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The Story of South Park
By Virginia McConnell Simmons
University Press of ColoradoCopyright © 2002 Virginia McConnell Simmons
All rights reserved.
The Virgin Land
If ever there was a land of subtle, magnetic charms, South Park is that place. Rich in beauty, sparkling rivers, game, mineral wealth, range land, and legend, the valley and its ring of mountains have held the promise of fulfillment to all who have come there through the centuries. This magical place has seldom failed them. Instead, the caprice and frailty of the men themselves have led to the occasional disappointments that the park has witnessed. That South Park's resources have outlasted man's effort to exploit them is part of its mystical allure.
Today South Park attracts another kind of searcher, too. Here in the heart of the Rockies, accessible to travel, yet remote enough to be spared modern man's defacement of its virgin beauty, the park beckons him to make peace with his twentieth-century restlessness and neuroses. The gentleness and the savagery alike of this unspoiled land speak to a fundamental need of our new searcher, our civilized man who cannot find himself, lost in a journey among his own endeavors.
There is a certain perverse comfort in knowing that this magnificent land, like man, is not eternal. In that sense the park becomes a challenge to him to accept its beauty and dimension and resources on terms that he can recognize in human life and perhaps can weave into his own creations.
And so to South Park ...
From Wilkerson Pass one sees a large portion of the park spread out in its startling immensity. Coming to this pass the traveler has wound up through the wooded hills of the Front Range, past the great, bald mass of Pikes Peak which now looms behind to the east.
Far across South Park on the west side lie the white alkaline marshes and salt springs to which the Indians once came while following game. The Spaniards called the park Valle Salado, or Salt Valley, when they passed through. French explorers and trappers, also intrigued by the saline ground and springs, later used the Creole name Bayou Salade, Salt Marshes. But the American mountain men gave the valley their own hybrid title by calling it the Bayou Salado, a name which became the synonym of romance, adventure, and fortune to the American trapper.
The name South Park was first used in the 1840's when a chain of large mountain valleys — North Park, Middle Park, South Park, and to a lesser extent the San Luis Valley — were becoming a popular circuit for American hunters. Since these valleys were the feeding grounds of vast herds of game, the word park was used to describe the regions, the French word for a game preserve being parc.
This chain of parks runs down through the center of Colorado like spaces between the vertebrae of the mountains; and South Park is located in the very center of the state. It is a large plateau, fifty miles long and thirty-five miles wide, bordered on all sides by mountains. Although the flat land of the park occupies 900 square miles, there are 1,400 square miles within the circumference of the surrounding peaks. The floor of the basin varies from 8,500 feet to 10,000 feet above sea level.
Whereas the mountains around Wilkerson Pass and to the south are relatively low, not rising above timberline, the snowcapped peaks to the north and northwest soar to 13,000 and 14,000 feet or more. These high, glistening summits were called the Snowy Range by the trappers and by the goldseekers of the 1860's. Burt and Berthoud, who prepared a guidebook for the early gold rush emigrants, described the Snowy Range as running easterly between the South and Middle Parks, then north to Longs Peak, and eventually on up the west side of North Park. Later on, the name "Park Range" was substituted for the entire rambling chain of peaks, but "Park Range" now is applied only to two widely separated groups of mountains — those on the north edge of South Park and those in the vicinity of North Park.
The Park Range extending from Kenosha Pass and Red Cone to Hoosier Pass defines the northern rim of South Park. The range lies on the Continental Divide for the most part and runs on a cross-grain to the other high uplifts of the Central Rockies. Beautifully symmetrical, Mt. Silverheels, named for a dance hall girl, juts out into the park from the lofty ridge of peaks.
The mountains lying south of Hoosier Pass and along the west side of South Park are now known as the Mosquito Range. The Mosquitoes are not part of the Continental Divide, although the height of the summits near Fairplay might lead one to believe that they are. The northern Mosquitoes include five peaks over 14,000 feet — Mounts Lincoln, Cameron, Bross, Democrat, and Sherman — as well as twenty or so above 13,000 feet. Mosquito Pass is the highest in the country crossed by a road today. Into the deeply carved valleys and up the jagged sides of the Mosquitoes swarmed the miners looking for a vault of treasure. And they found many, even naming one summit Treasurevault Mountain in awe.
The Mosquitoes south of Trout Creek Pass are all below timberline, including the highest in the group, Cameron Mountain (not to be confused with the skyscraper Mount Cameron). The whole Mosquito Range separates South Park from the valley of the Arkansas River to the west.
Most of the Mosquito Range rose about 600 million years ago. However, the two snowy humps of the Buffalo Peaks, midway down the range and just north of Trout Creek Pass, are volcanic piles which were created after the Mosquito uplift.
The hills across the southern end of the park are reminiscent of the wooded ridges of the Green Mountains of Vermont. However, the benign aspect of Big Black Mountain and Thirtynine Mile Mountain cloaks an often dark history of rustlers, outlaws, and madmen.
These southern hills were created by volcanic activity which centered around Guffey south of the park. The volcanic ridges and lava dams blocked the Middle Fork of the South Platte River from flowing south to the Arkansas River and diverted it through the Front Range. With headwaters in the Mosquito Range in the northwestern corner of the park, the Platte is South Park's major water drainage with its own two forks — the South Fork and the Middle Fork which join near Hartsel. The Platte has cut an outlet from the southeast corner of the park through Elevenmile Canyon.
North of Elevenmile Canyon the Puma Hills separate South Park from the Front Range and the nearby Tarryall Mountains. Tarryall Creek flows down between the Puma Hills and the Tarry-all Mountains, carrying the waters that drain the northeast portion of the park. This stream joins the Platte in the hills of the Front Range.
The Puma Hills, dominated by Badger Mountain to the north of Wilkerson Pass, is a later formation than the other uplifts of South Park; but it was one of the major thrust faults of the Rockies, and it brought up the underlying Precambrian sediments, lavas, and intrusive rocks. These rocks became the schists and gneisses which sparkle on Wilkerson Pass, giving a false illusion of gold dust at one's feet.
About midway across the park's basin one sees a low, pine-clad ridge, a Dakota Hogback formation which is called Red Hill. Running north and south, Red Hill bisects South Park. It is broken by two water gaps where the Middle and South Forks of the Platte cut through. These gaps, especially the one at Hartsel, provided natural routes across the park.
The floor of South Park is sometimes spoken of as a peneplain, a flat surface appearing at an elevation of about 9,000 feet among the mountains of central Colorado. Another explanation is that the floor of South Park is a deposit basin. Upon this floor terraces, moraines, and additional deposits have accumulated from volcanic and glacial flows. The glacial deposits are most in evidence in the northwest portion where the Wisconsin Moraine and Plain just west of Fairplay have been dredged for gold. The deeply carved slopes of the Mosquitoes and cirques such as Horseshoe Mountain's contributed to these deposits in relatively late periods of erosion. Pumice and volcanic tuff, in the meantime, washed down in the south-central area.
This basin became through the centuries a great sweep of grassland, threaded with the sparkling streams of the Platte and the Tarryall with their tributaries. Muted, mostly level, it is thought by some to be monotonous. By others it is thought to be a majestic stage for the pageant of history that has crossed it.
Not much imagination is required to visualize the large, varied animal herds and colonies that abounded before man came to the Bayou Salado. There were once found buffalo and antelope grazing in vast herds. Ducks, geese, beaver, muskrat, otter, mink, and trout inhabited the waterways. Grizzly bear, Bighorn sheep, wolf, mule deer, elk, and cougar moved through the timbered slopes of the mountains. It was this superb hunting ground that the Ute Indians prized above all others and fought to hold against invading tribes.
Hundreds of buffalo, the largest of the wild animals of North America, were found around the springs and sloughs. Although the buffalo, the bison of the mountains, were somewhat smaller than those of the plains, the bulls were often six feet high at the shoulder and weighed a ton. As they moved with the seasons from one range to another, even from the plains to the mountains and back in some instances, the lush grasslands of the parks, especially South Park, provided summer pasture. The Utes, much like the Plains Indians in culture, followed the immense beasts which had become a self-contained supply of all of the necessities of life for the Indian.
Originally bison inhabited all of the area now in the United States east of the Rockies to the Atlantic and north of Georgia, but by 1800 the herds were found predominantly in the Mountain States area and on the high plains. In the middle 1840's the bison were gone from the prairies immediately east of the Rockies, but they still ranged the mountain parks. George Frederick Ruxton reported in 1847 that the buffalo had disappeared from the fort at the site of Pueblo, but he saw many buffalo skulls and bones. He went on to comment that the animals still were to be found "particularly ... in Bayou Salado."
The Indians and natural enemies, such as predators, drouth, or snow, diminished the buffalo from time to time, but the herds were abruptly killed off within a few years after white settlement. The building of the Union Pacific across the West in 1868 made buffalo hunting profitable with access to markets. Furthermore, the whites found the removal of the Indians' sustenance an effective means of bringing the "savages" to bay. By 1874 the buffalo south of the Union Pacific were nearly extinct.
However, tiny remnants were hidden away in remote areas. Reportedly, the last of the wild buffalo in Colorado were killed in 1897 when four were shot in Lost Park, an isolated valley which runs out of South Park in its northeast corner. Since the hunting of buffalo had been closed by law in Colorado in 1877, the discovery of the hides at a cabin resulted in some unpleasant publicity for the culprits as well as the confiscation of the hides. However, the buffalo slaughter story still was not complete, for three of them were killed in 1960 on a modern, main highway east of Hartsel. A domestic herd from the Hartsel Ranch had torn down a fence and milled onto the road where they were struck by cars.
The pronghorn antelope also lived on the park's grassland, often in the same range with the buffalo. In the mid-1880's the number of antelope approximated that of the buffalo. The antelope had two natural protections — one being speed, for they could run as fast as fifty miles an hour; the other being their white rump patches which served as warning to others when the hairs were raised in flight. Also, the antelope could escape into rougher country than could the buffalo. It is said that Indians did not eat antelope meat unless necessary, a fact which further aided the animal's survival.
Today antelope are often seen in South Park from Hartsel east to Wilkerson Pass, about 1,000 animals being in the park. Brown and white and weighing only about 100 pounds, they are distinguished by two white bands under the neck and by short, pronged horns. These horns are unlike antlers in that only the outer sheaths are shed annually while the bony core of the horn is permanent.
But it was the beaver which drew trappers to the park and which made its name known east of the Rockies. Beaver changed dramatically the history of the West, and South Park with it. The largest rodent of North America, the beaver is over a yard long, including his broad, flat tail, and weighs from thirty to sixty pounds. Thus, he has a good-sized pelt. Beneath stiff outer hairs the beaver has a soft under-fur of rich brown.
Any place in the mountains that there were enough water and trees to build a dam, the beaver could be found. He thrived in the valleys of the Mosquito and Park ranges where he built his house of sticks and mud in the water or burrowed into a bank. In either case the entrance was beneath the water's surface. The dam ensured water deep enough for an entry below the winter's ice covering. The smart whack of his tail on the water is his warning to other beaver that intruders are nearby, and the sound still is a familiar one to fishermen around the beaver ponds that lace South Park's mountain valleys.
Perhaps the least romantic but most prevalent of the park's animals was the prairie dog. Where once there were hundreds of villages, now only a few remain. In the 1940's a plague killed about ninety-five per cent of the prairie dogs, which previously had been continuous over the entire park. The Wyoming ground squirrel, which are found in the mountains and in the timber near the edge of the grassland, made a come-back after the plague, but the prairie dog did not.
Bighorn, or Rocky Mountain, sheep still can be found bounding across talus slopes on the mountains. Although the herd in the Tarryall Mountains is well known to be one of the largest in the United States, the one in the southern Mosquito Range is even larger. Grass is the principal food, but the sheep also browse on such shrubs as willow and cinquefoil. As the herds have become increasingly concentrated into small isolated areas, however, lack of sufficient food has weakened the animals and made them vulnerable to disease, especially lungworm, or pneumonia. During the winter of 1952-53, 150 animals died in the Tarryall herd alone.
The grizzly bear, once fairly common, now are gone. Ruxton reported that the mountains were full of them, although they seemed to be in hibernation at the time of his report. Nevertheless, he claimed to have followed the track of one into Bayou Salado, where he still saw no bear but about 100 elk. The elk is found chiefly around the Buffalo Peaks today, but deer are more widespread.
South Park was a hunter's paradise, and large groups of big game hunters began to come after the trophies in the mid-1800's. Undoubtedly, the most elaborate of all of these outfits was the party of Sir George Gore, an Irish peer for whom the Gore Range was named. In 1855, with mountain man Jim Bridger as his guide, Gore hunted in South Park during a two-year tour of the West. Gore had with him fifty servants, thirty supply wagons, and enough hunting dogs to ensure success.
In the early years of white settlement, commercial hunting was carried on in South Park to supply markets in mining towns and in communities east of the mountains. There was so much game that often only the best cuts were sent to market. During the summer two horse-loads of ducks might be taken out in a day. However, by 1870 commercial hunting had nearly ended in the park with the availability of beef cattle.
Occasionally efforts were made to create a game preserve in South Park, and as early as the 1890's Lost Park was made one. In the 1930's the Isaak Walton League was fostering a movement for a wildlife sanctuary in South Park, but the League was successfully opposed by local ranchers; for the Bayou Salado was by then taken up completely with ranches.
Indians, explorers, trappers and hunters, miners, railroad builders, and ranchers — each entered the Bayou Salado in search of a promised land, and found it. First came the Indians to a bountiful hunting ground.CHAPTER 2
The Indian Hunting Ground
At the time that the first white people, the Spaniards, entered North America in the 1500's, the Ute Indians were well entrenched in the Central Rockies. The Utes roamed throughout the mountains of the area later known as Colorado. Their domain extended even into Utah, although the tribe numbered only about 10,000.
Who occupied these mountains prior to the Utes is unknown. The prehistoric migration of Asians over the Bering Strait occurred more than 20,000 years ago; but it is supposed that the Utes, a Shoshonean tribe, entered the Colorado Rockies only a thousand years ago. The Woodland Indians came to eastern Colorado at least by 400 A.D., probably from Nebraska. They occupied the lower foothills of the Front Range near the plains, but whether they entered the mountains and South Park is unknown; nor is it certain whether the Utes came into contact with them near the foothills and plains.
The short, dark-skinned Utes were related linguistically to tribes north, west, and south of Colorado. The tribe did no farming and had but the crudest weapons of stone. Their utensils were stone or basketware with almost no pottery. Blankets, sandals, and some clothing were woven from vegetable fibers, such as juniper and yucca, but also were made of skin.
Excerpted from Bayou Salado by Virginia McConnell Simmons. Copyright © 2002 Virginia McConnell Simmons. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
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Table of Contents
ContentsI. The Virgin Land,
II. The Indian Hunting Ground,
III. The Ancient Quests in a New Land,
IV. Mining: 1859-1860,
V. Mining: 1861-1870,
VI. "In the Hands of Hard Men in an Evil Hour",
VII. Mining: 1871 to the Present,
VIII. A Half Century of Railroading,
IX. The Salt Works,
X. The Bountiful Ranch Land,