SOUTH FORK- South Fork’s rich history of mining, railroads, lumber, and early settlers combines with the modern-day adventure town and creates a captivating story that forms the foundation on which the town now sits. The town center follows two picturesque highways built adjacent to two meandering rivers: The South Fork of the Rio Grande river and the mighty Rio Grande river.
Fur trapping and trading were a large part of what brought the first settlers to the area. During the early 1800s, fur trading was the basis of most western Colorado communities that supplied fur to larger cities and overseas to places like London and beyond. Animal pelts from beavers, elk, deer, mink, fox, and other small animals made up the market for fur in this area. During the years when fur was at its prime, the mountainous terrain offered a perfect location to trap furbearing animals.
Indigenous tribes in the area predate any other settlers. Archeological research in the surrounding mountains indicates Native American Indians had been in the area for thousands of years before the arrival of the first Spanish settlers. In fact, after the West Fork Complex fire in 2013, archeological crews began to search the area above South Fork in the Hope Creek region and found signs of early civilization. Camps made by indigenous people were at the top of the Continental Divide above Hope Creek, indicating that people would travel to the top of the highest peaks and withstand the cold winters. Archeological teams are still mapping and studying these archeological sites.
In the early days, the main population near South Fork was comprised of Spanish settlers and Native American Ute Indians. Living near each other was a constant battle over land, animals and fur trapping lines. Disputes resulted in four wars that rarely made the history books due to the violent nature of the battles.
Later mining communities overshadowed the fur trade and brought people to the area for work and the prospect of becoming wealthy. Mining for silver and gold started in the mid to late 1800s. Horse, mule, and oxen wagons carried the mine ore down the mountains to the South Fork area.
Like several Colorado rural communities, the town of South Fork began during the age of mining in Colorado. Surrounded by some of the largest and most profitable silver and gold mining districts, the town thrived on natural resources mined or cultivated from the region, creating a popular destination even back in the early to late 1800s. South Fork consisted of outpost stage stops, a place to replenish supplies for travelers, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, and a booming logging industry.
Not long after the mining era, ranchers ventured to the area, and a stagecoach route was created for people to travel to neighboring communities such as Summitville and Creede. The community of South Fork began to grow and show signs of a bustling town along the Rio Grande River.
As the years passed, crops of lettuce, cauliflower, hay, corn and strawberries lined the now vacant land between Del Norte and South Fork. Along what is known today as Highway 160, wooden produce sheds could be seen lining the tracks where the harvests were stored until the train cars picked up the produce and distributed it throughout the Valley and surrounding communities. These sheds were also home to agricultural workers who resided in the same locations they worked. After harvesting the produce, they would live in or near the sheds to keep an eye on their investments while camping in homesteads that later would become some of the area’s earliest ranches.
To the west of South Fork, there was a Japanese encampment where workers lived and grew strawberries. These crops were used for trade and additional income for the families that resided there. The Japanese immigrants worked on roads leading to and from South Fork until the railroad arrived in the late 1800s. Many similar camps could be found throughout Colorado during this period.
Part 2 will be published next week.