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The stories of the first settlers in the White River Valley remind us how often we take modern-day roads for granted. Most of us can’t fathom traveling such long distances by horseback or wagon, much less count on the unpaved roads in all weather. Many of the old-timers recount childhood stories of how excited they were to be allowed to come “into town” once or twice a year for supplies.
Travel not only required time, but spunk and persistence to handle the difficulties of the journey, whether it be bad roads or conveyances in constant need of repair. The route they chose was important, as well. There were three routes mentioned most often by these first settlers.
Volume II of the Rio Blanco Historical Society’s “This Is What I Remember” series includes quite a few tales of these first journeys. One route began in Leadville, crossed the Continental Divide at a point now called Tennessee Pass, down the Eagle River to where it meets the Grand (now called the Colorado) hence up the Sweetwater, across the flat tops, and down the south fork of the White River. This required that the wagons be let down the cliffs with ropes. The second route had the parties leaving Leadville, and coming by way of Cottonwood Pass to New Castle and down Flag Creek. The third required that the others came around from Rawlins, Wyo.
The selection of the route not only depended on where one began the journey, but the time of year. The Government Road, more familiar to us as the Rifle to Meeker road, was not completed for many years and changes were made from the original location because of the problems with inclement weather and erosion. Freight arrived from Rawlins, as it was the closest railhead, so that route was more heavily traveled.
Years ago when asked the time-honored question, “How did you come here?,” one of the first settlers in the northern parts of this country, Joseph Collum, told a much more adventuresome story about his move into the area. His son recounts his father’s stories in Volume II of the Rio Blanco Historical Society’s “This Is What I Remember” series.
He recalled that his father and two brothers first came from Devonshire, England, in 1867, and settled in with a family member in Denver. They traveled west to look at the various settlements in Wyoming and Colorado, and stopped in the Snake River country west of Baggs. They fanned out to look at the adjoining areas, to see where they might best settle.
“Dad got a job carrying U.S. Mail on horseback between Rawlins and White River Indian Agency. Four or five years later he was carrying mail from Dixon, Wyo., to Thornburgh, Colo. It was on one of these trips he passed through Axial Basin where he observed the fine grazing land and decided to build a home there. In 1880 he established himself on the original homestead of 160 acres seven miles northwest of Axial. He had to file the homestead application at the United States Land Office in Glenwood Springs.” (The county seat was in Garfield County, which included all of the land that became Rio Blanco County later.)
Stories about disasters along the trail abound. One of the first parties to come into the valley, the Allen party, was said to have lost a most treasured possession, a piano, as the ropes hauling it up the mountainside snapped and it smashed into the ground. Music was the major entertainment for the settlers, so the plan for evening gatherings of family and friends was ruined too.