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Walsenburg: The Crossroads of Cultural Heritage

WALSENBURGH  — On Dec. 14, 1870 – 145 years ago – the first post office for Walsenburg was authorized. So, Walsenburg must be 145 years old. Or not. How does one establish the age of a town? By its first settlement? By its incorporation? By its post office? By memories? By any means, Walsenburg is a very old town by Colorado standards. Remember, Colorado became a territory Feb. 28, 1861 and was admitted as a state Aug. 1, 1876. Before territorial status, the southeastern portion of Colorado was a part of New Mexico Territory. So can a Colorado municipality date its founding to before it was a legal entity? Sure it can. Though exact dates may never be known, Walsenburg traces her history back to the settling of what became known as Plaza de los Leones about 1859. It was then when Miguel Antonio Leon set up a wikiup along the banks of the Cucharas River amidst a grove of cottonwood, or so it is said. He was soon joined by others from his old home in Rio Arriba, New Mexico. Another theory is that Miguel Antonio Atencio may have been the first to settle here in

1858. Leon and Atencio were cousins, so it’s a moot point. Within a few miles in several directions were other placitas being built, Oso or Pineda Plaza to the west, Tesquisquite on the south and others up and down the Cucharas. The site Leon selected was adjacent to the river, in fact, it was in the river bottom, straddling an old Indian trail. An early resident was John Albert. Albert was an old trapper who claimed to have visited the later location of Walsenburg in 1834 while out trapping beaver. He told a story about watching a fierce Indian battle on the bluffs west of the later town during his first visit. He had many adventures through the next 30 years but said he’d settled at the spot in 1864 and built a fort, or placita, for his home. The adobe buildings were also used for trade, lodging and feeding travelers, and built in a fashion it could be easily defended. The settlement was scattered from the fort by the riverside to the north. Shortly after Albert arrived, so did H.W. Jones and Joseph Bourcey. These men and their families built placitas as well, and farmed the land around them. August Sporleder opened a hotel, and other merchants and business people were arriving. The community was growing. The exact number of residents is unknown, and probably always will be, but there were not enough voters to form a precinct. However, in 1868 there were plenty of residents, as is shown by the establishment of a post office. It was approved Sept 23 and named Carson. John Albert was said to be postmaster and probably gave the name to the office. It lasted one month, closing Oct. 23. On June 15, 1869, Carson reopened. By the time it closed Dec. 7, 1870, the face of the community was rapidly changing. Two men then moved to the settlement, two men who would have a lasting effect. They were Alexander Levy and Fred Walsen. Levy, who first came to the plaza in 1870 while doing business with his brother Isaac in Trinidad, was encouraged to set up in Walsenburg by Leandro Gonzales, a member of a large and successful pioneer family. Levy built a general mercantile store along the main trail between what would later become Eighth and Ninth streets. Walsen came along about the same time, moving from the county seat at Badito, where he worked for Ferdinand Meyer’s branch mercantile. Walsen built a home and store, and settled in. He and Levy became partners and built a large store near the corner of today’s Seventh and Main streets. By this time the post office was established, on Dec. 14, 1870, as Walsenburgh, with an aitch no doubt in deference to the many newcomers of German blood. Already, in the 1860s, Colorado government had been “taken over” by Anglo miners and speculators from the east who had no respect or tolerance for the original New Mexican settlers. The new Walsenburgh post office was said to be in Walsen’s store. While commerce and population were picking up nicely, Walsenburgh was not on the major north-south stage route. The mail came by stagecoach through the early community of Cucharas to the east, just as freight and passengers did. The railroad also located in Cucharas. When the first coal mine opened at Walsen, west of the plaza, even the machinery and output had to be shipped by wagon to Cucharas for further handling by the railroad. Nevertheless, the settlement had ambitions. A countywide election was called for Sept. 10, 1872 to select a county seat once and for all. The voters chose Walsenburgh and the first county commissioners’ meeting was held there on Oct. 7. In 1873 the Leon and Atencio families donated a tract of land for a townsite. It was incorporated June 16, 1873, the fifth in the state to be legalized. Platting for the lots was completed that October by someone named Theodore F. Braun. A county courthouse was constructed shortly thereafter on lower Main Street, not far north from Albert’s old fort and Sporleder’s hotel. It was a modest affair, though better than the tiny adobe room used in Badito. It did, however, share quarters with the Masonic Lodge. About 1869 a tiny jacal church was built to serve Our Lady of the Seven Dolors parish. Walsen and Levy built their later store just across the street in 1881, but the church had burned down and in 1873 a new one replaced it nearer the river. A disastrous flood destroyed the new church in 1878. The flood also took out the rectory, the convent under construction, John Albert’s fort and many residences at the south end of town. As the citizens rebuilt, the town leaders moved the business section farther from the river. The new courthouse was built four blocks from it, at Fifth and Main, in 1882 and was replaced by the current one in 1904. Even the town well was in the 500 block of Main. Evidently the town fathers felt something was missing. On Oct. 20, 1887 the post office was renamed Tourist City – a rather obvious promotion to bring in visitors. This did not prove popular with the residents, however, and Tourist City p.o. lasted a little over one month before reverting to Walsenburgh on Nov. 29. In the early 1890s a movement was started amongst the townspeople, who felt Walsenburgh was too Germanic, to change the name again. By this time Walsen was living in Denver, where he’d moved in 1882 when he was elected state treasurer. Several options were discussed, but in the end the aitch was dropped and Walsenburgh finally became Walsenburg on Dec. 22, 1892. So is Walsenburg only 123 years old? Not hardly. Walsenburg dates its birth to 1873 incorporation and even had a bicentennial celebration in 1973 to prove it. It touted itself that year as “The Crossroads of Cultural Heritage”, a name suggested by Ben Gallegos, a fourth grader who won $25 for his brainstorm.