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Trinidad celebrating two birthdays

TRINIDAD — Tomorrow marks the 149th birthday of the Trinidad post office, established Feb. 6, 1866. And Monday will be the 149th birthday of Las Animas County, also established in 1866. The statistics are somewhat misleading in that Trinidad had had a post office from June 17, 1862 until Sept. 19, 1864, but it was in Huerfano County. It was moved to Gray’s Ranch to the southeast, then moved back as the future city gained population and became a mercantile center along the Santa Fe Trail. Las Animas and Huerfano counties were historically a part of Nuevo Mexico, claimed by Spain in the 1700s. They were situated in the northern portion of Mora County. A 1719 Spanish expedition through the country resulted in the official naming of the major river, what we familiarly call the Purgatory, Rio de Las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio, by the governor of Nuevo Mexico. The name was shortened to Purgatoire and corrupted into Picketwire. The county derives its name from the river. In 1821 Mexico won its independence from Spain. As a direct result, northern Mexico and the settlements of Nuevo Mexico began to welcome trade with the United States, and the Santa Fe Trail was opened between Missouri and New Mexico. The preferred wagon road was across what became known as the “dry route”, variations of

which crossed the southwest corner of Kansas, the Oklahoma panhandle, and southeastern Colorado. The mountain route over Raton Pass, first mentioned by French trappers in 1739, was at the time suitable only for pack animals, with the first recorded wagons belonging to Bent, St. Vrain and Company inaugurating it in September 1834. The same company may have been the first to settle the area. In 1841 it sent employee John L. Hatcher to construct an irrigation ditch and plant crops on the plains north of Trinidad. He got his ditch built, said to be the first dug in Colorado, but the Utes had other ideas about land use and ran him off after several months residence. Large numbers of New Mexican farmers and their families were hungry for tillable land where they could raise crops and livestock sufficient to support themselves. These families left their northern New Mexico homes to cross the mountains into their own backyards, as it were, and began settling along the Purgatory. How many of them settled in the Trinidad area in the 1850s is unknown, but by 1860 the settlement was flourishing. One source says Gabriel and Juan N. Gutierrez built the first cabins at the site in 1859. Another offers Jean Baptiste Chalifou (Charlifue) as the builder of the first house in 1860. Felipe Baca was a great addition to the community when he arrived in the early 1860s. He was a stock raiser and merchant. He helped to found Trinidad and owned quite a bit of the land it sat upon, much of which he gave away to other settlers. He later served in the Colorado legislature and served as the first president of Trinidad School District No. 1 when it was formally established in 1866. By 1864 the little community boasted about 150 inhabitants. The 1862-64 post office was presided over by first postmaster William Frazer, or Frazier. When the Colorado Territorial legislature reorganized the counties of southeastern Colorado in 1866, it cut Huerfano down and awarded most of the rest to “Los” Animas, which stretched up to the Arkansas River and east to the Kansas line. This, too, was soon split to create other counties but at least they spelled Las Animas correctly by 1866. A petition from the settlers of Trinidad was presented to the territorial legislature on Jan. 10, 1866, asking for a bill incorporating the town. The legislature accepted the proposal but the town was not legally incorporated until February 1876 – another anniversary to be observed this month. The new town was to reach one mile in every direction from the junction of Main and Commercial streets. That junction was a famous one on the Santa Fe Trail, recognized since the streets were laid out in 1861. In 1879 the town became a city of the second class. Although Trinidad was known primarily as a cattle town in 1866, with many saloons and gambling houses, much of the area’s growth came in 1868. One reason was the discovery of gold west of Trinidad, always a fine reason for boom times. Coal was being mined in several locations. Commerce was bustling, with new merchants arriving monthly. Dr. Michael Beshoar had settled there. Charles Goodnight of cattle drive fame was a frequent visitor and was contemplating moving his family to town. The Catholic church had been built and the convent was under construction (under the sponsorship of Felipe Baca). A banquet and ball drew 64 couples, and an “odd man” adding to the festivities was General William Tecumseh Sherman, on a tour to inspect western forts. Where Comanches and Utes had strolled the dusty streets in previous years, Trinidad had become an outpost of Fort Union with a company of cavalry stationed there. Outside Trinidad, the Purgatory Valley was filling with settlers in many plazas east and west along the river. Crops were good. Sawmills were busy. By August, there were 500 registered voters in Las Animas County. Another boost came in the 1870s when the construction of the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe Railroad was announced. In anticipation of Trinidad being the terminus for however many months or years it would take to build the grade across Raton Pass and to the next town, in New Mexico, speculators and others began flooding in as early as 1874. The Denver and Rio Grande had built to about five miles from the town in 1876 but officials told Trinidad residents that if they wanted the D&RG in their city they would have to pay for the privilege. The city fathers declined the proposition. By 1877 Trinidad was claiming 1,100 residents. Just five years later it was up to 6,000. In 1881 Las Animas County had 13 post offices, most of them in farming areas, but two in coal camps, El Moro and Starkville. Thousands of tons of goods, coal, coke, livestock, lumber, beer, machinery and iron were shipped through the county’s two largest freight depots in El Moro and Trinidad. Potatoes were pouring out of the upper Purgatory Valley and cattle and sheep, wool and hides from the plains. Assessed valuation had leapt from $224,507 in 1867 to $2,768,687 in 1880. Farm land was selling at from $6.00 to $75.00 per acre. In 1881 Trinidad, there were six churches, a newspaper, four physicians, a soda factory, the First National Bank, furniture stores, Carr and Meyer’s drugstore (“the oldest store in Trinidad”, according to their ad), a book seller, four or five hotels and myriad rooming houses, an ice factory, numerous blacksmiths and liveries, three attorney firms, a civil engineer, watchmaker, jeweler, bakeries, L.M. Creager, Policeman and Detective (“Never Sleeps”), and many, many saloons, liquor stores and “sporting houses”. The Trinidad Gas Company was organized April 14, 1881 to furnish lights and the water works had been established. Trinidad was definitely on its way.