HISTORY DETECTIVE- Wagon trip over La Veta Pass in a snowstorm

LA VETA PASS — Crossing La Veta pass by wagon in an April snowstorm? Folly. But ten attempted it in 1874. Horace Benson, just a boy, wrote about the ordeal as an adult, describing how his mother, father and young sister along with six men thought they could make it. The family started out from Denver to go as far as possible by train as they headed to Del Norte. But the train went only to what they called Veta Pass, the terminus of the railway. There they took the stage, which actually was only a common lumber wagon without springs or cover, in the early morning of April 15. The six mules pulling the heavy wagon started to cross the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The morning was bright and cool and clear with the group viewing with pleasure the gorgeous splendor of a mountain scene. By 10 am the snow started just spitting; it wasn’t long before great downy snowflakes fluttered and quietly drifted about in a dull and heavy sky. All of the men began walking. The trees began to bend under the weight of the snow, the winds began to sigh and began to moan and the moan turned into a cry of fury as the wind increased. Almost night and they had not reached the summit but were at timber line. The road had disappeared; they were lost. The mules were floundering in the wet and heavy snow. The boy heard a quarrel. The wagon had stopped so he peaked out from under the blankets where his stepmother, sister and his dog Fannie and he were in the wagon. He saw his father put one hand in his pocket and with the other took the lines from the driver, “My family must not perish,” and changed direction from where the driver wanted to go. Young Horace, numb and frightened, lay down again under the blankets. The mules became exhausted and refused to go; the men were tired. The air was full of biting, stinging crystals. The team was unhitched and broke a trail back down to the timber. The family in the wagon was too numb to walk and had to be carried. The men unloaded the wagon and brought the wagon bed down, stood it on edge, the bottom side facing the storm. Without axe or hatchet, the men had to scrounge for dead fallen trees and placed them in front of the wagon box. It was time to attempt to light a fire. Everything appeared to be wet through and turned into ice as one match after another was extinguished while the tempest seemed to scream with delight. The men went back up the mountain and brought down the mother’s trunk. They took everything dry that would burn. Kneeling, they formed a circle around the trunk contents and shavings and twigs and small sticks – four men with a blanket thrown over heads, and three on the outside holding the blanket down and covering the edges with snow to keep out the wind as the last match was struck. At that moment the wind took a new hold, the dead trees crashed to the ground about them, as they watched for life and death in a bit of a sulphur stick. Smoke seeped from under the cover, the blanket was lifted, and the blaze was there! The icicles frozen to his father’s beard knocked together and broke and fell at his feet. All through the awful night the men, with torn and bleeding hands, wrenched the limbs from the trees and kept up the fire. Over the top of the wagon box and beyond the flame, the snow had drifted to a depth of 20 feet. The fire was in the center, around it the mules and the wagon box formed a circle in the snowbanks. Daylight came. The night had been so bitterly cold the surface of the snow was frozen hard enough to bear up the mules in most places. Once or twice a mule broke through the crust, but after much labor, the men would skid him out onto the hard surface again. Everyone walked leading the mules. Fannie, the dog, was the first to find shelter. The wagon and contents had been left behind. The History Detective is a service of the Huerfano County Historical Society carlynewmn@aol.com. Information is from “Denver to Del Norte in 1874”, by Horace G. Benson, in the magazine, The Sons of Colorado, issue No. 7.