Scenic and Historic Byway
Hole in the Rock, head water of Timpas Creek, is located north of Thatcher, Colorado, on Highway 350.
On the dry divide between the Purgatoire and Arkansas Rivers, drinking water was often scarce and bad tasting. Santa Fe Trail travelers and their livestock suffered. Susan Shelby Magoffin wrote, "This road is very badly supplied with water." They found Hole in the Rock a welcome oasis. The name for this once well known landmark comes from a hole in the bed of Timpas Creek, a water-carved storage tank, that was deep enough to retain water when the rest of the creek was dry. Its usually reliable waters made it a popular campsite on the Santa Fe Trail. In August 1845, Lieutenant James W. Abert, on an exploring expedition under John C. Fremont, found the water "pure and sweet, being entirely free from the bitter taste of the stream lower down."
Exactly one year later, the oasis was hit hard by the needs of Stephen Watts Kearny's Army of the West, consisting of approximately 1600 men, 1556 wagons, 20,000 horses, mules, and oxen. They were followed by more than 400 trade wagons, accompanied by Susan Magoffin. A member of the Army of the West described Hole in the Rock as; ". . . a small, rocky branch where a few holes or deeper cuts . . . retained a little filthy water when all the rest was dry. Our almost famished brutes rushed into these holes and soon stirred them to a thick mud . . . ." Susan Magoffin traveled in relative comfort with wine and china and a servant. She was on her honeymoon, and tended to see the world as a rosier place. Susan Shelby Magoffin waxed poetic about the site. She wrote in her diary in August of 1846: "Hole in the Rock, rather a place of some celebrity our camp is in tonight. The scenery around it is quite romantic." Today, Hole in the Rock is filled with sand, its sweet water only a memory. The railroad built a stone dam below the hole to get water for locomotive boilers. Over time, the entire impoundment silted in the height of the spillway. A stage station was located near this site.
The marker was placed at La Junta's Court House Square. On Colorado 194 go west to La Junta. Turn south and cross the Arkansas River bridge. The Santa Fe Trail crossed to the south side of the river about six miles west of Bent's Old Fort, near present La Junta. The Marker is on the southeast corner of La Junta's Court House Square, facing south. It is similar to one in Las Aminas. This marker was donated in 1906 by the Daughters of the American Revolution of the State of Colorado. The Colorado Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution is at http://members.aol.com/coloradodar/chapters.htm and descriptions of activities are at http://www.k2bj.com/dar/whatwedo.htm
The Arkansas River crossing was at the present-day site of La Junta, Colorado, and may have been one of several crossings in this area. Susan Shelby Magoffin, among others, used this crossing.
In 1821, the West received word of Mexican Independence and again an enterprising group of American frontiersmen convened to discuss a trade caravan to Santa Fe. Men like Captain William Becknell knew Don Facundo Melgares, the Mexican Governor, and friendly relations assured handsome profits. William Becknell was elected by this group to lead the expedition. Deeply in debt, Becknell lost no time in organizing a pack train of mules and left September 1st 1821. From Arrow Rock they traveled west by southwest across the plains toward the Arkansas River.
On the plains, wagons usually traveled four abreast so they could efficiently "circle" up the wagons. The "circle" was actually a square. The primary purpose of the squared up wagons was to create a corral for the livestock, and incidentally for protection. Indian attacks on these large caravans hardly ever happened and it is a myth that the wagons circled up as the Indians attacked. As the wagons moved deeper into Indian country and the land grew flatter, the wagons took to moving in two and often in four parallel columns. This gave a compactness to the moving train that discouraged attacks by the bold Kiowas and Comanches who lived south of the Arkansas River. This formation allowed for the circle of wagons to be formed quickly if the vehicles traveled in parallel rows. Then each column could curve back on itself whenever the captain signaled for the train to prepare for the campground.
After reaching the Arkansas, they followed it upstream into southeastern Colorado to a crossing near La Junta. Here, they crossed the river and traveled south toward Santa Fe. East of Las Vegas New Mexico they discovered a well-beaten path taking them on a direct course to their destination. To their surprise, the old native trail lead directly to the Arkansas River near Dodge City Kansas. (This was the same trade trail discovered by Coronado nearly 500 years earlier while looking for the Cities of Quivera.) The discovery of this ancient Native American trade route made wheeled trade feasible. Becknell recognized this advantage and began to plan his next journey. The Mountain Branch (Long Route) of the Santa Fe Trail was the 230 miles of unprotected campsites between Fort Larned in Kansas and Fort Lyon in Colorado. It followed the Arkansas River into Colorado before turning south.
"The Wet Route" pretty much follows US 56 from the Big Bend of the Arkansas campground at Ellinwood, Kansas, following the river to the southwest out of Larned, Kansas to the town of Kinsley. At this point the Wet Route stayed close to the Arkansas River all the way to Dodge City, Kansas. At Dodge City the Wet Route continued west along the river to Bent's Fort in Colorado. But at Dodge City, the trail changes its name to the "Mountain Branch" US 50 west of Dodge City, Kansas to La Junta, Colorado is very close to the route the Santa Fe Trail followed. From Bent's Fort, or from Boggsville, the Mountain Branch did not pass through present day Las Animas, La Junta, or Lamar. They weren't there! Present-day La Junta does sit astride the route of the Mountain Branch. Even back then it was the juncture, the place where the trail left the Arkansas River to travel southwest along Timpas Creek toward the Huajatollas in the west. The route followed, generally, what is now U.S. Highway 350 and the Santa Fe Railroad.
www.LaJuntaEconomicDevelopment.net or www.visitlajunta.net