Mitchell Springs: Water under the rock

Photo Courtesy of June Head

In 1978 the Hopper Coal Mine shafts at Mitchell Springs (which were rumored to go almost completely under the town of Cortez) were sealed off in association with a program of closing abandoned mine shafts.

Mitchell Springs may be referred to as the first town site for the City of Cortez. The first in this series on Mitchell Springs in 1882 may be found in the January issue of Looking Back published by the Cortez Journal.

What prompted the Mitchell family to establish a trading post? W.L. Glenn, the Veterans Service Officer in Cortez did some research in the county records on Mitchell Springs and this is his report: "The springs are found under a rock - it was a large pit 8-by-10 foot deep where water collected. The springs had good drinking water but flow was not great. Across the creek west another spring was flowing." The original springs known as Mitchell Springs was located on the east side of the creek and was fenced off by a cedar pole fence. It was accessible by going down into the creek not too far off of County Road H and then up the creek to the springs. It was a favorite picnic area for the young people when they rode their horses in the spring's area and then let themselves down over the rock ledge by rope and saddle.

As previously mentioned, the town of Toltec was probably deserted about 1888 when the post office moved to the new town located on that "hill that no one wanted." Water was scarce in early Cortez. It was brought up from Mitchell Springs by wagon and tank. One source said it sold for 25 cents a bucket - another source said 50 cents a barrel. Many of the farmers and ranchers south of town hauled their water from Mitchell Springs and it was said they paid $1 per barrel for the water. The people in the new town and the surrounding area needed this water to survive.

At a local history seminar held in 1978, Nettie Ince Talcott Woodard mentioned she came to Cortez as a baby in 1909. This was her description of Mitchell Springs. People would go down to the springs if they were lucky enough to have a horse and a barrel to bring it up, and if not, you carried it from Market and Main Streets. They had a cistern there and there were men who would take big tanks and go down to Mitchell Springs and bring up water and put it in the cistern - then the townspeople would go up there and get a bucket of water. She said there was no charge for this water. She didn't know who the men were who hauled the water for the town. She said later the town got water by a three-mile-long wooden flume that went to a ditch that was near the old City Park on North Market. After the ditch came in almost everyone then had a cistern. They put up a flagpole at Main and Market where the original cistern was located and during World War I, everybody would go up and gather around the flagpole and sing songs and have a good time. People living in the new town of Cortez probably didn't do much washing of clothing. One of the first early day residents of Cortez said they wanted to have some trees planted - so they took their dishwater and wash water and watered the trees. Another later said they wanted trees so badly they planted them in buckets and put them out in front of the houses to grow in hopes that someday they would have water to use for trees, etc.

I mentioned families in that area that depended on the springs for their use. In 1915, two of the sons of Frank Greenlee were using burros to pull little sleds with wooden water barrels to haul the water. Many other families living in this area depended on the springs for their water. When the Irrigation Company (MVIC) came in, the ditches were used to fill cisterns to store the water.

In 1939 Charlie Blackmer obtained the 160 acres west of Mitchell Springs plus another 160 acres at the present site of Mitchell Springs. His sons, Joe, Frank and Fred said the springs on both sides of the canyon were used. It was their understanding the springs where the water was hauled from to Cortez was on the west side of the creek. People living in the valley used to come to the east side to get water. On this side, initials had been carved into the rock. There were roads on both sides of the wash and it was called the "cross-over road." There might still be evidence of the old wagon road in the rocks. In the area of the springs on the east side, the Blackmer boys found a lot of old army brass. The army probably camped at the site when the Mitchells had the trading post. It was reported the Mitchells were going to build a flour mill on this side where the road turns into the "Best Logs" as there was evidence of an old foundation there for years. Perhaps the water on this side caused them not to continue with the building. It has been mentioned there was a total of five springs in the area. Residents of that area mention "Poison Springs" where old car bodies were placed in the springs to prevent livestock from drinking the water. It is located on the lower southern edge of McElmo Wash just off of Road H. In past years this was the site of car accidents - some fatal - when they "didn't make the curve" on this road.

When I visited Mitchell Springs in 2000, the springs on both sides of the canyon were still flowing.

In the future, Montezuma County Historical Society would like to mark the location of the "first town site" by a sign and parking area. It is doubtful that the springs would be open to the public because of their location.

June Head is the historian for the Montezuma County Historical Society, and can be contacted for comments, corrections or questions at 565-3880. All interested persons are invited to join the Historical Society.

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