Efforts underway to preserve Escalante Canyon structures
In the decades after the Civil War, the American West attracted a lot of veterans from both sides of that great conflict.
One-armed explorer Maj. John Wesley Powell is probably the most famous of the veterans who came west, albeit only temporarily in his case. But thousands of others eventually made their way to the West, and Colorado in particular, according to records on file at the Denver Public Library.
One of those was Capt. H.A. Smith, a native of Illinois who served in the Union Army, went into business carving grave monuments and reportedly developed a fascination about how Indians fashioned arrowheads from flint. In 1911, that fascination may have led Smith to western Colorado. He ended up living in a rock cabin he chiseled from red sandstone in Escalante Canyon, near what is now Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area.
Last year, that cabin was listed on Colorado Preservation Inc.‘s 2013 Most Endangered Places, along with another rock cabin in Escalante Canyon known as the Walker Homestead and a waterwheel near the canyon on the Gunnison River.
The Interpretive Association of Western Colorado, a nonprofit group based in Delta, wants to see the structures preserved, and since May is National Historic Preservation Month, it’s an appropriate time to write about them.
The Interpretive Association hopes to secure a Colorado History grant to evaluate the condition of the structures and what must be done to stabilize them. If it is successful in that effort, the group would then seek additional funds to perform the needed preservation and stabilization work.
However, because the structures are owned by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Interpretive Association must first obtain permission from the state agency to apply for the grants to conduct the evaluation of state-owned property.
Chris Miller, executive director of the Interpretive Association, said she requested that permission from the state agency some months ago.
When I asked about the status of the request this week, a spokesman for Parks and Wildlife said in an email, “This is an ongoing issue that is being considered by the CPW’s Southwest regional manager.”
The structures certainly highlight some important aspects of our history in this part of the West. They all represent efforts to settle and survive in an isolated but beautiful canyon on the Western Slope.
The waterwheel is evidence of early efforts to draw water from the river to irrigate crop lands carved out of the canyon bottoms with considerable human effort. The Walker homestead is where Harry and Nellie Walker raised seven children in the rock house built in 1911 and eked out a difficult livelihood from the small farm there.
But Capt. Smith’s cabin seems to generate the most interest, for several reasons.
First, there is the unique construction of the main cabin, also built in 1911. Smith, well-versed in rock work from his career as a headstone carver, used a red sandstone monolith for one wall of the cabin. He also chipped out a sleeping nook for himself from that same monolith, as well as cubbyholes to keep his rifles and other items.
Later, he built a second cabin behind the first one, this one to house overnight guests who occasionally stopped at the cabin on their way through Escalante Canyon.
That cabin also used existing rock as part of its structure, and at one time contained a secret room, hidden from the main part of the cabin by wooden shelves. Vandals have since destroyed and hauled away most of the shelves.
Based on limited information available, Smith was as interesting as the cabins he constructed.
A member of the 100th Illinois Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War, he worked his way up from private to lieutenant over the course of the war, according to a 1958 article about him that appeared in the Delta County Independent. He was reportedly wounded three times and taken prisoner once, but survived to be honorably discharged in 1865.
His interest in Indian arrowheads and the methods used to make them began when he was a young boy and found arrowheads near the family home, the Independent reported.
That interest continued after the war, when he had his own workshop for carving rock, but couldn’t duplicate the chipping process.
Sometime in the first decade of the 20th century, he closed his headstone business in Illinois and headed west to learn more. He eventually ran a boarding house at a lumber camp in Colorado, the Independent reported, and there met Indians of various tribes who showed him some of their arrowhead-making techniques.
Later, he migrated farther west to Escalante Canyon, where he built his cabins, farmed a small plot and again established a business carving headstones for people. Most of his business was reportedly in the Delta area, even though it was a rugged, daylong journey to make it from Escalante Canyon to Delta then.
There was no bridge over the Gunnison River in Escalante Canyon at the time, but a steep, rough road led out of the canyon to the south and ended up near where the Delta minimum-security prison is now located.
That route required nearly a full day to reach Delta by horse and wagon. And, while early automobiles could traverse the road if it was dry, muddy conditions or high water at one of several creek crossings could make it nearly impassable for autos.
Still, a hearty handful of settlers made Escalante Canyon their home in the early part of the 20th century. Some raised fruit for sale, or livestock, while others raised just enough food to feed their families. There were two school houses in the canyon, one near the Walker homestead and one farther up the canyon.
But over the decades, more and more of the homesteaders gave up on the difficult, isolated life. Many sold out to ranchers, particularly the Musser family, who raised cattle in the canyon and on nearby lands. The Mussers sold in 1990, and the ranch is now known as Escalante Ranch, but it has been kept intact by current owner Dick Miller.