By Nancy Christofferson
Way back when, before federal highways were invented and the railroads hadn’t reached far into Huerfano County, there just weren’t many roads. The only semi-improved roads were those used by the military, by the postal service and by the stagecoach lines. And after a good rain or a heavy, wet snow, these roads were just sludge and ruts, often requiring passengers as well as drivers to get out and push if they were riding in wagons, or to dismount and pull the critter if they were in the saddle.
This sorry state of affairs could not be helped without a great deal of tax dollars being liberally spent for grading, creating drainage and adding some type of surfacing. So, naturally, certain citizens took matters into their own hands, and built their own roads.
Most of these roads were from ranch to ranch, from ranch to town, and from town to town. However, in the matter of crossing the mountains from Huerfano County into the San Luis Valley, more ambitious projects were undertaken.
Then, as now, one person could hardly afford to build mile upon mile of passable roadway, mindful of steep grades and sharp turns (though not to mindful), nor to maintain all those miles and the (rare) bridges the road required. Thus the roads became toll roads, and the public paid the owner good cash money to use them.
The first mail came into southern Colorado and the San Luis Valley by way of Sangre de Cristo Pass, also known as the Taos or Trappers Trail. This route began as a game trail, was discovered by Native Americans, gave way to foot and horse traffic, was rerouted for wagons and eventually became the stagecoach and mail route. Military pack and wagon trains bound for Fort Massachusetts and later Fort Garland also used this road.
Two toll roads were built about 1874 between La Veta and the San Luis Valley. One was that of Henry Sefton over La Veta Pass, and the other was across Middle Creek Pass using the Wagon Creek drainage, which is roughly the route of today’s scenic railway. The builder of the Middle Creek route is unknown but in 1876 it was owned by a Mr. Earl (Mr. Earl’s first name is unknown but there was a Herbert C. Earl who was married in La Veta in January 1877).
Sefton’s road was called the Sangre de Cristo or Abeyta and he said it cost him $18,000 to build it. An 1875 article in the Colorado Chieftain tells us, “Abeyta Pass: At the toll gate can be found the best of accommodations for man and beast. A good pilgrim house and lots of wood and water free.” It was noted there were lots of travelers using the route. The toll gate, by the way, was in Costilla County, on the west side of the pass.
A few miles south the Middle Creek road wasn’t faring as well. Most of the comments about it were negative. It lacked maintenance, was prone to washouts and could not accommodate heavy freight wagons even in the best weather conditions.
There must have been a disparity in rates as well, since one road was well traveled and maintained, and the other not. Probably this was what caused the county commissioners in 1871 to set tolls, ranging from one cent for each sheep, goat or hog to 75 cents for a wagon pulled by two animals, or $1 if pulled by four.
In 1870 Henry Daigre of La Veta thought he’d just build a decent road from La Veta to the Purgatory Valley by way of Cucharas Pass. When it was completed, he announced it was a toll road, but it was not used regularly and was converted to a county road jointly maintained by Las Animas and Huerfano counties. Nevertheless, his road was mandated to follow the Huerfano County toll rate schedule.
The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad built right over the top of Sefton’s road in 1877. In fact, the famous Mule Shoe Curve bridge can be seen straddling the toll road in early photographs. The road did not last much longer after the railroad crossed the pass as passengers were more likely to take the train. Herds of livestock, heavy freight too expensive to ship by rail and other traffic continued to use Sefton’s route. A graphic example of what the road may have looked like in 1893 can be found in an old newspaper with the comment “Since the second herd of cattle went over … the road is in terrible shape for buggies and teams.” This had no doubt been the way of things for several decades.
The county attempted to take over Sefton’s right of way, by then long out of business as a toll road, in the early 20th century but discovered the state had already claimed it, so the county converted the former D&RG narrow gauge grade over Veta Pass into a county road. The state owned part of the route but did nothing with it, and eventually took over the county road and improved it and it became a part of the national highway system in the 1930s.
Mosca Pass, linking the upper Huerfano Valley with the San Luis Valley, was a toll road beginning in 1871. The toll gate was around Sharpsdale on the upper Huerfano. Mosca was prone to flashfloods, and was repaired several times before it completely washed out in 1911.
The last toll road, and shortest lived, was the Wahatoya. In 1902 O.D. Staplin, a resident of the valley, in partnership with D.R. Hindman of Rouse and S.J. Jellison of Walsenburg, incorporated the road, which was then built by Gus Prator, another valley resident. It was remarked that the toll road “should be graded this fall. It will bring hundreds of tourists instead of tens.”
The road, which is probably the same as we drive today, roughly followed an 1882 toll road to the Mountain Monarch silver mine, later called the Bullseye, that was built by 30 men paid by mine owners. The owners were no doubt tired of rubber neckers and figured they’d cash in on them. Staplin’s new toll road and the fence that enclosed it crossed many properties, and some of the owners were quite irate about his audacity. Things came to a head when the young daughter of a homesteader in the valley died, and her father had to cut the fence to use the road to take her remains to the cemetery. The valley’s residents banded together and went en masse to Walsenburg “to hear the county commissioners’ opinion on the proposed toll road. They took no action.”