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From trails to rails to roads to… trails again?

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By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff

A trio of men steeped in historical knowledge about the Crystal River Valley recently described the narrow gorge’s long history as a critical travel route, traversed by moccasin, horse, wagons, trains and cars over a century and a half.

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The occasion was a presentation on Aug. 24 to a standing-room-only crowd at the Carbondale Fire Department headquarters.

“We’re going to look backwards to see how we got to where we are today,” said Dale Will of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails department, which has been working for years to build a bicycle and pedestrian trail to the top of McClure Pass, as part of a longer trail network linking Carbondale with the ski town of Crested Butte in Gunnison County.

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Will was joined by Kenny Frost, an elder with the Southern Ute tribe and specialist in Ute history and archeology, and Bill Kight, current director of the Frontier Historical Society in Glenwood Springs and former archeologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s White River National Forest.

Frost, noting that the Utes once used the Roaring Fork and Crystal valleys as their summer home, said the tribe decided in the late 1800s to make peace with invading white settlers and soldiers rather than risk being wiped out in a war, and stressed that the tribe had considered itself caretakers to an area that was as sacred as it was beautiful.

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“You’re the caretakers now,” he told his audience.

Pointing to an illustration of the State of Colorado, festooned with a spaghetti-like sprawl of lines depicting historic trail routes of the Utes (most of them on the Western Slope), Frost talked about the difficulties of traveling long distances in the mountains, on foot and later on horseback.

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He also spoke of the Ute Trail, a well-traveled and tangled route that was something like a Native American version of modern highways — it offered a well-defined, well-known way of traveling through the mountains.

‘The Ute Trail is a living being,” Frost intoned, explaining that in his travels through the mountains he has found that the Ute Trail is still being used, largely by shepherds and their sheep along with remnants of the Ute nation, modern hikers and even wildlife.

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Kight, who has worked on revealing ancient trails in Mexico as well as in the U.S., described what he termed “a primary Indian trail” that came over Schofield Pass from Crested Butte and down “Rock Creek,” the historic name for the Crystal River. The trail ultimately paralleled the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers on its way to the Grand Valley near Grand Junction, a wintertime residential site for the Utes.

As white settlers moved into the region, Kight said, they would fashion wagon roads that, in many cases, followed the old Ute Trail, a practice that Frost attributed to the fact that the Utes characteristically “took the easiest way” by sticking to river valleys rather than attempting to traverse high peaks and ridges.

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The trio displayed numerous historical photographs of the Crystal Valley, including one that showed a group of teepees in a meadow. Kight said that some old timers have described seeing teepees in the Filoha Meadows area, just downstream from the village of Redstone, in the 1950s.

Will reported that, in the wake of the infamous Meeker Massacre of 1879 — prompted by settlers’ desire to take over lands occupied by the Utes — whites began flowing into the area in increasing numbers, creating counties and building roads and communities that catered either to mining or ranching.

Locally, he described a county road up “Rock Creek” that ultimately became Highway 133, one that followed Potato Bill Creek up the shoulders of Mt. Sopris, and the Schofield Pass road that followed the old Ute Trail over to Crested Butte.

When Highway 133 construction got going, Will said, some stretches actually were built along the creek bed, and the creek itself was moved aside to make room.

Two different railroads were built in the 1880s on either side of the Crystal, though one of them, the Elk Mountain Railway along the west bank of the river, was short lived and ultimately provided the route for Highway 133.

The other, known as the Crystal River Railroad and by other names at times, carried coal from mines near Redstone to a loading facility near Carbondale and, later, marble from the Yule Quarry near the village of Marble. That old rail bed is still in evidence as a historic right-of-way on the east bank of the Crystal River.

The tracks for the Yule, according to Kight, were pulled in 1942 and the steel used for military gear in World War II.

The Mid-Continent Coal & Coke company, which ran the mines at Redstone for decades, reportedly wanted to revive the freight-rail service along the old CRR route in the 1950s, but was blocked by the fact that the old line had been formally abandoned and the underlying land had in places reverted to private ownership by homeowners in the area.

Series of meetings scheduled on CR Trail

Three presentations during the first week of September will kick off the next round of discussions on the proposed Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail, according to a statement from the Pitkin County Open Space & Trails department.

The series kicks off on Sept. 5 at the Pitkin County Commissioners meeting room at the Pitkin County Library, with a presentation on the Clear Creek Canyon Trail in Jefferson County, which has served as a case study on trail construction in an environment not unlike the Crystal River Valley, according to OS&T.

The second and third meetings in the series will be a pair of presentations that will provide the public with its first look at the analysis that has been done on potential alignment of a Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail —  from 5:30 – 7:30 p.m Sept. 6 at the Redstone Inn. and Sept. 7 at the Carbondale Firehouse with the same timeslot.

Both of the latter sessions will begin with presentations by the consultants, followed by a short question-and-answer session. Each evening will conclude with an open house, during which attendees may ask questions of individual consultants and Open Space staff members, peruse displays and provide written comments.

The presentations represent the start of a public comment period during which citizens are invited to fill out an online survey with their comments regarding potential trail alternatives.

The compiled data and survey will be posted to www.pitkinostprojects.com following the two presentation evenings.

The deadline for comments is Oct. 2.

After the comment period closes, a draft trail plan will be drawn up and is to be presented Oct. 17 at 6 p.m. to the Open Space and Trails Board, Pitkin County Commissioners and the Carbondale Town Board, at Carbondale Town Hall.

A second round of open houses, focused on the draft plan and its recommendations, will be held during the first week of November, followed by another round of public comment. The final plan is scheduled for presentation to the Open Space Board and County Commissioners on Dec. 12.

Work on the proposed trail has been underway for roughly a year, and has been the subject of several open-house sessions as well as meetings before area governmental boards.

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