One of Colorado's Scenic and Historic Byways
name of the byway sums it up perfectly.
old frontier zone south of the Arkansas River marked the
intersection of Native American, Spanish, French, and American
territories. Thousands left their footsteps in this much
traveled corridor - first the Ute Indians, then Spanish
and American explorers, and finally traders, fur trappers,
homesteaders, ranchers, and gold and silver prospectors.
bygone travelers viewed the same snow-capped mountains,
jagged canyons, carpeted meadows, and aspen-covered hillsides
that we marvel at today, and the signs of their passage
buildings line the route, bearing witness to long-lost cattle
empires, mining operations, and Victorian towns. Let this
be your pathway to adventure.
Driving time: 3 1/2 hours.
Special features: Designated as a National Scenic
Byway, San Isabel National Forest, Lake Pueblo State Park,
El Pueblo Museum (Pueblo), Old Westcliffe Schoolhouse
Contact: El Pueblo Museum (719) 583-0453, Old Westcliffe
Schoolhouse (719) 783-2699
columbine is Colorado's state flower. The Colorado Scenic
and Historic Byways Commission has adopted the columbine
as its logo. As you tour the Byways, the columbine signs
will identify your route.
Wet Mountain Valley Colonization
1806 Lieutenant Zebulon Pike and his handful of soldiers
were the first American citizens to pass through the wild
Wet Mountain Valley, inhibited by Ute Indians, Bear, Elk,
Antelopes and Deer.
years later, in 1870, a wagon road from the Valley to Canon
City via Hardscarabble canyon was opened, inviting settlers
to travel to the Wet Mountains.
they came! A German colony from Chicago, led by Civil War
veteran General Carl Wulsten left Chicago on Feb 9, 1870
and arrived on March 17, 1870.
they started from Chicago, a group of 250 people, the pioneers
of civilization. A notable event in the history of Chicago
transpired yesterday. It was the departure of a colony of
Chicago citizens for a home in the western wilds, the first
of its kind which ever left this city and the first, its
believed, ever organized in America. An immense throng of
relatives and friends gathered to bid them farewell and
were a splendid looking set of people including muscular
athletic young fellows with rifles strapped to their backs
and 20 fair hared, clear skinned German girls, all young,
good looking and seemingly capable of taking good care of
themselves and making excellent wives for those same gallant
the railroad tracks ended, the group shifted to covered
wagons, with a military escort from Ft. Lyons, and six-mule
teams. The new town was named after Vice President Schuyler
Colfax who had expedited the government assistance and transportation
to the Wet Mountain Valley. The group arrived at their destination,
fifteen miles west of today's Westcliffe, on March 17, 1870.
colonists were industrious farmers and Colfax Colony might
have succeeded if a promised amendment to the Homestead
Act had passed (allowing groups as well as individuals to
file). When it did not, the Colonization Company folded.
Contributing to the failure was an early frost ruining crops,
mismanagement of funds and the switch from Chicago sweat
shops to Custer County farming. As the town foundered, businessmen
in Denver sent supplies, twice, but when a powder keg exploded
in December, so did the town. Colfax disappeared and the
colonists went their own ways, many of them staying in the
county and becoming successful and respected citizens.
Custer County population in 1880 was 3,080; in 1950, 1573;
and in 1990, 1926.
was said that the expanding Rio Grande would cheerfully
build a branch line to Hades if brimstone traffic looked
William A. Bell seems to have provided the catalyst which
brought the railroad to the Wet Mountain Valley. He was
a founder of Manitou Springs and a friend of Gen. William
Palmer, builder of the Denver & Rio Grande and founder
of Colorado Springs.
came to the Valley with Gen. W. Palmer in 1870, searching
for a southern railroad route. Bell was so entranced by
the beauty of the Wet Mountain area, that he bought a large
tract of land. The town was called Clifton until Dr. Bell
renamed it for his birthplace in England.
was the last of the major towns to be settled in Custer
County. It owed its existence to the Denver & Rio Grande,
for which it was a terminus. Bypassing Silver Cliff, the
railroad station was built on Dr. William A. Bell's land.
The first passenger train arrived in Westcliffe May 11,
1881, but the town wasn't established until 1885. Excursion
trains were a regular feature, along with the freight cars
carrying Custer County's riches to market.
wiped out the tracks three times in the first nine years,
and the D&RG pulled out. Ten years later it returned,
using a drier route. The last train in the Wet Mountain
Valley ran in 1938.
the other towns in the county faded, Westcliffe became a
trading center and resort area, and it survived. It became
county seat in 1928.
Westcliffe population in 1890 was 227; in 1920, 388; in
1950, 390; and in 1990, 312.
out what's going on in Westcliffe, Colorado today through
our Custer County Links,
or read about local National
Forest and BLM lands.