Editor's Note: My friend Norm Vance graciously offered this article to me from the local Pagosa website where he is editor, Pagosa.com . I just completed my 16th year in Pagosa Springs. We arrived in March of 1997. I've always been involved in the community in a number of things and yet much of this article was new information to me. Whether you're a relative newbie, a fairly seasoned local (which I would consider myself at this point), a long timer or a native; I think you will enjoy reading about "from whence we came"... Thanks Norm for your absolute spirit of cooperation. It is a rare quality between people in similar occupations, and one I admire beyond what words can express. You inspire me often. Lauri Heraty
The Rejuvenation of Pagosa Springs
Part I By Norm Vance
This article was printed in the 2002 summer issue of The North American Sportsman Magazine.
First page of the North American Sportsman Magazine shows the massive work completed on the river restoration.
The town of Pagosa Springs is in an idyllic location. The high peaks of the Continental Divide form a southwest facing crescent with Pagosa Springs at its focus. The San Juan National Forest surrounds Pagosa Springs with lower elevation ponderosa pine and scrub oak forest changing to aspen and Colorado blue spruce at higher altitude. Above timberline the mighty San Juan Range contains one fifth of all mountain peaks above 14,000 feet in the U.S.A. The San Juan River cascades down from the mountains and flows through Pagosa Springs on it’s way to join the Colorado River in Utah. It begins as Wolf Creek and drops from 10,875 feet at the summit of Wolf Creek Pass to 7,000 feet at Pagosa Springs in only 20 miles.
Looking up Wolf Creek from Horseshoe Bend on HWY 160
The area is a sportsman's paradise with many rivers, lakes, a maze of hiking-horseback trails in two large wilderness areas, a series of well maintained class-one graveled forest access roads, and 4X4 trails in the National Forest. The forest also supports an array of wildlife with elk, deer, mountain lion, bighorn sheep, wild turkey, and black bear of prime interest to hunters. A couple of seasons ago, Pagosa Springs obtained the position of having the number one and number two largest big game license selling sporting shops in Colorado.
The first Europeans entering this area noted Native American trails from every direction leading to the hot spring. Native Americans used the area as a center for their summer hunting expeditions. The spring and the surrounding area became holy ground with legends about its origins and use. Welch Nossaman, the first white settler to build a cabin near the spring, recorded that the area now known as Town Park was where the Native Americans did deer processing. The deer fur got “eight, ten or even 12 inches deep,” he reported.
Pagosa Springs before white man (Artwork by Norm Vance)
At that time, the river meandered across the entire Town Park area and the Hermosa Street residential area. Settlers began filling the north side of the river to gain more usable land. The river was pushed south to its present location. The only other work done on the river was to remove many large, randomly placed boulders to lessen flooding. The river became a flat bottomed channel through town.
Historically, Pagosa has had its ups and downs, with some of the downs caused by major fires. After a while the businessmen of the town caught on and built with stone, brick and concrete. These buildings have endured and comprise the main street businesses of today.
About mid 20th Century
Western slope towns have all gone through a similar history, coming out of early mining or lumbering days and slowly moving toward tourism. There were decades of poor economic conditions. Some towns caught on and grew, some simply maintained, while others became ghost towns. Each town that survived went through periods of rejuvenation into modern times.
As late as the 1970s, Pagosa, like many little mountain towns, had a color theme of brown on brown and downtown had a snaggle-toothed appearance because of two spaces void of structures. With badly cracked sidewalks, raw walls with cracked and crumbling surfaces, metal-walled buildings, and generally not a very dressed-up look.
In 1990, a landfill was installed on the river bank and construction began on a new Chamber of Commerce building. The design of the new building was inspired by an 1880’s hot spring bathhouse. In the early days of Pagosa's history the image of the bath house design was used in drawings, etchings, and photography for brochures, becoming the image Pagosa exhibited to the world. It is fitting that the design was reproduced in modem times. The Chamber did a wonderful job of landscaping with flowers, grass and trees, a vast improvement along the river.
Of all the improvements, the River Restoration Project is the grandest. It has revolutionized recreation in and around the river. People always fished, kids tubed, and rafts sped along the river, but after the restoration people go to the river just to be near it. They read, visit, write, paint, draw, contemplate and generally love the experience.
Dave Rosgen, river hydrologist and sportsman
The idea for revamping the river blossomed years before in an informal committee meeting between Fred Schmidt and Marion Francis, members of the Archuleta Economic Development Association(AEDA). They interviewed river consultants and decided on Dave Rosgen of Wildland Hydrology Consultants.
Rosgen completed his design and the AEDA joined with the Town of Pagosa Springs to apply for a grant from the Colorado Division of Wildlife's Fishing is Fun program. It took a good two years to get state and federal permits for the project. The grant was applied for in 1992 and the work began in fall of 1994. The grant was for $157,400.
Could be 50 miles out in the wilderness, nope, its downtown Pagosa Springs!
Famous Wolf Creek Pass allows paved passage over the Continental Divide northeast of Pagosa Springs. A major road straightening project was under way in the early 1990s involving blowing out and removing a vast quantity of boulders, some the size of small cars. The astute people of the river restoration project paid to have these rocks trucked to town and later used in the restoration project. The AEDA raised $30,000 with its “Adopt-a-Rock” program ¬whereby citizens could purchase a rock for $50. The names of those who adopted a rock are inscribed on a brass plaque attached to a large stone on the grounds of the Chamber of Commerce.
The river project included a five-acre park comprised of two big ponds used for fishing in the summer and ice skating in the winter, and a parking lot. One of the ponds is wheelchair accessible. This area is behind The River Center shopping complex and the buildings of east Pagosa.
Part Two coming Monday...
Norman Vance is an "Old Tymer" in Pagosa. I believe he's been here 30 years now. He is the Editor of the Pagosa Adventure Guide, contributor to Pagosa.com, involved with Friends of Reservoir Hill and about a thousand other things in town. HIs wife Ruth works at Riverside Health Services and is the only person I know who can make me get on the scale and fell o.k. about it.