Saturday, November 7, 2009
Here for the summer, then gone for good
Try to remember because it is important. That’s what I’ve been telling myself about conversations I had more than 30 years ago, places that we went to, and people I knew then.
In the conversations, stories of the past rolled off their tongues and took me back to times and places long since disappeared. The world was changing – markedly, even then. But not so much as it had already changed.
We were trying to put plastic storm windows on the outside of the old house, the kind you stretched and then tacked in place with the little wooden strips. That’s how the topic came up – the old house.
Merton Taylor had moved it from the abandoned lumber town of McPhee, and he and Cecil had lived in it for years ever since. I, of course, had heard many accounts of McPhee. But then, they began to take on new meaning with the understanding that area would all be under water in a few years.
At the turn of the century, after the Rio Grande Southern Railroad arrived in the area and Edgar Biggs of the New Mexico Lumber Company began buying up cutting rights to newly accessible timber that now could be shipped somewhere, it was only a matter of time before all ‘woodcutting hell’ broke out in the forests north of Dolores.
“Biggs hired Arthur Ridgway to survey the region for its timber potential. Ridgway’s report estimated that 210 square miles or 134,400 acres of prime western yellow pine were available in the area. He proposed that Biggs construct a sixty-five mile logging railroad with which to harvest close to 135,000 narrow gauge carloads of lumber,” according Frontiers in Transition: A history of Southwestern Colorado. The book was developed for Bureau of Land Management’s Cultural Resource Series and written by Paul M. O’Rourke in 1980.
Biggs, who had worked with C.D. McPhee and J.J. McGinnity of the New Mexico Lumber Company at operations in Pagosa Springs and Lumberton, New Mexico, had planned to harvest the timber north of Dolores without the new Mexico Lumber Company backing. “McPhee caught wind of Biggs plan however, and purchased the Denver-based lumber company which Biggs had hoped would finance the operation. Although Biggs remained affiliated with New Mexico Lumber until 1917, McPhee and McGinnity, after their coup of 1907, took charge of operations in the Dolores River Valley.”
By 1913, they had amassed rights for cutting nearly 90 million board feet of lumber in the area. With another huge purchase of rights in 1924, the company made plans to build a mill town about four miles north of Dolores.
“The town of McPhee was only part of the company’s expansive lumber monopoly,” writes Lisa Mausolf in her book The River of Sorrows: The History of the Lower Dolores River Valley. “During its peak in 1927 McPhee and McGinnity had five lumberyards in Denver, five in San Luis Valley and five on Moffat Road with 25 branches in Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming.”
The company originally looked at placing the mill in or near the town of Dolores but local opposition forced them to look elsewhere. That is how they arrived at the 800-acre site of the old Charlie Johnson homestead.
“The town site was originally known as Ventura. It was also temporarily called Escalante. McPhee was situated on the alleged spot where in 1776 Father (Silvestre Velez de) Escalante stopped for several weeks beside a stream he called the Dolores River. The town was given its final name after an influential visit to the site by William McPhee in 1924,” wrote Mausolf.
By 1925, the mill at McPhee was producing 61 percent of all lumber in the entire state, more than 27,445.360 board feet.
The mill itself covered a city block with a three-story main building, three-acre pond planing mill and box factory.
The town had 1,400 people living there, with a school for 500 enrolled students, company store complete with its own ‘picture show,” church, boarding houses and restaurants. It was connected to logging camps via 60 miles of logging railroad.
“The majority of the Anglo employee housed contained five rooms… The houses were simple rectangles capped by broad gable, with front and rear porches and painted dividing. In many cases the rear porch was screened for an additional sleeping area. Rent was $10 a month and was deducted automatically from wages. Electricity was provided by the company, as was running water. Sewers were connected to the superintendents’, doctors and some of the larger homes. The rest of the town had outdoor privies,” says Mausolf in her book.
“A separate area ¾ of a mile away from the Anglo community was reserved for the Mexican-American employees. This so-called ‘Mexican town,’ ‘Chihuahua’ or ‘Chilitown’ consisted of two rows of small houses of unfinished lumber, spaced at 15-feet intervals… Rent averaged about $2 per month.”
By 1945, the timber was all but gone, and the dismantling of a town had begun. The houses were sold at average cost of $100 to $125 but they had to be moved. It reportedly would take two days to jack one up and a day to move it.
Houses ended up in Dolores, Dove Creek and out at Lebanon.
Merton and Wilson Brumley bought several of them, relocated to 17th Street and Merton lived there the rest of his life. The superintendent’s house was moved out on Summit Ridge in the late 1970s and Evelyn Royce lived there for years. Dr. Speck’s office was moved to Cortez where it served as his office and then his son’s until 1968. The Catholic Church at McPhee ended up out in Dove Creek.
The town had lasted only 24 years.
The Bureau of Land Management purchased the old town site property to begin preparing for the McPhee Reservoir project from Fred and Margaret Sheperd who bought it in 1948 in the waning days of lumber production.
Today, I try to picture in my mind's eye what the area looked like before it was submerged under hundreds of feet of reservoir water. I try to remember the conversations of those who had been there and peer through the film-covered windows of times past.
I think it is important.