Most of the pass is no longer in the county that bears its name
By Rob Carrigan, firstname.lastname@example.org
At least four different locations in Colorado bear the name Ute Pass but the ancient bison and Indian trail on the North flanks of Pikes Peak (now followed by U.S. Highway 24 from Manitou Springs up though Woodland Park and on to Divide) has wound and weaved its way into the fabric of Colorado history.
That particular Ute Pass, is the real deal.
El Paso County -- alternately the most populous or the second most populous county in the state for the last few decades -- takes its name from there. The county, one of the original 17 territorial counties garnered the Spanish designation El Paso, or “the Pass” in 1861 when Territorial Governor William Gilpin asked the new territorial legislature to extend boundaries across the entire territory. The 1860 federal census put the whole territory’s population at 38,500 at the time.
There is a good chance that the Ute Trail was first used by bison as the animals traveled from the lush, grassy valleys of South Park to milder winters on the eastern plains, notes Celinda Reynolds Kaelin in her 1999 book Pikes Peak Backcountry.
The big, hard-hoofed animals could cut a 15-inch-wide, four-inch-deep, smooth track that even the most directionally-challenged tenderfoot could follow up over the hill.
As early as 1820, white folks had noticed the trail as well.
Major Stephen H. Long, as part of his topographical survey at the time, wrote in his journal:
“A large and much-frequented road passes the springs and enters the mountains, running to the North of the high (Pikes) Peak. It is traveled principally by the bisons, sometimes also by the Indians who penetrate here to the Columbia.”
By the spring of 1860, with Argonauts crawling all over the certain steams in the territory looking for recently-discovered gold, several Kansas fellows were ready to claim the road as there own. Under a charter from the Kansas Territorial Assembly, the group doing business as the Pikes Peak and South Park Wagon Road Co., set up tollgates above Manitou Springs and tried charging wayfarers to continue on up the already well-traveled path. By June of that year, according to dispatches in the Rocky Mountain News, local settlers resisted the company’s efforts and finally forcibly removed the tollgates declaring the path a free road.
“This route, from most indications appears to have been the earliest entry way in this part of the West from the plains to the mountain hinterlands,” observes Paul D. Harrison in a November 1962 paper for the Denver Westerner’s monthly roundup. “It was depended on and used extensively by the white people.”
Harrison observes that, “Two years after the original and unsuccessful attempt of the Pikes Peak and South Park Wagon Road firm to establish a toll project on this route, another effort by local pioneers to organize and operate the Ute Pass Wagon Road Company was sanctioned August 8, 1862, by the Colorado Territorial Assembly. Among the prominent sponsors of this project were A.Z. Sheldon, Wm. H. Young and John E. Tappan. This endeavor did not get far.”
Sheldon was not quite ready to give up however, as he then enlisted the help of Rev. Wm. Howbert and others, and reformed the company 1864, but could not raise enough money. In 1865, with another group of associates, he tried again and got a mile and a quarter stretch of rockwork done before once again running out of money.
Finally, in 1871, as other roads were beginning to be used and threaten the routes dominance, “the entire local community of business men and public officials got behind the wagon road project,” wrote Harrison.
“Ostensibly as a private concern, but actually sponsored by and backed by the El Paso County commissioners, a new Ute Pass Wagon Road Co. was incorporated on April 13, 1871 to complete and operate the enterprise.”
A bond issue for $15,000 to build the road was put before the voters and carried June 20, 1871, by 153 votes to 92.
By 1878, huge freight wagons, pulled by mule teams were hauling supplies and ore back and forth from the diggings in Leadville and Tarryall.
“Great importance was attached to this highway in the pre-railroad phases of the Leadville mining boom.”
Soon the railroads would change the picture entirely. But that is another story.
Interestingly enough, most of the pass is no longer in the county that bears its name. In 1899, as gold from Cripple Creek district gave rise to new influence and political clout, Teller County was carved out of western El Paso County and the tip of Fremont County. Most of the Ute Pass is now in Teller County.