These scenes include the Lion’s Den, Seven Lakes, Balanced Rock, Caravel of Columbus, Brownie Falls, Devil’s Arm Chair, and Stairs of Hercules. (And, no, I have no idea where some of these places are either.)

Bissell, a Presbyterian minister and newspaper publisher/editor, begins his tour of the valley at old Cucharas, follows the railroad through Walsenburg, Mutual and North Veta, expounding on the coal mining and fertile farming areas until he reaches “the beautifully situated town” of La Veta, before crossing the mesa to headwaters of Santa Clara Creek on the flanks of the East Spanish Peak. It is here the Caravel of Columbus might be found, if one knew where to look, along with many other natural wonders named by Louis B. Sporleder. In the same neighborhood was (is?) a boulder he called the toad stool, which turns out to be “one of the two balanced rocks of the county, neither of them one whit behind the much advertised rocks of other locations,” an obvious dig at Colorado Springs’ much vaunted geologic formations.

In Echo Canyon could be found “a wonderful cathedral, perfect in outline, in the center of whose window has grown a tree as straight as an arrow.” It is in the same ravine as the Devil’s Arm Chair and the 35-foot tall Brownie Falls.

From Cuchara Camps, a resort of “rustic cottages”, he branches off to the Lester sawmill, which sounds very unattractive, frankly, but which was surrounded by rental summer cabins and was just a stepping off point for Blue Lake and “six other clear mountain lakes” (hence, Seven Lakes). He assures us the lakes had just been stocked by the La Veta Rod and Gun Club. To reach the Camps from La Veta, travelers would pass the Stairs of Hercules, “a giant rock formation with 150 feet to each step.” Even without measuring, this probably refers to today’s Devil’s Stairsteps.

The Gardner area also found favor with Rev. Bissell. It was the home of “large stock ranches,” is blessed with fertile soil, and has “splendid mountain lakes” inhabited by trout. As the commercial center of Huerfano Park, which one-time State Senator Tim Hudson described as running from the summit of the Sangre de Cristos, along the foot of Greenhorn Mountain to Huerfano Butte, Gardner boasted at the time two churches, two hotels, two general stores, two blacksmiths, and an “auto livery.”

Bissell found nothing inspiring about Apache Falls except the “thousands” of carefully wrought Indian arrow heads” left as “momentos of the long strife of red-skinned warriors.” What Bissell failed to convey to the eager visitor was that most of these inviting delights required either a great deal of hiking, or a sturdy riding horse.

S.J. Capps was slightly less dramatic with his descriptions, but single-mindedly devoted to his subject of La Veta. As a former mayor (1907-1914) as well as the current one in 1916, it was his patriotic duty to say nice things about the area. One site he was pushing was the La Veta Mountain Park that had been “granted” to the town by the government, subject to certain conditions. This resort was located at Bissell’s Seven Lakes, or what is usually termed Blue and Bear Lakes nowadays. Along with the “Stairs of Hercules,” this is one of 1916’s few scenic wonders that is still available to motorists today.

Much in Capps’ eye, and those of many others, was the famous Radio Iron and Sulphur Springs, “known to the Indians and Mexicans for generations as the cure-all for every ill known to them.” A new owner was at the time subdividing the area, known as the Sulphur Springs since at least 1876 when Denver and Rio Grande railroad and La Veta Town Company stockholders developed the resort as a destination. The owner, while encouraging purchase of private building lots, was touting the springs, which included sulphur, arsenic and iron, for bathing as well as drinking, and the surrounding forests for seasonal living. Overlooking the springs was a cave in the rocks that was dubbed the Lion’s Den. The site was a popular picnicking spot close to fishing and hunting opportunities.

Cuchara Camps was widely advertised since its inception in 1908. Whether or not its owner, George A. Mayes, or a member of the La Veta Commercial Club wrote of it in 1916 is unknown, but he, or she, didn’t miss a trick. We learn it was “cool, refreshing, pleasant” in climate, that there “nature has full sway, all buildings conform to nature’s way,” there was an “absence of noxious weeds” to sicken those with asthma or hay fever, and other enchantments to make this “one of the most alluring spots in the west.” Fishing, small and large game hunting, lawn tennis, and the dancing pavilion were given central attention. Riding and driving horses were available, and rental burros assisted the birdwatcher, flower hunter, and hiker carry equipment and self into secluded glens and gulleys. The commissary carried not only fishing tackle and licenses, but also ammunition.

A hotel catered to overnight or weekly guests, and its restaurant featured local produce from nearby farms, along with the ever popular fried chicken and rabbit dinners, or grouse in season, followed by homemade pies. In addition, young Charles Bissell, son of the preacher, operated a traveling “lunch counter” on wheels, popular with those rustling up something different for the day’s picnic. Community campfire dinners were common, and often led to the telling of tales and personal stories ‘til the wee hours with the fire still roaring.

Rental cabins came with cookstoves, cookware, utensils and everything else save bed linens, towels and personal products. Stove wood was provided to renters as well as campers, whose cooking surfaces were metal grids supported by stones. The first to buy one of these rentals, called cottages by Mayes and shacks by their occupants, was Nels Benston of Trinidad in 1908. In fact, a majority of campers and homeowners of the 1910s were from either Walsenburg, La Veta or Trinidad.

Dr. A.L. Trout endorsed Cuchara Camps and other mountain spots in an article entitled “Climatic and Health Conditions Unsurpassed.” He insisted one breathing the pure mountain air, with its resulting “oxygenation of the blood” and “frequent” respirations guaranteed expansion of chest measurements, improved digestion and freedom from germs. He cites the benefits of said air to those suffering from tuberculosis and bronchitis. Further, he said, there is no malaria or yellow fever at 8,200 feet. Good to know.

He also wrote, “There is little severe winter cold; the frost season is short; snows seldom deep.” Maybe he should have gotten out of the house more often.