Devils Canyon camp a symbol of system that protected herders
By Andrew Gulliford
When late-winter weather rolls in, I think of cowboys waiting out storms, huddled in their line shacks, drinking hot coffee from blue metal cups. Rode hard and put up wet — with ice-encrusted mustaches, frozen cowboy boots and red bandannas stiff as cardboard — slowly the herders thawed out in remote winter camps stocked with survival rations of beans, jerked meat, bisquit-fixin’s, matches, dry wood and thin wool blankets atop mouse-infested wooden bunks.
These days there are few cowboys, even fewer sheepherders, and the lonely one-room line shacks and cowboy camps are almost gone. But this winter I hiked four miles into one deep in Devils Canyon in the Black Ridge Wilderness of McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area. I’d been there before, but not in winter. It’s late winter/early spring when these camps proved to be lifesavers for cowboys or sheepherders.
Our wet spring storms can come from the south at the same time cows are birthing calves and mother ewes bleat painfully over twin lambs stuck in a birth canal. That’s when herders had to be with their livestock on the range, and if the blizzard was fierce enough, a well-stocked cowboy camp meant the difference between life and death.
With no moon, no stars and drifts of snow piling up against a closed door, I can imagine a cowboy loading pine knots into a front-entrance stove, trying to get warm as his frozen leather gloves sat like beige rocks atop two cast iron stove lids.
My hero, Teddy Roosevelt, wrote, “A successful stock-grower must not only be shrewd, thrifty, patient, and enterprising, but he must also possess qualities of personal bravery, hardihood, and self-reliance. Stockmen are in the West the pioneers of civilization.”
TR hunted and ranched in North Dakota and he explained, “The men in the line camps lead a hard life, for they have to be out in every kind of weather, and should be especially active and watchful during the storms.”
Caught in a heavy snowstorm in between ranches, Teddy teamed up with another cowboy and traveled nearly blind. “After feeling our way along for eight or nine hours,” he said, they finally “came across an empty hut, a welcome sight to men as cold, hungry, and tired as we were.”
Tales of line shacks filter down through pioneer memories. Writing about Dominguez and Escalante Canyons and the Uncompahgre Plateau, Muriel Marshall described “stoop-door cabins” with just enough room for a cowboy to lay out his bedroll and build a cook fire. Higher up in the quakies were more substantial cowboy camps, never locked, with doors secured by a wooden peg on a latchstring.
Marshall explains, “Traditionally cow camps were never locked and were kept stocked with a minimum of things vital to life for anyone caught out by sudden deep snow or by injury. Stovewood and kindling, chopped and dry. Matches and staple groceries in tight-lidded lard buckets to keep the wood mice out. Lamp and lantern, coal oil, ax, shovel and a bit of rope. Kettles, skillet, tin plates, and cups, cutlery in apple-box cupboards nailed to the logs. Bedding.”
So I respect these old camps when I find them on public lands. The vertical-board and tar-paper camp in Devils Canyon sits in a stunning location beneath redrock cliffs west of Colorado National Monument. A white porcelain enamel reservoir held water, and single bunks crowd the tiny cabin against the north wall. A plank board table has seen plenty of pointed elbows and playing cards. Homemade shelves jut from rough two-by-four walls. The front door has lost its porcelain enamel handle and a rusty horseshoe is nailed to the wood for good luck.
The exact history of the Devils Canyon camp has yet to be determined. McInnis Canyons NCA Manager Katie Stevens believes the cabin “most likely dates to the late 1920s.”
Historian Zebulon Miracle at the Museum of Western Colorado in Grand Junction thinks the cabin may have been built by John G. Beard, who homesteaded in Devils Canyon and whose family raised sheep. Other interesting anecdotes refer to the 1930s, when herds of Mohair goats, perhaps as many as 4,000 of them, grazed canyon systems south of the Colorado River.
And if the cabin was used by cowboys herding cattle and waiting out a storm, other oral histories tell of Devils Canyon being a hidey hole for unbranded calves and rustlers staying out of sight. Frank Moore told a story of keeping cows higher on the canyon rim, catching and dropping their calves lower into the canyon by lariats, and when the cows’ milk dried up, and the unbranded calves got bigger and weaned, they were rounded up and branded.
Whatever the full story, the Devils Canyon camp has now become a popular destination for hikers and horsemen. The historic stove had to be pulled to keep visitors from possibly burning the cabin down, Stevens said,
Black Ridge Wilderness and McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area are part of the BLM’s new National Landscape Conservation System of “treasured lands,” important for their natural and cultural resources. I respect that designation and our responsibility to protect the few remaining livestock grazing camps on public lands. When spring storms hit, sheepherders and cowboys needed those lonely cabins. Stories linked to landscapes tell the history of the West.