Part 2: Living at Big Bend in July 1882

Friday, Nov. 3, 2017 8:23 PM
The Morton Flume, about 1951
The ranch of Charlie and Mary Johnson on the Dolores River, about 1883. The ranch is now covered by McPhee Reservoir.
The Morton Flume at Big Bend and Lost Canyon, first constructed of wood in the shape of a box, leaked badly and was replaced with a metal flume. After the metal deteriorated from sand abrasion, the flume was reconstructed of Oregon fir in a half-barrel shape.

Editor’s note: Part 1 of Mrs. S.O. Morton’s recounting of life at Big Bend was published in The Journal on Oct. 6. These excerpts are from an article in “Volume I, Great Sage Plain to Timberline,” published by the Montezuma County Historical Society.By June Head

The Morton family came from San Luis in Costello County, Colorado, to seek a home far over the mountain range and called the New Country.

Billy May was already appointed postmaster. The post office was situated at the Crumley Ranch. We were blessed with mail delivered on horseback – three times a week, as the railroad had already reached Durango, passing by Animas City.

It being the Fourth of July, we met the Crumleys when they and Charly Saulter, a young man employed by Mr. May and we ate our first Fourth of July dinner in Mr. May’s meadow, celebrating the evening with fireworks left from store for use at our hotel two years previous.

We soon had Mr. Johnson’s family for neighbors, whom we first met at Pine River. They located and built a good adobe house about a mile from us down the river. Here, the cattlemen often found a welcome.

We too realized the need of a house as the summer days were passing. Some logs were hewn, and some lumber brought for our new building upon the hill. Many were the inconveniences such as no water – only water carried from the river by a pail, but each month added more comfort and shelter from the cold.

With a cheery fireplace we gladly welcomed the ever changing part of this new life. When the next spring came, we were living in closer union with our neighbors across the river.

The need for educational advantages for our children must be met. All joined together and erected a log school house and formed a district whereby our needs for furniture and the salary of a teacher could be obtained. Our desks for the first year were dry goods boxes with seats of the same.

Our first teacher was Miss Lulu Swenk. She was hired and kindly escorted by two of her loyal cowboys across the Divide from her home in Animas City. Finding a home at our place gave added pleasure to our new home and to the surrounding country.

By this time, we had the post office moved to our house – 50 miles from Durango. To get supplies from Durango for our family was a five days’ trip. We gave up part of our house, put up shelves for a few groceries and a safe place for the distribution of mail. It was here that we welcomed the cowboys when they came for their mail and the few supplies so necessary even in camp life.

The winter of 1884-1885, we of early days can well remember, for our letters were few and carried on snowshoes by Will Roessler of Mancos. No paper mail. This was dumped upon the mountains to be subject to the elements as it was too great a burden for the carriers to give to those hungry for news from the outside world.

Our food supply was meager, very little fruit but a few sun dried peaches from Utah sweetened from sugar settlings from a sorghum barrel, but quite appetizing when eaten with rich cream from our cows.

They helped even without our supply of beef, all cattle being driven south for feed. There was not a word of complaint from the many that stopped with us through the long cold nights of 1884-1885.

The tobacco question seemed to hit the hardest, and we managed to get a few caddies of chewing tobacco through by mail – only four pounds at a time by registered mail. Each man was willing to share his plug with others and this was gone almost as soon as the mail carrier arrived. Our little settlement on the Dolores was not the only sufferer. Even Durango, with her railroad, was worse off than we. The people there for days used molasses to sweeten their coffee. We often heard of the trials and hardships of that memorable winter.

And yet with all these trials, we had our school house. Dances allowed in our new school helped to drive away the cold. Even the glad sunshine of early spring failed to drive away the snow that wrapped as a cloak of ice in the hills and valleys of our southwest country. Each year, many new settlers came to cast their hopes and joys with those living there. People from all over the country came to engage in business. The Valley of Montezuma with its water supply through the tunnel gave the country satisfactory evidence that much could be gained in this “New Country.” Cortez soon became the county seat of Montezuma County as this big La Plata County had been divided. It was about this time that Dolores, the new settlement above the Bend, came into its own. The whistle of the locomotive could be heard when the railroad came down Lost Canyon.

Many times were the Indians aroused to resentment for what they claimed their rights. This was not a lawful inheritance for any tribe of people, and we hope they have fought their last battle. With the railroad came the Harris brothers and a store, also George Bauer with another store, and other marts of trade were ready to satisfy the needs of older settlers.

In 1889, when Montezuma County was formed from La Plata County, my husband, George W. Morton who was a public spirited citizen, was appointed to serve as County Judge. The “Morton Flume,” on Canal No. 2, which was nearby, was named for him.

June Head is historian for the Montezuma County Historical Society and can be reached for questions, comments or corrections at 970-565-3880.