South Central Colorado Historical Markers

Michael has a BA in History & American Studies and an MSc in American History from the University of Edinburgh. He comes from a proud military family and has spent most of his career as an educator in the Middle East and Asia. His passion is travel, and he seizes any opportunity to share his experiences in the most immersive way possible, whether at sea or on the land.

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Map of South Central Colorado Historical Markers

Topics (click on a topic to jump to that section)
Alamosa and the Railroads | Beckwith Ranch | Crossroads of the Rockies | Fort Garland | Huerfano | Mining Fever | Pike National Forest | Railroad War
Alamosa and the Railroads

Marker Topic: Alamosa and the Railroads
Address: Cole Park, CO-160
City: Alamosa
County: Alamosa

Alamosa and the Railroads

Alamosa was both railroad-born and railroad-borne: in June 1878, its first buildings were carried intact from nearby Garland City on Denver & Rio Grande flatcars. Miners, freighters, bankers, innkeepers, and merchants rode in on the same tracks, and overnight the town took shape. During its three years as the D&RG's terminus, Alamosa was the main supply and shipping point for the mineral-rich mountains west of here, handling freight headed to and from the mining camps. By 1890 it ranked as the nation's busiest narrow-gauge rail hub, with tracks running in all directions, a bustling passenger depot, and the world's only triple-rail switchyard (to accommodate narrow- and standard-gauge trains). Though air and auto travel sent railroading into decline after World War II, the industry had already delivered its most important cargo: an enduring city for Colorado's largest mountain valley.


"I believe I can say with safety that no other locality with equal advantages can be found between the Gulf of Mexico and the British possessions."
- Alexander Hunt, construction chief for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, 1877

The first U.S. citizen known to have seen the site of present-day Alamosa, Lt. Zebulon M. Pike, was arrested nearby in 1807 for trespassing on Spanish soil. But the Spanish were trespassers themselves - the Utes occupied the land. The conflicting territorial claims were resolved after the Mexican War, when the United States acquired this region and before long forced the Utes westward. Founded by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway in 1878, Alamosa (Spanish for "place of cottonwoods") soon emerged as a commercial center, providing essential services to the San Luis Valley's farmers, ranchers, and miners in the San Juans. Today, Alamosa remains the dominant town for the entire region, continuing to serve farmers and ranchers, as well as college students, tourists, and outdoor recreationists.

Beckwith Ranch

Marker Topic: Beckwith Ranch
Address: Beckwith Ranch, CO-69
City: Westcliffe
County: Custer

The Beckwith Ranch

In the history of Colorado's cattle breeders, Elton and Edwin Beckwith hold a place of prominence. The two well-born, well-educated Maine natives settled here in 1869 and developed one of the state's largest herds, more than seven thousand strong. Elton and his wife, Elsie, endowed their ranchstead with the air of an English country estate, complete with prim lawns, guest cottages, and a stately ballroom for formal dances. They ran a vast spread of nearly three thousand fenced acres and acquired well-placed political connections (Elton served a term in the state senate). After their deaths (Edwin's in 1898, Elton's in 1907), their land was sold off in pieces. But local residents rescued the Beckwith ranch house, to be preserved as a tribute to the valley's ranching heritage.

Mining and Ranching

For a time, the Wet Mountain Valley appeared destined for mining glory. Silver strikes at Rosita (about fifteen miles southeast of here) in 1872, Querida (about twelve miles southeast) in 1877, and Silver Cliff (six miles southeast) in 1878 created an ongoing boomtown buzz, each new discovery attracting fresh swarms of prospectors. But these "instant cities" declined nearly as quickly as they rose; the mines fizzled by the 1890s, leaving livestock as the valley's main asset. Cattle ranches had been in place since the late 1860s, well before the mining boom. By 1880 more than 13,000 head roamed this basin, more than half of them here on the Beckwith Ranch. Ever since, ranching has reigned in this area, which today boasts at least six "centennial ranches" - operations owned by one family for more than a century.

The Colfax Colony & German Settlement

For $250 (far less than it would cost to travel alone), German immigrants could escape the toil of Chicago's factories to join the agrarian colony of Colfax. Founded about ten miles south of here in March 1870, it was Colorado's first settled colony - which may account for its struggles. It didn't help that so many of the roughly three hundred colonists had no prior farming experience; financial mismanagement and internal friction only made matters worse. Within months, many families had left to start their own farms or ranches, and by the following spring Colfax had dissolved altogether, a worthy but failed experiment. Though short-lived, the community had a lasting effect on this region: Many colonists' families have remained here for generations, and Westcliffe's Hope Lutheran Church (founded by colonists in 1872) still has an active congregation.

English in the Valley

Established in 1870, the town of Ula (two miles south of here) gained renown as "the Briton's paradise." In the late 1880s, Irishman Reginald Cusack's nearby guest ranch brought still more British migrants to this region, some of them "remittance men" - younger sons of wealthy families who received allowances from their families back home. Cusack advertised in London papers for "youthful bachelors to come to learn farming," but the respondents generally spent their time hunting and traveling; most went home after a few months' adventure. Many stayed, though, and brought over their families, adding some touches of the English lifestyle (including formal-dress dinners and afternoon teas) to this hardscrabble frontier. A few of those English settlers still have descendants living in this area.

Crossroads of the Rockies

Marker Topic: Crossroads of the Rockies
Address: Poncha Springs Visitor Center, US-50
City: Poncha Springs
County: Chaffee
Marker Text:

Crossroads of the Rockies
Poncha Springs

With its rich farmland, natural hot springs, and proximity to busy mining districts, Poncha Springs seemed poised for prosperity. By 1880 the burg of 3,000 was receiving eight daily stagecoach arrivals, the Denver & Rio Grande Western tracks were pushing toward town, and the Jackson Hotel was lodging the famous (Susan B. Anthony, Ulysses S. Grant) and infamous (Jesse James). But the next decade brought three calamitous fires, and when the railroad installed a junction a few miles downriver in Salida, Poncha Springs settled on a more modest future. But traces of the glory days remain: some families are in their fourth or fifth generation of local residence, and the Jackson Hotel is one of Colorado's oldest continuously operating inns.

In 1880 the stagecoach trip from Canon City to Leadville took 26 hours. That was something of a speed record for the Arkansas River road, which by then was centuries old. The Utes had traveled it seasonally, pursuing the buffalo between South Park and the San Luis Valley, and Juan Bautista de Anza followed it in 1779, making the first recorded crossing of Poncha Pass in the process. With the mineral strikes of the 1870s the bend of the Arkansas at Salida came to resemble Grand Central Station, funnelling traffic north to Aspen and Leadville, west toward Telluride and Silverton, and south to the San Luis Valley and into New Mexico. Today it only takes a few hours to drive from Canon City to Leadville, but the route was generations in the making.

Cities in the Wilderness

"It is a town of only eight days' growth, but full of life... There are now about 300 inhabitants, with fifty houses, tents, etc., and quite a number of buildings in process of construction, comprising one hotel, one boarding house, two saloons, four retail stores, one wholesale store, one livery and one feed stable... Large numbers of people are arriving daily. Two wagon loads came in from Silver Cliff to-day who report that many more are on the point of starting."
-   letter from Chaffee City, August 14, 1879

Rome wasn't built in a day, but Chaffee City... well, maybe. From 1879 to 1890, hardly a week passed without the rise of another town in the surrounding hills. All it took was a decent mineral strike or a promising railroad survey, and banks, saloons, and hardware stores would sprout like weeds in a storm-washed meadow. The more ambitious communities added cosmopolitan flourishes such as newspapers and brass bands. These "instant cities" embodied the ingenuity of a pioneering nation, its sheer creative energy. That most of them collapsed within a few years is beside the point. The town builders believed they could build great cities in the wilderness - powerful testimony to the force of the American Dream.

"I abandoned the building when Alpine declined... and the building was wrecked by the wind."
-   David Simonson, proprietor of the Alpine dance hall

Alpine was a gust of wind, arriving with great force, then vanishing with hardly a trace. Founded in 1879, the town gained 2,000 citizens in a matter of weeks; when the railroad tracks reached neighboring St. Elmo a few years later, all but two left. The same thing happened over and over in Colorado. Along the Upper Arkansas, Arbourville, Calumet, Harvard City, Romley, Silverdale, Winfield, Turrett, and dozens of other towns sprang into being, only to be crushed by the Silver Panic of 1893, or a fire, or competition from a rival settlement. St. Elmo, the town that killed Alpine, hung on until the 1950s, and its skeleton remains quite intact; other lost cities are marked only by a cemetery, a town dump, maybe just a ghostly breeze.

Of the 68 "fourteeners" - 14,000-foot-high mountains - in the continental United States, 54 are in Colorado, and 15 stand in the Sawatch Range between here and Leadville. Miners swarmed over this line of Olympian Alps from 1860 on; oblivious to altitude, they went where the paydirt took them. With the rise of recreational mountaineering, the fourteeners themselves became the prize, and the Sawatch Range (which includes the three highest peaks in the Rockies) represented the ultimate hiking and climbing experience. Over time, however, the steadily increasing backpacking and hiking traffic began to cause erosion, soil compaction, and vegetation damage, and land managers began warning of environmental degradation. With hundreds of thousands of hikers a year, the fourteeners are in danger of being "loved to death."

Fort Garland - Hispano Settlement in San Luis Valley

Marker Topic: Fort Garland - Hispano Settlement in San Luis Valley
Address: Fort Garland Museum, East side of CO-159 across from Ft Garland entrance 
City: Fort Garland
County: Costilla
Marker Text:

Fort Garland

To protect the valley's Hispanic settlers against Indian attacks, the U.S. Army established Fort Massachusetts in 1852 near Blanca Peak, which towers just north of here. But the fort was too remote to be effective, so in 1858 the Army put up a new post - Fort Garland - a portion of which you see immediately across the road. Built largely of adobe, the new fort stood guard over the San Luis Valley and its people until abandoned in 1883. The Colorado Historical Society invites you to visit Fort Garland, which has been preserved as a museum.

The Soldier's Life

Fort Garland housed infantry and cavalry units. During the 1870s the famed Buffalo Soldiers - African-American cavalrymen - were also posted here. For all soldiers - and their families - life at Fort Garland was often dull, sometimes dangerous, but never easy. A civilian who visited the post remarked that despite its remoteness 'frontier life suggests a poetic expansiveness, but to the soldier it usually involves a career of humdrum routine."

San Luis Valley
Hispanos and Settlement of the San Luis Valley

In the 1840s, Hispanos from New Mexico began moving north to farm on Mexican land grants here in the San Luis Valley. The communities they founded, beginning with San Luis in 1851, are today the oldest continuously inhabited towns in Colorado. Life in these settlements formed around placitas - a series of connected L-shaped, flat-roofed homes made of adobe or logs covered with adobe - a reflection of the southwestern architectural tradition. To support their crops and livestock, the settlers acquired Colorado's first known water rights, which date to 1852, and built the San Luis People's Ditch, the state's oldest operation irrigation system.

Woven Across Time

The Hispanic weaving tradition in the San Luis Valley reaches back to the sixteenth century when sheep were introduced to New Mexico. Through export and trade, Rio Grande blankets - those produced in New Mexico and here in San Luis Valley - soon achieved worldwide acclaim. Hispanic textiles are not only functional but also beautiful and a source of family pride. One San Luis Valley weaver says of her work: "It's part of my soul. I want to be proud when I point to a piece and say - I made that!"

Huerfano Butte

Marker Topic: Huerfano Butte
Address: CDOT Pulloff - northbound I-25. From southbound, exit 59, go under overpass and up entrance road to highway and then marker
City: Walsenburg
County: Huerfano
Marker Text:

Huerfano Butte, Beacon to Settlement

Here, in the shadow of the Spanish Peaks and the Wet Mountains, stands El Huerfano - "the orphan." This stark and lonely volcanic outcrop, named in the late 1700s by an unknown Spanish trader, had for centuries guided earlier Hispanos and Indian peoples passing through this country. After 1821 when this land became part of Mexico, Huerfano Butte served as a beacon to settlement. Northern migrating New Mexicans established plazas and placitas - small agricultural communities - along the Huerfano River and on nearby streams. The 450-year Hispano presence in Southern Colorado can be seen in the names of the region's rivers and mountains, towns and villages - and in the face of its people.

Mining Fever

Marker Topic: Mining fever
Address: US-285 just N of Villa Grove on west side of road
City: Villa Grove
County: Saguache

Villa Grove

First settled in 1865 by Colorado Civil War veterans, Villa Grove came down with a serious case of mining fever in 1880 (the town was platted in 1882). Prospectors flooded the mountains west of here for a crack at the Bonanza Lode; no less a personage than Ulysses S. Grant came to inspect the diggings. Alas, the Bonanza proved anything but - its low-grade silver ore made no millionaires, and by 1900 most miners had moved on. Better fortunes were found just east of town, where the Orient iron mine coughed up 40 years' worth of paydirt. Though the mines have long since closed, Villa Grove still thrives as a picturesque village, serving ranchers, farmers, small businesses, and tourists.

Saguache County

Surrounded by mountain ranges - the Sangre de Cristos to the east, the San Juans to the west and the Sawatch to the north, Saguache County was once a remote nook of Spain's New World empire. The Crown sent a series of exploratory missions through here between 1694 and 1779, but the Utes retained control of the land until well into the nineteenth century. Small Hispano settlements took root first, and in the 1860s a steady stream of pioneers entered the region, drawn by mineral strikes and available farmland. The towns they built here   -   Saguache, Moffat, Hooper, La Garita, Crestone, Villa Grove, and Bonanza   -   have all prospered at times, but they seem dwarfed by the majesty and sheer scope of the landscape. At 2,013,440 acres, Saguache County could comfortably enclose the states of Delaware and Rhode Island.

Pike National Forest

Marker Topic: Pike National Forest
Address: CDOT Pulloff, CO-67
City: Cripple Creek
County: Teller

Pike National Forest

By 1890, after twenty-plus years of intensive logging, the forests near Woodland Park had been stripped of marketable timber. Lest they vanish altogether, President Benjamin Harrison included the remaining stands in three timber preserves in the 1890s, and in 1905 they were combined into the 1.1-million-acre Pike National Forest. Federal oversight of logging, grazing, and mining drew angry resistance at first; the outcry subsided as the benefits of resource management - including fire-fighting, soil conservation, and watershed protection - became apparent. After World War II, outdoor enthusiasts flocked to the forest in ever-increasing numbers, to the point that recreation has replaced logging as the preserve's primary use. Over the last half of the twentieth century, the Pike has consistently ranked among the country's ten most heavily visited national forests.

The mining towns in the shadows of Pikes Peak enjoyed the greatest gold boom Colorado has ever known. The Gold Belt Tour Scenic and Historic Byway retraces three historic travel routes through these towns, sometimes along narrow and rugged roads, and always through breathtaking scenery.

Known as "the richest square mile on earth," Cripple Creek flourished in the 1890s. Scores of millionaires made their fortunes in the district's gold mines, just as silver magnates went broke with the great silver crash of 1893.

Before the founding of the town in 1871 and its development as a health resort, Utes, Arapahos, Cheyennes, and other Plains tribes came to the area now known as Manitou Springs to heal their aches and pains.

Midland Railroad Terminal

In 1894 the Midland Terminal Railway became the second railroad to reach the mining district - and the first to provide a direct link between Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek. Your travels along State Highway 67 generally follow or parallel the grade of the Midland Terminal.

Waters Tunnel

Built in 1893, the timber-supported, 475-foot Waters Tunnel was the only tunnel on the Midland Terminal's route. It was named for Jessie Waters, the railroad's resourceful superintendent. When a rival railroad company got a permit to lay track on Cripple Creek's Fifth Avenue, Waters piled the crew with vintage whiskey, thus ending all work for the day. The next morning he obtained an injunction and forced the rival company to lay its track elsewhere. Waters was killed in 1914 when his inspection car collided with a switch engine. Following the Midland Terminal's abandonment in 1949, the Waters Tunnel was converted to auto use and became a one-lane tunnel on State Highway 67. In 1993 the middle portion of the tunnel collapsed, forcing its closure by Colorado Department of Transportation engineers.

Woodland Park

Platted in 1873, the little colony at Manitou Park (precursor to Woodland Park) was a strange hybrid indeed: half logging camp, half summer resort. But the well-heeled guests at the two-story lodge learned to live with the local lumberjacks (and vice versa), and this marriage of working and leisure class proved a prosperous one. Both halves benefited from the 1887 arrival of the Colorado Midland Railroad, which delivered visitors and shipped out timber at vastly accelerated rates. Renamed Woodland Park in 1891, it ranked among Colorado's most fashionable vacation spots until after World War I, when the railroad discontinued passenger service, thus thinning the tourist traffic. However, the emergence of automobile travel helped to offset these losses. And as highway improvements eased the commute into Colorado Springs, Woodland Park evolved into a popular year-round residential community.

Resort Towns

In addition to fueling Woodland Park's growth, the Colorado Midland Railroad spawned a number of new resort communities between here and Colorado Springs. Cascade, Chipita Park, and Green Mountain Falls, all built right beside the tracks in the late 1880s, boasted ornate hotels and a range of healthful diversions for a mostly urban clientele. Visitors fanned into the neighboring countryside to hike, fish, swim, ride horseback, pick wildflowers, or simply enjoy the views. Those inclined toward thrills might take a carriage ride up the treacherous Pikes Peak Toll Road, while more sedentary guests could opt for rest and fresh air at a guest ranch. Although hurt by the railroad's decision to end passenger service in 1922, these towns retooled for the era of automobile travel, with motels, bed and breakfasts, and campgrounds for a new brand of vacationer.

Ute Pass Corridor

Woodland Park sits on a travel route forged centuries ago by the Utes, linking their South Park and Front Range hunting grounds. Mountain men adopted the trail in the early 1800s for easy access to the high country, and settlers at Colorado City (within present-day Colorado Springs) widened it in 1860 to attract gold-rush traffic. Dubbed "Ute Pass," it eventually became a primary stagecoach route between Denver and the mining country. The Colorado Midland Railroad pushed through in the late 1880s, greatly easing the passage; old-timers who had spent days struggling up the trail could now cover the distance in hours. Today's Ute Pass travelers cruise along U.S. 24, but the spirit of the original footpath remains alive at the Ute Pass Cultural Center in Woodland Park, established in 1976 to celebrate the march of peoples along this time-honored corridor.


Woodland Park in the 1870s was ideally positioned to develop a successful logging industry. In addition to an abundant supply of raw timber, it enjoyed easy access to the wide, well-kept Ute Pass wagon road; to nearby markets in rapidly growing Denver and Colorado Springs, whose hunger for lumber never seemed to abate; and, after 1887, to railroad service on the Colorado Midland, whose superior freight capacity spurred giant leaps in production. The 1890 gold rush at nearby Cripple Creek generated massive new demand for building materials, and by century's end Woodland Park was shipping 12 million board-feet per year. That was the industry's peak. Demand soon depleted the resource, signaling the end of unfettered cutting. Today the community bears few traces of its timber-town origins.
Though Lt. Zebulon M. Pike sent a climbing party in 1806 to the mountain that now bears his name, Pikes Peak defeated their attempt. The phrase "Pikes Peak or Bust" came to symbolize the nation's gold fever of 1859. Today, visitors can summit the peak by car, cog railroad, or on foot.

Railroad War

Marker Topic: Railroad War
Address: CDOT Pulloff-just E of intersection of CO 67 & US 50-Westbound, N side of road
City: Florence/Canon City
County: Fremont

Railroad War

Racing to lay the first tracks into the Rockies in April 1878, the Denver & Rio Grande and its rival, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, reached the Royal Gorge in a dead heat. Competing construction crews stared each other down at the mouth of the crucial portal while judges struggled to end the right-of-way dispute. D&RG owner William Jackson Palmer, leaving nothing to chance, armed his workers and had them sabotage the enemy's operations. The AT&SF responded in kind, sparking two years of non-lethal but costly combat. An 1880 settlement finally ended the "war," with Palmer taking possession of the coveted gorge and all that lay beyond. Victory in hand, he set out to claim the spoils. The D&RG spent its remaining years steaming from lode to lode, a railroad in search of a destination.

Royal Gorge Bridge

The Royal Gorge Bridge does not profane or vandalize the grandeur and sublimity of the great chasm it spans, but adds to its beauty and makes available to the vision mighty depths otherwise hidden from human eyes.
- Cañon City mayor T. Lee Witcher, at the 1929 dedication of the Royal Gorge Bridge

Florence Oil Field

Alexander Cassiday dug a twenty-three-foot-deep oil well near here in 1862, making this Colorado's first oil producing region. Cassiday and others spent nearly two decades plumbing the hollows and seeps, sure that a major source lurked somewhere nearby. It did - more than a 1,000 feet down. Drillers reached it in 1881, and within a decade nearly 400 producing wells dotted the hills around this area. Output peaked in 1892 at over 824,000 barrels, making the field an important part of Colorado's economy. Though production declined over the next forty years, the wells maintain a slow but steady flow. Well 42, tapped in 1882, still brings forth a trickle - the nation's longest continuously producing oil well.


Cattle ranchers were among the earliest full-time settlers in this region. They arrived as early as 1870, growing hay along the fertile banks of the Arkansas River and often trailing their herds over the ridge to graze in wide-open South Park. In addition to raising livestock, these pioneering ranches often functioned as hotels, stagecoach stops, general stores, and hospitals. They didn't have to go far to find markets for their beef; the mining towns that boomed nearby here were full of hungry customers; and railroad service began after 1880, providing access to far-off cities. It was a profitable business but hardly an easy one: Blizzards, droughts, predators, cattle thieves, and collapsing prices all loomed as potential hazards. But while the mines now stand empty and the rail tracks lie dormant, ranching remains the sturdy backbone of Fremont County.

The Utes

The Utes, Colorado's oldest inhabitants, have lived here at least a thousand years, perhaps forever. Certainly they have been here since the state's recorded history began; the earliest Spanish explorers found them in possession of the Central Rockies in the seventeenth century. They were one of the first tribes to acquire horses, and they used this advantage to broaden their territory and strengthen their claim upon it. By the early eighteenth century the Utes held everything from the Utah deserts to the plains of eastern Colorado. Skilled warriors and formidable defenders, they repelled all intruders until the late 1800s, when the lure of gold and silver brought American settlers in force. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Utes saw their vast domain reduced to two small reservations in Colorado and one in Utah.

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