Mitchell Springs in 1882 was a welcome rest for travelers

Photo Courtesy/June Head

The mossy Mitchell Springs is located on the east side of McElmo. When in use, the area was enclosed with a pole fence. Many people obtained their drinking water from these springs. This photo was taken in 2000.

Just mention the name of Mitchell Springs to any old timer or one of their descendants and they'll tell you that Mitchell Springs was often referred to as the first town site for the City of Cortez. Traveling down South Oak and across the bridge is a large sign "Mitchell Springs Ruins Group" but the "Drinking Water Springs" are east of this area.

Growing up in Cortez, I knew that Mitchell Springs water hole was located south of Cortez and east of the McElmo Bridge on Oak Street but the site of Mitchell Springs was on the old Andy Hopper place. We remembered the Andy Hopper place, as this is where the coal mines were located. The area was down near the "South Road" which today is known as County Road H. Also, this must be near the old "Town Dump" on McElmo Creek.

After living in Cortez most of my life, my husband and I decided we should see Mitchell Springs. In 2000, I saw the springs for the first time.

Mitchell Springs was a stopping point for travelers coming up McElmo Canyon en route to Mancos. Another interesting fact - most all early day settlements were a day's drive from the last camp. Mitchell Springs was about a day's drive (by wagon) to Mancos. Other springs were Navajo Springs down on the Ute Reservation, Willow Springs and Stafford Springs. There was a Willow Springs located on the Navajo Reservation near Navajo Mountain in the area known as Paiute Strip. There is also Stafford Springs located on the Hopi Reservation near Holbrook, Ariz. but I don't know if either would be applicable in reference to this article. Mud Springs or Pegasus Springs - later known as the "Dawson Ruins" - were located west of the airport and on the McElmo Road (or Road G).

From past discussion with my grandparents and other persons in Cortez, we knew that water from the springs was brought to Cortez and sold to consumers by the barrel. One source reported the water was sold for "a quarter a bucket."

Apparently the site of Mitchell Springs was part of the old Indian Trail - a report stated that in 1860 some men left Santa Fe heading for Montana - they came via the San Juan River and the Indian Trail to the area of Mitchell Springs, into the Montezuma Valley and Lost Canyon where they followed the Dolores River up to Rico.

In 1882, Porter Mitchell and his father, Henry Mitchell started a store near the springs - Porter Mitchell was the grandfather of Kenneth, Glen and Vernon Dennison. A post office was established at Toltec in 1883 and operated by Fred Ormiston. Toltec was deserted probably around 1888 when the post office was moved to Cortez and water became available via ditches. Cortez was about 1 1/2 miles north of Mitchell Springs. Tom Coppinger, grandfather of Herschel Coppinger, came into the area from Gallup and had the saloon at Mitchell Springs. The Harris Brothers moved their store from Mancos to Toltec where they operated two or three years before moving to Big Bend on the Dolores River.

Lee Kelly, an early-day freighter in Cortez said the small settlement boasted a few homes, a bank, a saloon and a store plus the post office. He said there were about six adobe buildings with small windows, plank boards made a kind of sidewalk and water was drawn from the nearby springs. Mr. Kelly said is was a welcome rest for him and his wagon loads of freight coming from Mancos and going down to Aneth (then known as Riverview). Round trips from Aneth to Durango took over six weeks; therefore Mitchell Springs looked like a paradise in the 1880's. Minnie Hammond, a daughter of Lee Kelly's said they had an older brother born at Mitchell Springs on a dirt floor. The grandson of Porter Mitchell was under the impression that his grandparents definitely lived in the trading post and that the building was made of wood and native rock. Some of the other buildings were frame construction. The Harris store was reported to be a frame building with a cellar in the ground. Lee Kelly said that by 1889 all of the buildings and businesses that were at Mitchell Springs were gone.

As mentioned, Toltec was deserted about 1888. Water was scarce in early Cortez. The people in the new town of Cortez and the surrounding area needed this water to survive.

The next issue of Looking Back will describe early Cortez and the use of the "Mitchell Springs."

June Head is the historian for the Montezuma County Historical Society. She can be contacted for corrections or comments at 565-3880.

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