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The Navajo Trail

by Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO — Fifty years ago, on Sept. 16, 1962, the Navajo Trail was dedicated as a national highway. Today we call this road Highway 160.
As early as 1916, discussion was taking place concerning the route, though it was called the Spanish Trail or, occasionally, the Mesa Verde Highway, at that time. As a result, the route over La Veta Pass was improved and opened that year as Interstate No. 450 despite the fact that it was not completed and nearly impossible to keep open during the winter months. In 1919 a move was on to complete the road across La Veta Pass into the San Luis Valley and on to the Grand Canyon and eventually all the way to California.
Garden City, Kansas, was the take-off point for this long stretch. The plan was to build a road from there into La Junta, thence to Walsenburg, La Veta and on to the west. The highway got to La Junta and stalled. The portion between La Junta and Walsenburg, which was to be a part of the Navajo Trail, became today’s Colorado Highway 10. The story of the completion and paving of that route is a long and involved one, but it was finally passable as a gravel road in 1932, outside of the fact it was missing a few bridges and motorists had to ford the creeks and arroyos. It wasn’t paved until 1959 and not completely paved even then.
Proponents of the Navajo Trail were, of course, the cities and their chambers of commerce located along the route. The Walsenburg Chamber of Commerce was especially avid to see this road completed. When the Navajo Trail Association was organized in Durango in June 1933, Walsenburg was one of the first cities to join. The representative was no less than a county commissioner, George Niebuhr. J.H.P. Fiske, an engineer and surveyor of Walsenburg, was elected as a director and W.H. Harrison, banker, was there to protect the interests of La Veta.
The organization explained it had taken its name from an old custom of driving stakes into the ground at crossroads to assist travelers in finding their way. This method gave birth to the saying, “It’s just a Navajo trail – but you can make it.”
The association was persuasive enough to convince the state highway department to set completion of the road between Walsenburg and Monte Vista their number one priority for 1936.
Walsenburg City Council and the county commissioners had already been arguing around and ‘round over the route, just through the city. It was thought Seventh Street was not an option, and many wanted the highway to drag through Walsen and Red coal camps on its way to La Veta. This, however, meant the Walsen baseball field would be sacrificed, which was not a popular move. Instead, Seventh Street was again considered and approved by the state. Not long after, in 1938, the overpass was built over the Walsen Mine workings and railroad.
La Veta was one of the municipalities that fell off the route. In 1927 the highway, still Interstate No. 450, was improved west to a point about where the junction with Highway 12 is today – and work stopped. The people of La Veta, and especially the storekeepers and Commercial Club members, were anxious to see if the highway would continue due west or if it would drop through town where it was already located. In 1936 the state approved the northern route, and La Veta was duly cut off. Then Gov. Ed C. Johnson, always a friend to Huerfano County, saw to it that funds were set aside to build a road due north from La Veta to Highway 160 to avoid its being isolated from traffic and prospective shoppers. This road would use a deep cut in Pinon Hill. It took local citizens to point out that a better route than straight up Pinon Hill was to encircle the hill on an existing road (they had found this out after using the straight up the hill route themselves for many years). A Works Progress Administration project employed 25 men to dig out a depression on the hill and move the dirt to make an approach to a bridge over the Cucharas River. This grade was slightly above the one then in use. The new road was Highway 111 and it was opened to traffic in 1937. It was a dirt road.
Meanwhile work continued to finish the highway west. This too was a dirt road, though oiled. Later it was graveled. Once this was accomplished, in rudimentary fashion, the Navajo Trail Association quietly withdrew. It was reorganized in 1940, and again in 1946 when work lagged, apparently. In that year a Walsenburg man was elected secretary/treasurer. He was Ralph Faxon, and he would dog politicians and engineers from that day on to not only complete the route but to do so quickly and publicly in order to benefit the cities which would be affected, and to pave the entire distance. Faxon went on to serve the association for 13 years, while serving as manager of the Huerfano County Chamber of Commerce for 18 years. He was named “Mr. Navajo Trail” by the association in 1954 and “Man of Year” by the Chamber in 1958.
With Faxon aboard, the association drew more members, and the members drew more attention to their cause. Some 60 members attended the annual meeting in Walsenburg in 1947. In 1955 they issued a 10-page color brochure of the highlights along the route between the Colorado border and Flagstaff, Arizona.
The association was still pushing for more improvements, however. By this time, it was projected the route would be 1,323 miles between Colorado Springs and Los Angeles. It was not until 1970 that the entire route was numbered Highway 160 since many localities were still using old designations. The new single number eliminated no small amount of confusion among travelers.
Finally, on Sunday, Sept. 16, 1962, the Navajo Trail, now linking Garden City, La Junta, Walsenburg and Alamosa to the Four Corners area, was dedicated. Some of it was still dirt.