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1880's Freighting History - Yee Haa!!

In the late 1870's, before there was a Durango, heavily traversed trails connected the boom towns of Parrott City, Rico, Ouray, Silverton and Lake City. Freighters, stage coach drivers and miners, with horses, mules and oxen used these dangerously narrow trails and precipitous one lane roads - all involved in the wild excitement to extract the riches of silver from the San Juans.

In 1877, 113 pounds of ore from the Osceola Mine in Ophir was brought to the George Greene Smelter in Silverton and sold for $500. Finds like this fueled the frenzy. Boom towns had blacksmith shops, stables, bakeries, barber shops, boot and shoe stores, breweries, cigar factories, clothing houses, drug stores, furniture stores, general merchandise and hardware stores, hotels, jewelry stores, Chinese laundries, meat markets, restaurants, saloons, sawmills and banks. These businesses clamored for an endless steady stream of supplies and their transport required tens of thousands of oxen, mules and horses. Great quantities of large equipment for sawmills and mining was shipped using heavy wagons of all kinds.

Here, within the heaviest precipitation district of the U.S., over countless river crossings, up and down the roughest, snakelike trails of the highest mountains in Colorado this zealous transport took place. On a single day, a local freight company would handle 500,000 pounds. When a trail was wide enough, freighters drove mules five abreast, twenty mules to the team. An average day's travel was 10 to fifteen miles a day. When crossing rivers, a wagon was often pulled by two sets of oxen or horses. The first set of animals - called a strong team would be hitched to the front of the wagon. A long log chain would be fastened to the front of the wagon and at the end of the long chain, in front of the first set of animals, there would be another set of horses or oxen which would cross the river to the other bank in time to pull the strong team and the wagon across the turbulent stream.

In this manner, the equipment for the first sawmill in Silverton made its way from Colorado Springs in 1872. The machinery weighed 6,000 pounds and took 7 yoke of oxen crossing the Rio Grande 53 times. Likewise, the boiler for the sawmill in Parrott City crossed the Animas weighing 7,000 pounds in 1875; ten yoke of oxen were used. Rico was serviced as well by these bull trains; heavy wagons drawn by several yoke of oxen until 1892. The machinery for the Grand View Smelter arrived this way into Rico in July, 1880 from Alamosa. The trip took 60 days. Once the railroad came, high sided ore wagons were loaded 4 - 5 tons and hauled to the railroad cars. Six to eight Belgium horses pulled these wagons. From the Camp Bird Mine to Ouray for instance, 30 six horse teams worked 7 days a week. Men were hired to keep water in the muddy ruts of the road which was the only thing keeping the wheels and the wagons from sliding down the mountain. Only Belgium horses (which are larger than Clydesdales) were capable of the required strength.

On holidays, livery stables would supply hundreds of horses to fetch the miners into town and to return them thereafter. Towns like Ouray, with 33 saloons, were known for providing a good time. Strings of horses could be seen going in all directions, either returning from having taken men to the mines or going after men to bring them to town. Most of the horses would return themselves to the livery stables but the wiley ones had to be gone after. On steep hills and gulches three or four logs would be tied to the rear of the wagons serving as brakes on the uphill, giving the animals a break when they stopped. Rough locking was placing blocks or beams in front of the wheels so that the wagons would stop before rolling into the teams. The earliest pioneers traversing the mountain passes would let their wagons down the cliffs with ropes tied to trees, called snubbing. When rounding a curve on a narrow shaley mountain trail, all available men would ride or hang off the high mountain side of the wagon to keep the wagon from turning over and pitching down the cliff. More often than not, in a split second the entire stage or wagon could be turned upside down in a cacophonous turmoil; all passengers and freight uprooted, wheels spinning in the air, horses kicking and tangled up in the harnesses.

Along these narrow trails, when two teams came upon one another, the men would unhook the horses and take two wheels off the smaller wagon and set the bed partly on the hillside until the other wagon passed. In the winter a sled would be tipped on its side to let a loaded sled pass. In July, 1875, when the earliest homesteaders in the Animas Valley numbered 15, the road to Silverton was but a deer trail. Travel was tediously slow; the trip over the 40 mile trail took 2 days. As mail could only be brought in by snowshoes in the winter (via Del Norte then Silverton), it was delivered only twice to these early pioneers during the winter of 1875-76. In the winters when the snow was deep, flour sold for as much as $125 for a 100 pounds, hay could go for $120 a ton, eggs were a dollar apiece and butter $1.25 a pound - but usually there was no butter or eggs to be had. These extreme prices were often determined by the winning bid at an auction at the railroad terminus.

Within a short time, a regular stage line connected Silverton and Animas City over which there were three stage stops each keeping up to 20 horses in the stables. Horses were changed at each stop: ten miles south of Silverton where the first toll gate was located was the first stop, the second change was made at Cascade Hill and the third at Rockwood. After crossing the toll gate at Baker's Bridge, the stage made its way into Animas City. The passenger fare including baggage one way was $6. Twenty to thirty horses might be used to make this trip according to size of load and road conditions. In the winter, this route was reduced to dog sleds pulled by four big Newfoundland dogs. The costliest toll charged was at Bear Creek Falls on the way from Silverton to Ouray, a distance of 24 miles, $5 for a single span team and a charge of $1 extra for each additional head of stock. This toll gate operated until 1900 and originally consisted of only two large beams, traversing the cavernous crevice over mid air consisting merely of two large beams, over which the wagons wheel would go over.

In 1881 the Pagosa to Durango Stage line took 2 days. In 1902 it took two days to haul a load of lumber from the Bartholomew Sawmill on the upper Pine from the Frank Wommer Ranch to Ignacio with two four horse teams. From Ignacio, the lumber was shipped by rail. Before the railroad, transferring money between banks was a hazardous matter. On one occasion, when a $5,000 transfer was needed from Alamosa to Animas City, greenbacks were stitched into a traveler's clothing. Sometimes this wasn't always successful especially when traversing alone. Sometimes, when travelers came around a bend in the trail there would be a man hung from a tree, a note pinned on his coat which might say: hung for killin' a man. More likely he had some money on him and he was strung up for that. Just another reason why the arrival of the train represented such a magnificent new mode of transport to any town in the San Juans in the 1880's - and why its arrival was so zealously celebrated.