A History Study of Log Hill Mesa

A Late Developing Slice of Americana

by Jack and Barbara Rairden
(Revised May 27, 2013)

 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one least traveled by,
And that made all the difference.
        Robert Frost (1874 - 1963)

 

Log Hill Mesa (LHM) lies in the northern region of Ouray County, Colorado.  It is not only fly-over country; it is drive-by country.  It has played an important role in the development of the County since the removal of the Ute Indians in 1881.

Early on, LHM was a valuable source of timber for the mines and cities of southern Ouray Co.  Homesteads were being filed-on starting at about the beginning of the 20th century.  Many of the early homesteads were eventually consolidated into a few large ranches; some of these are still active.  Starting in the late 1960s, there was a movement towards establishing home sites by subdividing some of the old ranch and farmland.  That trend continues to this day.

The topography of LHM is mostly delineated by the Dakota Sandstone formation that slopes northeast from Horsefly Peak to the Billy Creek region at which point it goes underground.  The escarpment on the south end of LHM is due to the Ridgway Fault that runs east and west - one is standing on the Dakota Sandstone at the bottom and at the top of the escarpment.  This area is more accurately described as a Dakota Sandstone Cuesta which is defined as: A hill with a long gentle slope formed by a resistant cap rock and a short steep slope on cut edges of underlying weaker rock. LHM is not a well-defined geographical entity - it is the southeastern limit of the Uncompahgre Plateau that extends from south of Grand Junction, Colorado to just north of the town of Ridgway, Colorado.  Perhaps the boundary of the Log Hill Mesa Fire Protection District is a reasonably good definition of the LHM.  Most of the population is located in the eastern half of the District.

There are three main drainages on LHM: Horsefly Creek and Canyon which forms a mesa-like barrier to the west; McKenzie Creek and Canyon and Fisher Creek and Canyon which run nominally west to east at mid-mesa.  The most productive agricultural areas of LHM have been along McKenzie and Fisher Creeks.  The northwest quadrant of LHM has been and still is dominated by several large private ranches.

The history stories of the early settlers on LHM in Ouray County give great insight into the people which faced many challenges and obstacles in establishing homes and ranches on this near desert-like terrain starting in the late nineteenth century and continuing to this day.

The first challenge that faced these pioneers was: Where’s the water?  No civilization can be established without an answer to that most basic question.  The fresh water supply on LHM is limited to the annual rain and snowfall on the eastern slopes of Horsefly Mountain to the south and west and on the Mesa itself.  The snowmelt generally lasts from mid-April to early June.  Part of the run-off from Horsefly Mountain is channeled into Horsefly Creek that flows to the northeast on the western side of the mesa; most of the remaining flow is channeled into McKenzie and Fisher Creeks which flow eastwardly through the southern mid-mesa region.  At the south end the water runoff from that area drains into Canyon Creek which runs northeasterly through what now is Log Hill Village.

Ditch companies were organized to distribute the water from the drainages.  Also, there are some year-long natural springs found at various locations, mostly near the runoff drainages.  Ponds were often dug to store the water from the ditches and springs. Throughout the years, many wells have been dug and drilled on the Mesa.  By necessity the early wells were hand-dug and quite shallow.  The water from these wells tended to be at least slightly mineralized.

After World War II water drilling equipment was made available on the Mesa, primarily by rancher Harvey Thayer.  The deeper wells that were drilled, where successful, were a big step forward in providing domestic and stock water for the ranchers.  However, the water still tended to be mineralized and pumping equipment often had a limited lifetime.

The domestic water situation on LHM changed dramatically with the establishment of the Tri-County Water Conservation District in 1968.  Within a few years the waterline was extended south from Montrose to the Colona area and a water-fill station was established there.  The LHM residents now could transport high quality water to their homes and ranches by paying a nominal fee for 250 gallons.  Many residents put-in cisterns on their property to store water - some piped the water into their homes for domestic use.

Another large challenge for the early settlers was the limited natural resources on LHM.  The large trees, primarily ponderosa pines growing at the south end were, from the earliest days, a valuable source of timber for the mines in the Ouray area, and for building construction.  With time several sawmills were established which provided work for early residents.  As late as the mid-1980s timber was still being harvested.

From mid-mesa north, the vegetation was largely pinon pine, juniper, oak brush, cactus and other low-growing plants.  The soil tended to be quite rocky and the ever present Dakota Sandstone layer might be on the surface or within a few inches or a few feet of the surface.  These natural areas could be used to graze cattle, sheep, horses, etc.; however, it would sustain only a low density of animal population.  Along the principle drainages there were successful dry land crops grown including hay, grains, potatoes and some other vegetables.

To successfully farm or ranch this land it was necessary to clear it of vegetation and rocks, level it and, where possible, irrigate it.  This was no easy task, particularly in the early days before mechanized equipment was available.  The work was done with horses and manual labor - only the most hardy and resolute could survive.

The road system on LHM was, at best, primitive.  Early on there were just wagon trails consisting of two ruts with grass growing in-between - no gravel, no maintenance, no nothing.  Until the late 1960s there were very few residents, and very few tax dollars were being collected by the county from the property owners; hence, those residents were pretty much on their own for developing any infrastructure.

In the 1960s some of the larger land owners started subdividing their property into 40-acre parcels - this attracted “outsiders” who had money to spend and wanted to get away from the urban rat race.  Land values began a steady climb upward which led to more subdivisions.  The large Hotchkiss property at the south end was sold to a land developer - his association platted and developed property that is now Log Hill Village.

By the 1970s many of the newcomers, along with a few old-timers, started demanding improved services.  Roads have been widened and graveled ever since; however, as late as the mid-1980s roads were sometimes impassable due to deep mud.

Tri-County Water pipelines were brought up to LHM from Colona starting in the mid-1980s; by the early 1990s they had been extended to the Thomas (Flowers) Ranch.  For most homes on LHM telephone service was not available until the 1980s; prior to that, residents communicated with each other using CB radios.

The Log Hill Volunteer Fire Department was organized in 1976 as a non-profit corporation.  The Log Hill Mesa Fire Protection District was established in 1979 so that fire protection was financed by a tax levy.  Many of the long-time ranchers resisted almost everything that led to higher taxes.  However, if they decided to sell-out, they did enjoy getting top-dollar for their holdings.

Since 2003 it has been our pleasure to meet with long-time residents to interview them and assist them in telling their stories for publication.  We found the storytellers and their experiences to be unique, fascinating, often humorous and, at times, almost unbelievable.  We often left an interview shaking our heads and commenting to each other: "If we tried to make-up that stuff no one would believe it!". 

Our usual approach has been to meet at the home of the interviewees to record their recollections, after which, the interviews are transcribed word-for-word insofar as possible.  The transcriptions are given to the interviewees for editing, and, where appropriate, modified and corrected. This process is continued until the interviewees are completely satisfied that the transcripts accurately reflect their remembrances.  These stories, after approval, are archived in the Ridgway Public Library.

 

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