Stephen J. Smith came to Cortez in 1887 with Mr. E.S. Turner. who was sent by Eastern Investors to Montezuma Valley as receiver of the Water Company. He has lived in Cortez most of the time since and has witnessed its development almost from the time of beginning.
Mr. Smith was born in Newburgh, New York, the third of March 1865. When he came to Cortez, he was bookkeeper and cashier for Mr. Turner. He conducted the Montezuma Valley Bank (the first bank in Cortez), which Mr. Turner opened in 1887 and closed in 1891. Harry Harrison was the first cashier. Later, the bank was conducted by Stephen J. Smith. From 1891 until 1905, Cortez had no bank. Then C.J. Harrison opened a state bank called the First Bank of Montezuma Valley and conducted it in Montezuma Valley National Bank. His son, Guy Harrison, came and took charge of the bank in Cortez. C.H. Rudy started the First National Bank in Cortez. The Guillets and E.R. Lamb were interested in it. The Montezuma Valley Bank took over the First National Bank in 1914.
Mr. Smith had charge of the office of the water and town companies for a time. From 1901 to 1905, Mr. Smith was county clerk and recorder. He also served as secretary of the irrigation district for some years. In one or another official capacity, he has been in close touch with the up-building of Cortez through a long period of years. The plot for Cortez was filed in Durango December 22, 1886. That was before the counties were divided and this was La Plata County then. Montezuma County was separated from La Plata County at the meeting of the legislature in 1889, and Cortez became the county seat. Among the first officials of the new county were W.M. Snyder, county clerk; F.L. Payson, county treasurer; and George N. Morton of Big Bend, county judge. The town company had already built the “stone block” and the stone court house building with division in view.
The Montezuma Valley Water Supply Co. (known as the Number One (1) Company later on) was beginning to build the tunnel to bring the water of the Dolores River through ditches to the Montezuma Valley. The Montezuma Valley Land Development Company was known as the Town Company, and both were in charge of James W. Hanna. His homestead adjoined the town, and the large frame house he built still stands in the northwest part of the town. The house built by Turner, his successor, is on the same street immediately south of the Hanna house. Mr. M.J. Mack, the engineer in charge of the tunnel and ditch construction lived just north of the Coffin homestead.
The tunnel required a year and a half to build. The eastern end of the “Number 1” Company was promoted by Burtis L. Arbecam, a Boston broker. He was in it until after Mr. Turner came here as receiver for the water company late in 1887. Mr. H. Brigham Jr. kept the books for the Town Company; and Fred Coffin, those of the Water Company. Portland investors came in 1888, and after that Hanna and Arbecam were out of the picture.
The Farwell Company financed the building of the cut for the project of the Dolores Number 2 Land Canal Company. They were working on the cut in 1888 and built the line of ditch which it serves. Afterward, the Number 1 Company and the Number 2 Company consolidated. The first water was delivered by ditch in Cortez in July 1888. A three-mile flume from northeast of town was a part of the construction work which made this possible.
Before that time, the water for Cortez was brought in tanks from Mitchell Springs about a mile and a half below Cortez south, and sold to consumers by the barrel. (Mitchell Springs were so named for the first family that settled there.) A town called Toltec had been attempted nearby on the McElmo, and John Harris had a store there. Other springs mentioned in the early history of the country are Aztec Springs, which used to be headquarters of the cowboys on the winter range, and Navajo Springs (down near the present Towaoc).
When Cortez was first started, Al Thompson of Durango came over and opened a store. Goodrich and Weightman of Durango also started a branch store here. Major Cooper, a Civil War veteran, was postmaster. Mr. and Mrs. Bob Smith, Canadians, had a dairy, and Mrs. Smith’s brother, Dr. Williams, had a drug store in one of what are still known as the Smith houses. Blatchford, who had a sawmill, was also here. Will Blake, who still lives in Cortez, was here then. He was in charge of the ditch for years. After that he worked for the government in the reclamation service until he was too old and had to retire. E.W. Broder had a blacksmith shop. Charles Minter came about the same time. Dan Tschop was here too. He was a wheelwright. Later, he got the blacksmith shop from Minter. At first, he lived in town, but later on he moved to the ranch north of town. Gullets, who had had a trading post down on the San Juan River came to Cortez in the early ’90’s and bought out Al Thompson. Dave Longenbaugh taught school in the McKinley house.
Lots for the old school house (now torn down) on Montezuma Avenue were transferred from the Town Company to the new school for consideration of one dollar on the fifteenth of December, 1892. A stone school building was erected there. In September, 1908, the town school district bought lots for the present building for five hundred dollars. The building was erected under direction of board members Will Bozman, Bob Smith and Harry Sprague. The present building was enlarged during the 1920s.
The first church services were opened by Rev. Burette, a Southern Methodist. The people wanted a community church, and the Congregational Board offered the most advantages proposition that the time. So, the first church building in Cortez was financed to the extent of a fifteen-hundred-dollar loan by them and the church was known as Congregational. The lots for it were purchased in June 1889. The Congregational Board paid half the pastor’s salary too. The first pastor was the Rev. Joel Harper, who was buried by the corner of the church and later moved to the Cortez Cemetery. (Mr. Stephen J. Smith was first clerk of that church.)
C. L. Petherbridge ran the Clifton Hotel on Main Street in the late 1880s. Later, he built the Hotel Clifton between the “stone block” and the present post office building. This later building burned about 1908 or thereabouts. Browns were in charge of it then as Petherbridge had gone to Rico to conduct a hotel there. Brown then built the present Brown Palace Hotel now in use.
They drilled for oil in Cortez in 1900. They got three thousand dollars to drill a test well on state or school land – just a little pork barrel money. In February 1900, the Town Company deeded the state six acres where the park is now for purposes of drilling. Otherwise, the drilling would have been over near Ute Mountain. When the three thousand dollars was exhausted, the state decided to deed back the land to the town.
June Head, Historian for Montezuma County Historical Society can be reached at 970-565-3880 for comments or questions.