by Nancy Christofferson
GARLAND CITY — There but for the grace of God . . . Back in 1876-77 when the Denver and Rio Grande Railway was busy putting little towns on the map (and taking them off), the railroad officials announced the terminus of the line west would be a place called Garland City in Costilla County. The plan was for the terminus to move on fairly rapidly to another unknown settlement in the San Luis Valley, one called Wayside, hopefully in mid-1877.
The D&RG had made great progress in 1876 on its planned route to both New Mexico and to the rich mining towns of the San Juans in western Colorado. Tracks had been completed from the railroad town of Cucharas to Walsenburg and into La Veta by midsummer. The company intended La Veta, newly named by the D&RG, to remain terminus until tracks were laid well into the San Luis Valley on their way to the next terminus at a place to be called Alamosa.
Starting a new town from scratch, like La Veta, attracted every type of shyster, professional, would-be merchant and hotelier, and all kinds of men and women looking to get rich quickly. Shortly after the railroad arrived, the town of La Veta not only boomed but became a legal entity. Soon there were nearly 60 businesses in town, not counting the Barlow and Sanderson mail and passenger stage service. Naturally, the railroad affiliates and sister companies were benefitting by selling lots (donated by La Veta founder John Francisco).
This would be the same basic plan as that for Garland City.
However, La Veta remained the terminus as long as D&RG failed to pay its workers. An agreement was finally settled with one month’s back pay being met, and a promise of the rest being covered, was accepted. Negotiations were also underway concerning the exact route of the railroad into the valley to the west. General Palmer of the D&RG was dickering with owners of the huge Trinchera Grant, also known as the Sangre de Cristo Grant, east of Fort Garland. The grant at the time was partially owned by Ex-Governor Gilpin and bore his name. By the time a deal was hammered out, the D&RG would gain vacant lands in the San Luis Valley based on track mileage built on the Gilpin Grant, and Palmer himself would own one third of it if tracks were laid to six miles west of Fort Garland before November 1, 1877.
D&RG officials were well aware that construction over the mountains would be more expensive and time consuming than laying track across the prairies, so therefore were seeking additional funding, especially in Europe.
There were additional financial problems. Some were caused by a national financial crisis and some were because the D&RG was spending rapidly while expanding the line. Even as some 300 workmen were laboriously blasting and building for the new, known right of way west from La Veta, the D&RG was beginning to lag behind on paychecks. The summit of the Sangre de Cristos was still miles away when work stalled.
Crews completed the track as far as the Mule Shoe by May 30, 1877 but required another three weeks to reach the summit three miles farther. The rails climbed 200 feet per mile, and turns were sharp. Three tunnels were needed.
Descending into the San Luis Valley was an easier venture on the gentler slopes. Work continued throughout the winter of 1877-78. Crews lived in a temporary, unnamed camp several miles west on the valley floor.
The tent camp became the site of the new Garland City, 29 miles from La Veta and six from Fort Garland. The new post office, however, was merely Garland, and was commissioned July 24, 1877. Charles D. Yayt was first postmaster. Garland was termed a railroad construction camp. The railroad called its station there Mortimer, so the settlement had no less than three names.
Immediately upon completion of the rails, Garland began growing. Within 12 days, there were 125 houses and innumerable tents and shanties. Some were built on the spot, keeping four sawmills churning out lumber. Others had ridden the rails from as far away as La Junta, where a Santa Fe terminus had been abandoned and its camp deserted.
Many of the buildings, however, came from La Veta. Not exactly substantial in the first place, the hastily constructed saloons, hotels, stores and other buildings were dismantled and large pieces, though not too large to fit a narrow gauge railroad car or a tunnel, were loaded up and transported with the intention of getting rebuilt.
An early traveler (who described La Veta as “a settlement of Georgians” in a “neatly built” town) made the trip to Garland when the snow was on the ground. His incredulity is apparent as he encountered the Mule Shoe, the elevation and frightening drops, the uneven rails. A night in Garland City, he remarks, was full of “the usual noise and confusion” of a terminus. Whatever that meant.
Another tourist was Helen Hunt Jackson, noted author and wife of a later president of the D&RG. She points out the rail line was “straight as an arrow” between Garland City and Fort Garland, but the new town was built in a depression where it could not been seen until the traveler was practically on top of it. Then, suddenly, the tracks enter a warren of frame buildings of all sizes and uses. Their hotel was not even close to being done, utilizing fabric as walls between beds. Tents of all shapes had been erected. Barlow and Sanderson stages brought in tourists and new residents alike. Ox teams were everywhere, hauling wagonloads of logs, planks, window sashes and doors. The sound of hammers was continuous. Burros and carts wandered through the streets with peddlers selling fresh produce from communities around the valley. A water wagon was equally welcome, and, wonder of wonders, ice was shipped in from La Veta.
Not only did buildings and ice get imported from La Veta, but so did merchants. Some of the newer and larger establishments like “forwarding companies” were some of the first to decamp for Garland City, along with many of the saloons.
The Salt Lake City reporter continued to write. The town was prosperous, but dependent upon the railroad since there was no agriculture or hope for it in the sagebrush covered fields nearby. A new town to be named Alamosa would be the next terminus, and most folks in Garland City were poised to move on at any time.
Though short-lived, Garland City saw a number of murders but no wonder – it was in the air. The site in 1863 was said to be the same as the last ambush of the notorious Espinosas, where they captured a man and woman in a buggy and murdered their mules. Both passengers eventually managed to escape, but their reports of the attack led the commandant of Fort Garland to set former mountain man Tom Tobin on their trail. Tobin had only followed them for four days before discovering their camp on the east side of La Veta Pass and killed them.
On the 4th of July 1878, the first train entered Alamosa. It carried two hotels and a saloon. On June 28, the post office at Garland City was discontinued and its building no doubt also graced Alamosa’s streets. In fact, the entire settlement at Garland disappeared almost as quickly as it had been built.