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      Close to Heaven… Down to Earth

 



 

The Scenic Highway of Legends
A Colorado & National Forest Service Scenic Byway

From Trinidad to Stonewall

panoramic photo of Culebra Peak from Stonewall, Colorado
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains from the Scenic Highway of Legends, near Stonewall

State Highway 12, the Scenic Highway of Legends ties Trinidad, Weston, Stonewall,
Cuchara, La Veta, Walsenburg and Aguilar
together with a ribbon of asphalt that journeys through some of the most beautiful
mountain countryside in the world.

Beginning at the Colorado Welcome Center on the corner of Nevada and University,
the Scenic Highway of Legends makes a few turns before exiting the City of Trinidad.
Along the way you pass Central Park (site of the Trinidaddio Blues Festival every
August), the Donnelly Gym of Trinidad High School (that gold domed building everyone
asks about) and the old Mt. Carmel Church (now closed). Going west now, you go through
Jansen and then up the hill and past two entrances to Trinidad Lake State Park.

There’s another hill to climb and then descend (to the intersection by Cokedale)
before crossing one final hill and entering the Purgatoire River Valley.
Before Trinidad Lake was created, the Highway ran along the bottom of the river
canyon through the towns of Piedmont, Sopris and St. Thomas before joining with
the present route of the Highway near Long’s Canyon.

Trinidad Lake
Trinidad Lake Dam, Fisher’s Peak in the background

Trinidad Lake is a man-made lake completed in 1977 by the US Army Corps of Engineers.
The 6,610-foot earthfill dam across the Purgatoire River was built for flood control,
irrigation and recreation. The level of the lake rises and falls depending on irrigation
usage. About 2,300 acres of State Park surround the (on average) 900-acre lake.

When the dam was built, five small communities were moved: Sopris, Sopris Plaza,
Viola, Piedmont, and St. Thomas. Two miles below the dam is the final resting place
of Horace Long, the first Anglo settler west of Trinidad. Also in the area of the
lake were 48 Native American archaeological sites, mostly left by the Jicarilla
Apache. While some of these sites are now under water and some are hidden in the
surrounding bluffs, one area of teepee rings is open to the public at the Carpios
Ridge Picnic Area.

Aerial photo of Trinidad Lake
An aerial view of Trinidad Lake,
looking west up the Purgatoire River Valley towards the Sangre de Cristo’s

The Highway continues on and passes by Cokedale, rated the “Best Preserved Coal Mining
Camp”
in Colorado. Cokedale was founded in 1907 by the American Smelting
and Refining Company and reached a population of 1500 by 1909 with 350 coking ovens
in operation. Cokedale’s refinery facilities serviced two mines at Cokedale and
a third at Boncarbo, seven miles away.

Cokedale was one of many mining towns developed in the early 1900’s. Several companies
operated mines in both Las Animas and Huerfano Counties, generating over 60 percent
of Colorado’s coal output. Also dotting the counties were coke plants. The purpose
of making coke from coal is to remove all moisture and as much sulphur and phosphorus
as possible, leaving only fixed carbon and ash. Using coke in the process of smelting
iron was preferred as it burned with intense heat, was free of foreign substances
and was porous enough to allow good circulation of air in the blast furnaces.

In 1947, the coke ovens were shut down and the Company left town. The residents
of Cokedale were offered their homes for $100 per room and $50 per lot. Because
a lot of people took them up on this offer, quite a bit of the original town is
still standing, providing us with a good view of a turn-of-the-century mining camp.
However, most of the houses that weren’t bought immediately were bulldozed so they
wouldn’t be taxable (so much of our history has been destroyed for this reason).
The residents who stayed, organized and incorporated Cokedale in 1948. The old coke
ovens can be seen right beside the road as you go by town. Cokedale was placed on
the National Historic Register in 1984.

Just outside of Cokedale can be seen the big mountains of coal slag: impurities
washed and cooked out of the coal and discarded. If you are around on a cold day
you can see steam rising from the piles of slag, as if a great fire were burning
within.

the coke ovens at Cokedale
The coke ovens of Cokedale

Next are Madrid and Valdez, two almost abandoned coal camps (the old
mine works are across the river) before coming to Segundo, a small town full
of wonderful architecture. It is said that a Mr. Chrysler was born and raised in
Valdez. He lived in Valdez long enough to build his first automobile there in a
little shop.

looking west from Lorencito Canyon
Looking west near Lorencito Canyon

Old Segundo, or Los Varros, was one of several plazas
that sprang up along the Purgatoire in the 1860’s. Segundo, the mining town, was
built in the early 1900’s. At that time, Segundo was the largest coal processing
plant west of Chicago with 800 coking ovens. The Colorado and Wyoming Railroad reached
Segundo in 1901 and built its operating headquarters there. A five-stall roundhouse
was built and every day, trains from Segundo went west to Tercio and east to Trinidad.

Colorado Fuel & Iron (CF& I) opened a number of coal mines in the valley
in the early 1900’s. Some of the names were Primero, Segundo, Tercio, Cuatro, Quinto
and Sexto, along with Sopris, Cornell and Valdez. Primero and the Frederick Mine
at Valdez were the major producers. The Cuatro mine operated for only 4 years before
it blew up, killing 19 miners. Quinto operated for only 2 years and the records
don’t show any coal being shipped from either Sexto or Cornell.

It was at the old town of Primero that a high school was started in 1917, and CF&
I began transporting students to school by train. About 120 students rode to school
every day. Occasionally, the boys would roll boulders onto the tracks the night
before so the morning train would be late for school. One of these mornings, CF&
I owner John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was aboard the school train. It was never late
again.

Weston, Colorado
Weston

Continuing west you’ll come to Weston. At the east edge of Weston you’ll see the
first signs for the aptly named Bosque del Oso State Wildlife Area, 33,000+/- acres
of prime wildlife habitat. Several miles west of town there’s another well marked
entrance. A friend who knows the area well told me to be careful in there: there’s
a lot of bears. There’s a lot of elk and deer, too.

Weston was originally named Los Sisneros, after Juan Sisneros, a rancher who settled
here in the 1880’s. Other settlers tried to name it La Junta (meaning “the junction”)
as the North and South Forks of the Purgatoire meet here, but that name was already
taken. In 1889 the first post office was established and the town was named Weston,
after Bert Weston, the town’s first postmaster. The Rocky Mountain Timber Company
logged the area heavily in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and used Weston as a
supply base.

The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are easily seen from Weston. They get their name
from the Spanish explorers who first noticed that the peaks turn red with the first
rays of the morning sun, naming them the “Blood of Christ” Mountains. There’s a
story about an old prospector who found a very rich gold mine somewhere near timberline
on those mountains. He came to town once a year, each time with a nugget so big
he could buy all his supplies for another year at the one time. He told someone
once that he used the reddish color of the morning on the mountain snow to find
his mine. After his death many searched for the mine but no one has ever found the
“Gold where the Snow turns to Blood.”

Stonewall, Colorado
The view of the Sangres from just east of Stonewall

The highway continues west to Vigil and Stonewall. Vigil was first settled by Juan
Vigil and his family in the early 1860’s. Juan served as the County Assessor and
County Sheriff for many years. The Town of Vigil was incorporated and had a post
office from 1890 to the early 1920’s. Just off the highway is the “House on the
Bridge.” The bridge was originally part of the road leading from Trinidad to Stonewall
but the road was rerouted in 1918. State Senator Joseph E. Martinez was a half-brother
to Charles Vigil, the property owner, and he built a small house on the bridge.
Some time later Charles’ brother Marcus had the house rebuilt as it is now.

Just west of Vigil Plaza sits the San Isidro Church, dating back to the 1870’s and
named for the patron saint of farmers.

The New Elk Mine was one of the more recent coal mines developed, its’ first portal
opened in 1946 under the name Apache Prospect. CF& I bought the property in
1951 and renamed it the Allen Mine. In 1977, CF& I opened the Maxwell Mine about
2 miles east of the Allen Mine. These two coal mines were the only active mines
in the area when they were bought by Basin Resources Inc. in 1991. The Allen Mine
was renamed the New Elk Mine and the Maxwell Mine became the Golden Eagle Mine.
In those last few years, mining was only carried on in the Golden Eagle, with the
New Elk site being used as a processing plant for washing and shipping the coal.
The large pipe and conveyor belt that crosses over Highway 12 at Milepost 29.4 carried
the slag and refuse to a dump site in a canyon north of the highway. Annual production
at the Golden Eagle was 1.2 million tons of coal when operations ceased.

the Dakota Wall near Stonewall, Colorado
The Dakota Wall to the north of Stonewall

You’ll know when you reach Stonewall because it is named for the incredible Dakota Sandstone walls that traverse the area
from south to north. The rock wall rises up to 250 feet above Stonewall. The sandstone
was originally formed at the bottom of an ocean and was tilted upright some 65 million
years ago when the Ancestral Rockies were first pushed up during the Laramide Orogeny.

South of Stonewall are Torres, Tercio and Vermejo Park Ranch, probably the
largest contiguous ranch property in America. Tercio was a coal camp built by CF&
I in 1901. Tercio Mine featured 6 portals and 600 coking ovens. Mining ceased in
1915 when production exceeded 1.5 million tons per year. Today, only the company
store remains standing at the townsite.

the Sangre de Cristo's, from south of Stonewall
Looking west near Torres, south of Stonewall

You are in the “Trinidad to Stonewall” section- follow the links below –
The Scenic Highway of Legends – Map and descriptions of sections:

Scenic Highway of Legends Map
Trinidad to StonewallStonewall to Cuchara PassCuchara Pass to La Veta
La Veta to Walsenburg Walsenburg to Trinidad
Aguilar to San Isabel NFSan Isabel NF to Cuchara Pass