Alamosa County: The First 100 Years as told by the Sacred Mountain of the East
The Navajo call me their Sacred Mountain of the East, covered in white or dawn and fastened to the ground by lightning. Today I am known as Mount Blanca, the fourth highest peak in Colorado; a Fourteener to be climbed, with steep, deeply rutted 4-wheel drive roads; rugged, exposed ridges, and moody weather that both sustains and threatens life. I have a story to tell you. It is a story to celebrate, an industrious people to commemorate, a vision of hope and prosperity to honor, a rich culture to respect, and a colorful history to memorialize.
From my towering precipice at 14,235 feet under the blue skies of the Sangre De Cristo Range, I embrace a valley, nestled between the wishbone of the Sangres on the east and the San Juan Mountains on the west. The San Luis Valley was named after the town by the same name in the southeastern part of the Valley by the first Spanish settlers when they arrived in 1851 in honor of St. Louis. The Valley is an expansive, high-altitude, oval bowl stretching 122 miles long and 74 miles wide from the Continental Divide to the New Mexico border. While the valley floor, blanketed in yellow, green, and brown rabbitbrush and chico bushes, receives little rain, the Rio Grande, creeks, and artesian wells provide water like gold to the area. The Valley was once a lake bed which may explain the wide array of waterfowl which continue to inhabit the valley today. By the 1870s, the Land of Cool Sunshine was inhabited primarily by a band of Utes known as the Kapota or Blue Sky People and some Spanish and Mexican settlers. The Valley was to change forever due to westward expansion, entrepreneurial business and political leaders, and the arrival of Engine #169.
In 1877, the site of the city of Alamosa, known briefly as “Rio Bravo”, was carefully selected at the bend of the river by Alexander Cameron Hunt, former Colorado Governor and President of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, to establish the town as a railroad hub in the San Luis Valley. He named the town “Alamosa”, referring to the Spanish word “Alamo” for cottonwood, because of the cottonwood trees along the Rio Grande.
As the Spring snows began to melt from my high peaks of the Blanca Massif, the railroad arrived on the 4th of July, 1878 from Garland City (east of Ft. Garland, which was established in 1858 to protect settlers to the area), once terminus of the line, which uprooted itself and moved to Alamosa. Stores, churches and houses were transported on flat cars, set up, and occupied within a few days. Joe Perry of the Perry House, “served his guests a big breakfast in Garland City; that night he served them supper in the same building in its new Alamosa location” (Feitz, 1976, p. 15). In effect, the town was created from “hand-me-down buildings”. By 1890, and for fifty years later, “Alamosa was the absolute center of narrow gauge railroading in America.”
Despite the frigid winters, months of strong wind gusts, and long distances from major cities such as Pueblo, established in 1842, the population of the Valley increased and various towns sprung up around my base that was said to fasten my mound of uplifted rock to the ground by lightning. Alamosa and its surrounding communities benefited from the proximity to the railroad for the shipment of supplies and goods. Mosca became a post office in 1890 having had two previous names. For awhile it was known as “Streator” and the railroad company referred to it as “Patterson” until the people voted to call it “Mosca” after the Spanish explorer, Luis de Moscoso de Alvarado. It was a bustling town with a flour mill, hotels, stores, lumber yard, and other services.
The town of Garrison was established as a post office in 1891. Mr. Garrison was the original homesteader of the land around Hooper and so the town acquired his name. In 1896, the town of Garrison was renamed Hooper, after Shadrack K. Hooper, a Civil War hero who served under Generals Grant and Sherman. He later came to Colorado from his hometown of New Albany, Indiana to work as a passenger agent with the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. He also was an enterprising man who dabbled in advertising. He popularized the swinging bridges at the Royal Gorge which is a major tourist attraction to this day.
One of the major reasons for the economic success of the valley was the “ditch boom” of the 1880s. Irrigation canals were a popular investment for eastern interests investing in the west. The largest investments came from the Travelers Insurance Company of Connecticut, which built the Monte Vista and Travelers Canals. Several other large canals were built, and by the 1890s, the Valley had begun to reap the benefits of the eastern investment. Before and during World War I, 1911-1918, water was plentiful in the Hooper-Mosca district, and the economy was robust, because prices for wheat and alfalfa were high. Hooper once had an elevator and the second largest flour mill in the state. Wheat flour was transported by wagon over Mosca Pass and sold in Gardner. Water and wheat created a booming business in Mosca and Hooper in the early days, however, the “ditch boom” resulted in too much alkali in the soil and not enough water to support the crops.
The relative economic prosperity of the early 1900s, the availability of land, improved transportation with rail connections in all four directions, the natural beauty of the area, and business opportunities contributed significantly to the growth and appeal of Alamosa. Also, tourism was a budding proposition in the Valley with adventurous climbers seeking to summit my peak and that of my neighbors, Mount Lindsey, Ellingwood Point, and Little Bear Peak. On March 8, 1913, Alamosa County was created from portions of Conejos and Costilla Counties. The area’s business and economic hub moved north to Alamosa from the previous county seat of Conejos thirty miles south. The town could not afford a courthouse until 1938 when the present-day building was constructed through the Works Progress Administration.
Several key community leaders emerged as the city and county of Alamosa grew and developed. Peter Hansen was one of the first Anglo settlers in Alamosa having emigrated from Schleswig-Holstein Germany in 1856 and served in the Civil War with the First Colorado Infantry. He was sent with his regiment to fight in the Battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico and later became a cattle rancher in the San Luis Valley about 1871. He was known as a peacemaker with the local Ute Indians who lived at what has become known as “Hansen’s Bluff” at the Alamosa Wildlife Refuge. The Hansen’s River Ranch is now the site of the Refuge and Frank Mestas, Jr.’s Rancho Rio Grande.
Herman Emperius, the son of German immigrants, was a business and political leader in Alamosa during the first thirty years of the 20th century. He ran a meat market in Alamosa, was a director and later vice president of the American National Bank of Alamosa, and constructed what became known as the Emperius Building at State and Main which is now the location of the Milagros Coffee House. He was a property and agricultural developer, mayor of Alamosa in 1907, and a contemporary of Billy Adams. True to his name, Herman Emperius was an emperor in Alamosa.
William Herbert Adams, better known as Billy Adams, was born in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin in 1861 and moved to Alamosa when he was 17. He was a businessman, rancher, and successful politician. He served in numerous political offices including Mayor of Alamosa, Conejos County Commissioner, and served three terms as Governor of Colorado from 1927 to 1933. In 1921, while serving in the Colorado State Senate, Adams was able to get approval for a bill that formed Adams State Normal School in Alamosa with the express purpose of educating teachers to work in remote, rural areas such as the San Luis Valley. Adams’ political career was challenged during the 1920s by having to fight the influence of the powerful Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Through his effective statesmanship and leadership, Adams was able to champion the defeat of the KKK in Colorado. He married Hattie Mullins in 1916, lived at the San Luis Hotel (now the Thai House) in his later years, and died on February 4, 1954, at the age of ninety-two.
Dr. Luther E. Bean personified the heart and soul of Adams State, Alamosa, and the San Luis Valley. He was one of the first faculty at the college when it opened in 1925, established the Adams State Outing Club (now known as the Adventure Program), was instrumental in preserving Fort Garland, began the San Luis Valley Historical Society, and was the director of the cutting edge San Luis Institute of Arts & Crafts. The Institute operated as a satellite of Adams State in San Luis for ten years to provide teacher education, health education and immunization services, and on-the-farm training for veterans. Dr. Bean also served two terms as State Representative. As a small child in Oklahoma, he experienced a train robbery by a bandit hired by the famous Dalton Gang. He led many groups of students and community members up the long, arduous trails of the Sangres instilling in them a deep appreciation for nature and the Native Americans. He is greatly respected for his commitment to teaching, love of nature and the outdoors, and his service to the community. The original library in Adams State’s Richardson Hall is now the home of the Luther E. BeanMuseum.
With the continued growth of Alamosa County came the need for services. In 1908, the first “Alamosa Hospital” was built by Dr. Edgar Lee Freiberger at the northwest corner of Main and Hunt Avenue. Unfortunately, Dr. Freiberger died in 1911 and with him so did his hospital. His associate, Dr. Charles A. Davlin, opened his “Alamosa Hospital” at 402 San Juan Avenue in 1912 and then moved it to 715 Main Street where it remained for many years. The Cornum Hospital operated simultaneously with the “Alamosa Hospital” during the 1920s and ‘30s at what was the site of the illustrious Alamosa Club which is where the Pizza Hut is now located. It was a three-story structure that witnessed many surgeries and births, but the transfer of surgical patients and laboring mothers by gurney up and down stairs proved very cumbersome.
In 1927, the Lutheran Hospital Association of the SanLuisValley took over the management of the hospital and in 1938 built the Alamosa Community Hospital on First Street, the site of the current San Luis Valley Regional Medical Center (SLVRMC). The SLVRMC, whose mission is to make “exceptional healthcare personal”, has become a leading employer in the San Luis Valley.
While it is said that religion had a slow start in Alamosa, the First Presbyterian Church was established in town even before the railroad. Members of other denominations met in homes for services conducted by lay persons or visiting clergy.
The “Seven Gables” Methodist Church in Alamosa was an impressive, two-story structure with a mezzanine on three sides located on Edison Street across from the present-day San Luis Valley Federal Bank. When the current First United Methodist Church was built on Mullins Avenue, the Seven Gables Building became a youth recreation center which later was destroyed by fire. The Sacred Heart Catholic Church was completed in 1927 and is registered with the National Registry of Historic Places.
During the Summer months, community members often met for picnics after church at the Maddux Cottonwood Grove at Wayside, which is the modern-day site of the Cattails Golf Course. (This area served as a stage-coach stop between Denver and Creede in the early days). While kids played games like “Run Sheep Run”, “Pum Pum Pullaway”, “Hide and Seek” and horseshoes, young couples might rent a buggy from the livery stable for a ride out to the country side. Also, The Oliver Opera House, where the Kavley’s Business and Tech Center is located at 609 Main Street, provided a community recreational center for performances, concerts, basketball, and movies. Baseball was a popular sport for young men, while the fairgrounds east of Adams State provided the perfect venue for horseracing and bronco busting. In the winter, kids liked to play the dangerous “game” of hooking wagons to use like sleds down snow-laden Main Street.
The history of Japanese settlement in Alamosa County is significant. The impetus for the migration of Japanese-born farmers and their families to the San Luis Valley was the California legislation in 1913 that prevented Japanese ownership of land. The Yoshida family arrived in the Valley in 1927 and later moved to the Waverly area in 1939 where Frank Yoshida became known as the Lettuce King of the San Luis Valley.
The Waverly area, located 11 miles southwest of Alamosa, has emerged from two groups of settlers fifty years apart struck by tragedy. Dutch settlers first came to the area in 1892 having been lured to “the Italy of Western North America” by swindling businessmen who cheated them out of their money and their dreams through the workings of the bogus Holland-American Land and Immigration Company. The settlers, all clad in wooden shoes, were greeted in Alamosa with a warm welcome, big dinner in town, and subzero temperatures. They had spent their life savings on the promise of premium farm land in a country far from their homeland which was experiencing its own economic hard times. The land was not only undeveloped but had been stolen from them and the housing available was cramped, shabby “Emigrant Houses”. Despite careful attention to household cleanliness for which the Dutch are renown, eleven of their 116 children died in the first two months in the Valley, and all 28 of the families, except for the Heersinks, left within the first year for the Midwest through the assistance of the Christian Reformed Church. Long, dark shadows were to remain over the area for many years.
In the 1930s, the Waverly area once again was to be the site for newcomers seeking a better life. Henry Gestefield, a German immigrant, worked as a Farm Management Specialist for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) Resettlement Division to develop 82 farms for the resettlement of destitute Dust Bowl farmers. Along with Mr. Yoshida, he was integral to the raising and shipping of iceberg lettuce in the San Luis Valley. The town of Waverly was established with support of the FSA Resettlement Project. The Houlton and Russell families were among the first of many families to relocate from eastern Colorado to the San Luis Valley in 1937 having been hit hard by the Black Rollers of the Dust Bowl. While only a few of the original families remain in the Valley, those who stayed were able to put their lives back together in Alamosa County after the difficult years in the Prowers County area. With the help of the “CCC boys” (Civilian Conservation Corps), several families were able to successfully work the land, develop ditches, and produce profitable crops of alfalfa, oats, and potatoes.
In 1932, The Great Sand Dunes National Monument was established due to the unrelenting work of a Ladies’ PEO group to protect the area. In 2004 it was designated a national park and preserve. The Sand Dunes is a major national tourist attraction and makes a significant economic impact on Alamosa and the Valley.
Colorado and then-Governor Ralph Carr hold a special place in U.S. history. With the onset of World War II and Executive Order 9066, which called for the relocation of persons of Japanese ancestry from West Coast states, Governor Carr welcomed Japanese families to Colorado in 1942. As noted earlier, many Japanese had settled in Alamosa and the surrounding communities in the 1920s and had become very successful farmers and community leaders. Governor Carr served only one term as Governor, due largely to that unprecedented decision in 1942, which is thought to have been his political suicide.
The late 1940s ushered in an age of combines and trucks with less reliance on rail transportation and greater mechanization in farming. Tourism began in earnest to lure families from warm weather states such as Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Thus began the “Summer Invasion” of the San Luis Valley. Carl E. Bergman, a World War II pilot, was instrumental in establishing the Bergman Field which allowed Alamosa to become air-linked to the outside world for the first time in November, 1946 when Monarch Air Lines, the predecessor company of Frontier Airlines, started daily flights through the San Luis Valley from Denver to Durango. Despite an all-time low of only four graduates in 1943-44, Adams State grew substantially after the War due its ability to adapt to the needs of students prior to and after completing their military service.
The San Luis Valley, with water like gold in the Rio Grande, streams, and lakes, is home to abundant wildlife including migratory birds including Sandhill Cranes and many shore birds as well as ungulates such as antelope, deer, and elk. Habitat conservation is an ongoing struggle to sustain the area’s bioecology. For many miles around, one can see “M”-shaped scars at my base south of the road to Zapata Falls. These scars are due to the “Kennedy cuts”. In the early 1960s, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) tried to improve grazing in the area. A heavy, sturdy chain was strung between two caterpillars which drove up and down the slope of the mountain to cut pinon and other vegetation with the hopes that more grass would grow. A great deal of erosion resulted, preventing grass re-growth, and thus the endeavor is largely considered a big mistake. The area had to be replanted, but fifty years later the scars remain on the mountainside.
No history of Alamosa is complete without mentioning Snippy the Horse. On September 9, 1967, the remains of Snippy the Horse were found on the Harry King Ranch 20 miles northeast of Alamosa. Herman Doty Jr, author of Bones in a boxcar: The investigation of Snippy the horse (2007), referred to the Alamosa area as “truly a valley of mysteries”. There was speculation that the bizarre nature of the horse’s death might have been linked to UFO activity.
Reflecting similar sentiments across the country, Alamosa and the San Luis Valley experienced significant tension during the 1970s over racial issues, civil rights, and anti-war movements. From these difficult times, though, came many community services such as the Food Banks, Tu Casa, La Puente Home, KRZA public radio station, and Christian Community Services all which had their roots in Alamosa and continue to serve the area today.
In the early 1970s, 98% of the population of the San Luis Valley was considered medically underserved. To accommodate the growing needs of the community, the Medical Professional Corporation (PC) was founded in Alamosa in 1971, the largest employer of physicians in the Valley, bringing the total number to about 23. Valley-Wide Health Services, Inc., a Community Health Center, was established in 1976 to increase access to care for the medically underserved population.
The Closed Basin Project, authorized by Congress in 1972, is a groundwater extraction project located in Alamosa and is operated by the United States Bureau of Reclamation. Colorado uses the water as part of its contribution to the Rio Grande Compact of 1939, making more water available for irrigation in Colorado. The Project also helps the United States meet its 1906 treaty obligations with Mexico for water from the Rio Grande. The original estimate was that the project would deliver 100,000 acre feet annually. This has never been achieved. Since 2000 the average annual output has been around 17,300 acre feet annually.
As unlikely as it may seem, Alamosa witnessed a direct impact of the civil war in Guatemala during the 1980s. A group of Mayans from Guatemala who spoke Q’anjob’ al, not English or Spanish, escaped political persecution and found their way to Alamosa and the Valley to work in the lettuce and potato fields and the Rakra Mushroom Farm. About 400 Mayans continue to make their home in Alamosa, raise their families here, work in the farming and service industries, and strive to integrate their rich culture and history into life here. Once again, the magic of the Valley, the beauty and harshness of the land, the immense blue skies and cool sunshine, and the ethereal sangre hues of fading light over the high ridges of my peak at dusk, seem to embrace hardy peoples seeking a better life for themselves and their families.
Alamosa has several of its own modern-day legends. Hank Wiescamp—whose Dutch parents made their way to the Valley from Holland, Nebraska–was a farmer, rancher, auctioneer, would-be minister, and meticulous horse breeder for over 70 years in Alamosa. He built an empire around the finest Quarter horses, Appaloosa, Palominos and Paints in America. While the Hank Wiescamp Estate Dispersal in June, 1998 marked the end of his horse breeding in Alamosa, his legacy will live on for generations.
Memories of the Leon Sisters, Rose and Ella, conjure up some mixed emotions in now-grown boys who recall visiting the The Leon Sisters Clothing Store in Alamosa with their mothers. Of Hungarian descent, the ladies are remembered for their thick eastern European accent, stern discipline of little boys in their fine women’s clothing store, frugality, and philanthropy. One older gentleman in the community recalls the sisters purchasing one lamb chop from his father’s meat market to share between them. They were very successful business women and made generous monetary gifts to Adams State and the Alamosa Community Hospital.
The United States Olympic Committee honored Dr. Joe I. Vigil (Adams State College graduate of 1953 and 1959) in its 2004 Coach of the Year Recognition Banquet. Vigil was a dedicated head track and field coach at Adams State for 29 years, led teams to win 12 NAIA National Cross Country Championships and the 1995 NCAA Division II National Championship. Adams State University was an Olympic Training Site in 1968 in preparation for the Summer Olympics in Mexico City that year.
In 2007, SunEdison completed the largest solar photovoltaic power plant in the United States near Alamosa and has the highest per capita concentration of home-based solar energy systems in the United States. There has been controversy regarding proposed transmission lines over both Poncha and La Veta Passes which would provide opportunity for much more industrial solar development. Opposition to a proposed transmission line has delayed the development of solar facilities serving the Valley.
As I look back over the years from my place high above Alamosa County, like a throne looming over the Sand Dunes; the Rio Grande; the cottonwoods and cattails; the pastures and fields; towns and city; trails, roads, railroad, and airport; schools; and people who are as hardy, industrious, and diverse as the terrain and climate are beautiful, captivating and challenging—I observe that life is much changed from its beginnings 100 years ago. Alamosa County, as the commercial center of the San Luis Valley, boasts a population of 15,000 and is one of the state’s most progressive counties in the areas of agriculture, energy, industry, diverse cultural heritage, trade, and transportation. It is the home of two fine institutions of higher education, Adams State University, whose designation was officially changed in 2012, and Trinidad State Junior College. The San Luis Valley Regional Medical Center and Valley-Wide Health Systems, Inc., based in Alamosa, continue to be health care leaders in southern Colorado. Also, there are endless opportunities for exciting recreational activities, such as the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Zapata Falls, the San Luis Lakes State Park, Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, and the Alamosa Ranch.
As for me, I await with much hope and great anticipation to see how Alamosa County and the San Luis Valley changes over the next 100 years. My gift to you now and always is my presence. I am with you as you work, play, worship, study, raise your families, teach your children, care for your sick, and build your communities. Go, enjoy and honor this beautiful community and all it has to offer.
Susan Feldman Foster
Alamosa County Centennial Planning Committee
November 10, 2012-March 12, 2013