Lincoln County, named after President Abraham Lincoln, covers 2,586 square miles of Colorado’s Great Plains southeast of Denver. It is bordered to the north by Washington County, to the east by Kit Carson and Cheyenne Counties, to the southeast by Kiowa County, to the south by Crowley County, and to the west by El Paso and Elbert Counties.
Lincoln county has a population of 5,467. With a population of 1,880, Limon is the largest town, while Hugo (population 730) serves as county seat. Other communities include Arriba (193) and Genoa (139). The county has a long history of transportation, dating back to the Smoky Hill emigrant trail of the mid-nineteenth century and continuing to today’s Interstate 70 and US Highway 287, which converge in present-day Limon along with US Highway 24 and State Highway 71. In southern Lincoln County, Highways 71 and 94 intersect at the tiny crossroads of Punkin Center. Before the county was established in 1889, the area was home to many indigenous groups, including Comanche, Kiowa, Arapaho, and Cheyenne.
From around AD 1000 to 1400, members of the Upper Republican and Itskari cultures occupied parts of eastern Colorado, including present-day Lincoln County. These semi-sedentary people fished, farmed, and hunted buffalo, living in earth lodges and crafting distinctive ceramic pots. While they were apparently able to thrive in eastern Colorado for nearly three centuries, it appears that environmental pressures—most likely drought—caused them to gradually abandon the region. There is little evidence of their presence in the area by the mid-fifteenth century.
The Comanche, a horse-mounted people who expanded southward from western Wyoming in the eighteenth century, moved through the Lincoln County area in the mid-eighteenth century on their way to the Arkansas River valley. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the expanding Lakota had displaced other equestrian peoples from the upper Midwest and northern plains, including the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Kiowa. These people moved south onto the plains of Wyoming and Colorado. The Pawnee also made occasional visits to eastern Colorado, although they mostly frequented present-day Kansas and Nebraska.
The Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Kiowa followed the buffalo herds across the plains, living in portable dwellings called tipis. During the notoriously harsh plains winters, they found shelter near bluffs and in cottonwood groves along the river bottoms. While the Cheyenne and Kiowa rarely left the plains, the Arapaho made a habit of venturing into the mountains during the spring to hunt game in the high country. Occupying much of the same territory and fighting common enemies such as the Lakota and Ute, the Cheyenne and Arapaho formed an alliance in the early 1800s.
On maps in the United States and Europe, the Lincoln County area was nominally part of France until 1803, when it was transferred to the United States via the Louisiana Purchase. The first American military expeditions in what became Colorado—those of Zebulon Pike (1806-7) and Stephen Long (1820)—followed over the next two decades, but the Lincoln County area, along with the rest of Colorado, remained exclusively the domain of Native Americans.
In 1840, the Kiowa, Comanche, and Lakota joined the Cheyenne and Arapaho in an unprecedented alliance with a similar goal: to resolve territorial disputes and better deal with the growing number of whites, who were by then migrating west along the Oregon Trail and competing with Native Americans for resources on the northern Great Plains. That traffic only increased after the end of the Mexican-American War and the discovery of gold in California in 1848-49.
In an attempt to make the westward journey safer for white Americans, the federal government brokered the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851. Signed by the Cheyenne, Lakota, Arapaho, and other Plains Indian groups, the treaty affirmed indigenous sovereignty across the plains. It also promised annual payments to Native Americans in exchange for allowing roads and forts to be built in their territory and allowing white emigrants to pass safely.
Rush across the Plains
Two events in the late 1850s both pushed and pulled white Americans from the eastern United States to Colorado. First, an economic downturn began in September 1857. The next year, William Green Russell’s party found gold near the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, which set off the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59. Thousands of immigrants seeking gold and a fresh start began streaming across the plains to Colorado. Native Americans viewed this as a breach of the native sovereignty embedded in the Treaty of Fort Laramie, as white immigrants cut precious timber along the riverbanks, killed buffalo and other game, trampled grazing grass with their wagon trains, and began establishing towns such as Denver and Colorado City. The Colorado gold rush prompted the organization of the Colorado Territory and the Treaty of Fort Wise in 1861. Under the new treaty, the Cheyenne and Arapaho were granted a reservation in eastern Colorado that included parts of present-day Lincoln County.
During the gold rush, four routes—northern, north central, south central, and southern—took white immigrants across the Great Plains to the Rockies. Following the Republican and Smoky Hill Rivers, the two central routes passed through present-day Lincoln County. The Smoky Hill route was presumed to be the most direct, but it was also the least known. Vying to make their town the main jumping-off point for the central routes, boosters from Kansas and Missouri claimed that the largely uncharted Smoky Hill River would guide immigrants all or most of the way to the Rocky Mountains.
But those who actually followed the Smoky Hill across Kansas found that the river turned to sand just east of the present-day Colorado border. Travelers were left to find their way northwest across a disorienting landscape of sprawling creeks, rolling hills, and vast open stretches. This western portion of the Smoky Hill route, including parts of today’s Lincoln County, became known as the “Starvation Trail” on account of the many immigrants who became lost and starved to death. When travel between Denver and places east became more regular in the 1860s, stagecoach companies operated lines along the central routes.
Native American Removal
In November 1864 US troops under Col. John Chivington massacred about 150 peaceful Arapaho and Cheyenne—mostly women, children, and elderly men—at a camp along Sand Creek in present-day Kiowa County. Enraged by the slaughter, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors launched a campaign against US citizens and soldiers in Colorado. The campaign did not end until 1869, when the Cheyenne leader Tall Bull was killed in the Battle of Summit Springs in present-day Washington County. By then, most of Colorado’s Cheyenne and Arapaho people had been forcibly relocated to Oklahoma under the terms of the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867.
White ranchers began grazing cattle and sheep near present-day Limon in the 1860s, driving their herds to market in Denver or Colorado Springs. The Kansas-Pacific Railroad (K-P) reached the Lincoln County area in May 1870. Hugo was founded in the late 1860s by Hugo Richards, an agent for the Halliday Overland Express stagecoach line, but the arrival of the railroad gave it actual life. William A. Hill, a Civil War veteran from Massachusetts, arrived that year and set up a general store and trading post to serve the railroad. Hill filed for a homestead claim in 1875 and built his house, which still stands in Hugo today, in 1877. Other small towns established by the K-P included Genoa, Arriba, and Boyero.
In the late 1880s Hugo had become an important shipping point for local cattle, and the Chicago, Rock Island, & Pacific Railroad (CR&P) began building a line to Denver. In 1888 John Limon, a construction foreman for the railroad, set up a workers’ camp near the site of present-day Limon. Ranchers in the area began to list their addresses as Limon Station, the small town that emerged from John Limon’s camp. After Lincoln County was established in 1889, Hugo was voted the county seat. Local cattlemen set up the Lincoln County Cattle Growers’ Association, based in the newly designated county seat of Hugo. Sheep ranchers, meanwhile, set up their own organization, the Lincoln and Elbert Counties Wool Growers’ Association.
Today ranching and farming form the backbone of the Lincoln County economy, but that was far from certain when the county was formed. In 1890, for instance, the US Census of Agriculture reported that Lincoln County’s “water supply is too small for any considerable development of agriculture” and that “few crops have been successfully raised.” But that did not mean its first residents—many of whom were homesteaders from Russia—did not try. Karl and Augusta Martin, for instance, filed claim on land near Genoa in 1893 and completed a sod house in 1900. The Martins later built a granary and other buildings on the farm, as they defied the dire projections of the 1890 census. After the turn of the century, county farmers turned out corn, watermelons, potatoes, barley, and winter wheat, among other crops.
The state business directory first listed Limon Station in 1893. Businesses came and went as the town developed. By 1904 the town had a population of 150 and featured a blacksmith owned by Thomas Cope, real estate offices of Pershing & Meehan, a general store, liquor store, and a bank. C. M. Immel was vice president of Campbell System Farming, which pioneered dryland farming techniques such as shallow seed planting. William S. Pershing, of Pershing & Meehan real estate, was an early Lincoln County surveyor and booster who sold land for the Union Pacific Railroad. In 1909 Pershing led the effort to incorporate the town as Limon.
Conflicts with Indians may have been in the past, but not all was peaceful during Lincoln County’s early development. The county was the site of so-called “frontier justice” in 1900, after thirteen-year-old Louise Frost was stabbed to death while crossing the Big Sandy Creek in a buggy. Several days later, Denver authorities arrested Preston Porter, a black teenager who had worked on the railroad near Limon, and charged him with the murder. Whether Porter actually committed the crime is not known; Denver police extorted a confession from him but had only circumstantial evidence. Porter was sent to Hugo for a trial, but before that could happen a mob captured the young man, chained him to a post where Frost had been killed, and burned him alive. Figuring Porter was guilty, law enforcement simply allowed him to be lynched.
By 1910 Lincoln County had a population of nearly 6,000. Many residents still lived in sod houses and shacks, and like other places on the plains, fuel was scarce, so during the winter they bought and received coal via the railroads. C. T. Rawalt founded the Limon Express newspaper in 1912, and ten years later, after several changes of ownership, it became the Eastern Colorado Leader in 1922. It was again renamed the Limon Leader in 1937 and remains the county’s major local newspaper today.
For Limon, securing enough water proved to be a constant problem throughout the early twentieth century. In 1920, with the town’s population now over 1,000, town trustees contracted with Denver-based Reid Construction Company to develop a new well. But water still remained in short supply, and purchasing enough consumed about half of the town’s budget.
Like other counties on the Colorado plains, Lincoln County’s lack of water made for an especially hard time during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s. By 1934 more than 930 farms—nearly three-quarters of the county’s cropland—were reporting crop failure, while the CR&P laid off workers and the Limon National Bank failed. By 1940 almost 2,000 people had left the county.
President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives helped Lincoln County weather the hard times. For example, the federal Works Progress Administration provided funds and labor for a new municipal swimming pool, park, and gymnasium in Hugo, and a soil conservation district was set up to help farmers avoid the exploitative farming that had contributed to the Dust Bowl.
Lincoln County’s rural population declined from 5,882 in 1940 to 4,955 in 1950. Despite a brief postwar uptick in travelers, the railroad also struggled due to competition from automobiles and airplanes. Still, the scaled-back railroad remained an important part of the region’s culture and economy. In the 1950s the CR&P appointed Anna McGowan as one of the nation’s few women yardmasters.
The decades following World War II saw innovations in agriculture, including machinery such as combines, chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides, and diesel and natural gas-powered pumps that allowed farmers to tap additional water supplies in the Ogallala Aquifer. The aquifer stretches some 174,000 square miles underneath the Great Plains from South Dakota to Texas and is hundreds of feet deep in some places. It underlies only the northeastern part of Lincoln County, so the new water source did not prove as transformative as it did in counties farther east, but there are still more than a dozen wells in the county that reach the aquifer today.
Mechanization and other changes not only allowed for larger farms but also encouraged the consolidation of farmland by those who could afford to invest in the new machinery and chemicals. In Lincoln County between 1950 and 1982, the average farm size increased by more than 1,000 acres, while the number of farms dropped from 723 to 466, even though the amount of farmland remained more or less the same.
Today, agriculture is the main driver of the Lincoln County economy, with 40 percent of the population engaged in either farming or agribusiness. The county is ranked in the top ten of Colorado’s sixty-four counties in wheat and poultry production and raises more than 34,000 head of cattle. The town of Limon, known as the “Hub City” of eastern Colorado, continues to serve regional farmers and ranchers.
Aside from agriculture, the Colorado Department of Corrections’ prison just outside Limon employs between 150 and 500, while Lincoln Community Hospital in Hugo provides between 100 and 250 jobs.