by Nancy Christofferson
TRINIDAD — For thousands of years, humans have been using game trails as paths. Migratory animals had a way of finding the simplest grades over which they could cross the mountains; and on the prairies, their well-worn trails zigzagged through the tall grass and sagebrush from one water source to the next. And, of course, their presence along these paths provided food for the travelers.
One such divide in the mountains, spanning the heights between rivers, was once called Emery Gap, and it connected the prairies of Union County (formerly Colfax) in northeast New Mexico and Las Animas County in southeast Colorado. Despite the explorations of Major W.H. Emery of the U.S. Topographical Engineers in 1846, who was one of the earliest Americans to enthusiastically report the presence of bituminous coal throughout the region just west of the divide, it was not named for him. Rather, it seems one Madison Emery pioneered a “road” through the canyon in the 1860s. The route was compatible with freight wagons, which is more than can be said for many of the early roads.
Historians often confuse Emery Gap with Trinchera Pass in the same general vicinity, but they are not one and the same at all.
The route was popularized in the late 1860s by Charles Goodnight and his vast herds of cattle heading north to market. In 1866 he had driven his Texas cattle across the new Raton Pass, an ancient trail recently improved by Richens Wootton and opened as a toll road. Goodnight did not like paying for the passage of his cattle at all, and devised a trail to avoid paying even a penny toll per head.
From this new crossing, Goodnight could head across the prairies and various minor drainages to the Apishapa River site, where his partner Oliver Loving had established a way station. There the cattle could be wintered and fattened before continuing their journey, and the cowboys could rest too.
The Denver, Texas and Fort Worth railroad company built its line using Goodnight’s route across Emery Gap in 1888. Employees of the rail line established a camp north of the New Mexico border to serve while they maintained the tracks. Nearby livestock corrals were built to hold animals being shipped.
The little encampment was dubbed Wilson Switch, evidently for a nearby ranch owner.
Just south was a narrow defile that allowed the railroad cars through but little else. Before the rails were laid, this was called Toll Gate, or Tollgate, Canyon because a man named Bill Metcalfe demanded payment for allowing passage between two large “pillar-like stones” loomed up beside the trail to constrict the passage. As we have seen, this became a favored site to ambush trains by the likes of Black Jack and Sam Ketchum.
In 1898 the Denver, Texas and Fort Worth became the Colorado and Southern. There was no depot at Wilson Switch. Trains could be flagged down at a spot a few miles south, though the sometime railroad stop was overshadowed by Trinchera, CO, to the west and Folsom, NM, to the south.
Still, though there was railroad activity and stockgrowers in the area, it failed to prosper. At the time, the land was fertile and had plenty of small streams fed by springs.
In 1916, Lane Booher was one of the first of the homesteaders to see potential in the land. Many more would follow. Most of these lived in one-roomed frame shacks, though stone was a favorite building material since it cost nothing except aches and sweat.
While most of the settlers were on the small landholdings they had homesteaded, there was that tiny settlement at Wilson Switch. Local historians recall there were but four houses, one of which housed the post office and a grocery store. Also, there was a feed store, blacksmith shop, and a dry goods store.
The Coloflats post office had opened in August 1915, and the postmaster, Henry Stage, was also the grocery store owner and operator. Whether the “flat” part of the community’s name deterred settlers or the arid climate did the job, the community failed to flourish.
In 1916, one of the settlers decided to establish a real community, and created a townsite on his land.
The land and townsite were sold to Josiah F. Branson, and on July 30, 1918, Coloflats post office was renamed Branson. From the beginning, a section of Branson was set aside for homes to cost no less than $1,000 in materials – no shanties these. Quickly, a railroad depot and community fair were devised as added attractions.
Hardships like the First World War, 1918 epidemic of the Spanish Influenza, and a killer blizzard the following year failed to discourage the residents. In 1920 a citizen built a road nine miles north from Branson to connect with the highway between Trinidad and Baca County to the east, thus connecting the town to modern vehicle travel. A telephone company was established.
Branson saw itself as an agricultural center. Improvements such as grain bins and an elevator were erected to take advantage of the new croplands laboriously created by plowing up the ancient fields of wild grasses. Paying crops included beans, corn, and wheat. Lumber was another moneymaker being shipped out of the vicinity, and then there was cream as range cattle were augmented by dairy cows.
Branson was incorporated as a town on March 31, 1921.
More residents and more businesses settled in, and not long after incorporation the immediate area had a population of some 1,000 souls. The Mountain View Hotel and Citizens State Bank flourished. A department store, another hotel, barber, cafes, pool hall, drugstore, furniture store, lumberyard and even a literary society and community center were added.
A community church had been built in 1919, with a school in connection, and the two-room, two teacher public school was built about the same time. The first high school opened in 1921. A larger elementary school combined with the high school in a new building in 1923. The school included 10 rooms. Enrollment included 115 in the lower grades and 44 in the high school.
Two newspapers were published briefly. A jail was constructed, though it seldom saw service. Religious, social and service clubs made an appearance.
One crucial thing was missing in Branson and that was a water system. When a fire started on Main Street in 1922 it consumed most of the buildings on the north side of the street while the people could only look on and try to save the south side. Later the same year the south side was decimated by the same cause.
Then came the drought of the ‘30s and ensuing Dust Bowl days. The cattle market dropped. Hordes of grasshoppers arrived. Crops died in the fields. The bank was closed. Branson joined the hundreds of other small and large towns alike in entering years of hardship and desperation. The population and business section both crashed.
But Branson did not succumb. It is not a ghost town of the prairies, as so many communities of the Great Plains became. Many of the buildings that escaped fire and desertion still stand and the residents are duly proud of their tenacity. It is a small town to be sure, but one with a true sense of community.