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Following the Rio Grande River

Pole Creek
Larry E. Heck | Writer
Posted August 1, 2011

Texas Borders

In 1836, the Texas Revolution stripped Mexico of a vast territory that became a breakaway nation called the Republic of Texas (see our July 2011 issue for more of that story). The western boundary claimed by the new republic was partially defined by the Rio Grande River. It included much of New Mexico, Colorado, and Oklahoma. It also followed the Continental Divide and went north into Wyoming.

We could find no records to indicate that anyone from the Republic of Texas or from Mexico had ever been to the mountains of the San Juans. In those days, countries laid claim to unsettled territory by simply drawing lines on a map. The only people living in those remote areas were scattered tribes of Native Americans.

In 1845, Texas was annexed by the United States. That agreement included the sale of all territory outside its present boundaries to the United States to pay off the huge debts it had incurred fighting with Mexico.

Mexico disputed that purchase, saying Texas was still part of Mexico. The result was the Mexican-American war. The United States easily conquered Mexico and even took over Mexico City for a while. A treaty was signed in which the USA paid $18 million to Mexico for all lands it claimed north of the present Mexican border.

It was more than fifteen years before anyone from the United States followed the Rio Grande into the San Juan mountain area. During the late 1860s, trappers and prospectors used Del Norte as their supply point to explore trails previously known only to Native Americans. One of those trails crossed the Continental Divide and entered the Animas River Valley by way of Stony Pass.

A prospector named George Howard was among the first to file a claim in the valley. In 1872, he built his home at the point where Cunningham Creek flows into the Animas River. At that time, the primary access being used into the valley was over Stony Pass and along Cunningham Creek. By 1874, the settlement of Howardsville had formed and became documented as the first town in the valley. It became the first post office and county seat.

We left Howardsville with the intention of connecting to the Rio Grande River and following it all the way across the state. It was a foggy day that limited our enjoyment of the scenic views normally enjoyed on the way to the top but when we crossed the Continental Divide, we were greeted by patches of blue sky.

The official name of the road that was built when the pack trail over Stony Pass was widened is County Road 3. The National Forest calls it FR 520. It was never in the condition that travelers enjoy today. There were a couple points where wagons had to be disassembled to get up or down. The road was heavily used until the railway was built between Durango and Silverton.

A short distance east of the pass, the road crosses a small flow of water that makes up the headwaters of the Rio Grande River. The water passes through a tile under the roadway. The river is so small at that location; it is possible for a vehicle to straddle it. By mentally traveling back in time to 1845, the front of the vehicle can be imagined to be within the border of Texas while the back of the vehicle can be in Mexico. Fortunately, both sides are now within the border of Colorado.

The river takes a direct line to the floor of the valley, but the road stays high on the Texas side of the mountain. The many scenic views along the way all include looking down on the river. When the road catches up to the river at the valley floor, the driver is faced with crossing Pole Creek. There is no bridge for it and during certain times, it can be more than headlight deep. When we were there in July, it was bumper deep.

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