The town of Saguache in the northern San Luis Valley began as an agricultural community after Ute Indians were removed from the area in the 1860s. Saguache boomed in the 1870s and 1880s, when it became an important starting-off point for miners headed to the San Juan Mountains, and again in the early twentieth century. Though its population steadily declined over the second half of the twentieth century, it retains a core of historic buildings along Fourth Street, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.
In the early nineteenth century, the northern San Luis Valley around present-day Saguache was Ute Indian territory. Utes often camped on Saguache Creek about twenty miles from what is now Saguache. In the 1820s and 1830s, European American trappers and traders began to pass through the region on the North Fork of the Spanish Trail. They sometimes camped with the Utes. The name Saguache supposedly originated as a shortened form of the Ute word for the camp, Saguguachipa.
In 1848 the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War (1846–48) and made the San Luis Valley part of the United States. Soon Hispano settlers from New Mexico began to establish towns in the southern part of the valley. In the north, however, significant European settlement waited until a pair of treaties in 1863 and 1868 forced the Ute Indians to give up their claims and move farther west.
Led by Nathan Russell, homesteaders came to the area near what is now Saguache in the early 1860s. The farmers focused primarily on wheat, since flour was in high demand at Fort Garland and elsewhere. They used natural arroyos to get water to their crops, later developing the arroyos into proper irrigation ditches. These early settlers were Anglo-American, but Hispano laborers did most of the fieldwork and ditch digging.
More settlers arrived after Saguache County was separated from Costilla County in 1866. The nascent town received a post office in 1867 and soon became the most prominent settlement in the northern San Luis Valley. One of the most influential early settlers was Otto Mears, who came in 1866 to raise wheat and open a store; he had the first mower, reaper, and threshing machine in the San Luis Valley. Soon Mears began the road-building career that would make him famous, connecting Saguache to the Upper Arkansas Valley via Poncha Pass.
Saguache’s early growth accelerated as a result of the Brunot Agreement of 1873, which removed the Utes from the San Juan Mountains and opened the region to mining. Mears, who had helped negotiate the agreement, quickly constructed the Saguache and San Juan Toll Road to Lake City. Saguache became one of the most important supply depots (along with Del Norte) for miners heading to the San Juans.
Saguache prospered with business from prospectors. In early 1874 Mears and others organized the Saguache Town Company. They gave away lots on the condition that owners build on them and plant cottonwood trees. In September voters chose Saguache as the county seat. By that time the booming town had saloons, several shops, a restaurant, and a newspaper. The most prominent early building in town was the 1874 Dunn Block, an elaborate Italianate commercial structure owned by D. Herbert Dunn.
The town continued to thrive into the 1880s, with two banks, a two-story brick schoolhouse (1880), and a two-story brick courthouse (1881). Saguache faced a setback when the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad bypassed the town, removing it from the San Juan supply trade, but by that point the northern San Luis Valley agricultural community had grown large enough to sustain the town’s businesses. Farmers grew hay, wheat, and vegetables and raised cattle and sheep.
On the strength of San Luis Valley agriculture, Saguache’s population more than doubled during the 1880s, to 660 residents. Most of these people were Anglo-American, including a substantial number of German immigrants. Hispanics tended to live outside Saguache, providing labor for the valley’s farms as well as construction in town. By 1891the bustling town boasted two newspapers, three churches, and two hotels.
Early 1900s Prosperity
Like many towns across Colorado and the country, Saguache suffered in the 1890s as a result of the decline of silver mining and the nationwide economic depression that started in 1893. The population dropped below 400.
In the early 1900s, however, prosperity returned. Many of downtown Saguache’s most important buildings date to this period of growth, and several older buildings received facelifts or additions. The Dunn Block expanded to house the growing Means and Ashley Mercantile Company, and in 1913 Denver architect John J. Huddart designed a new Classical Revival facade for the Saguache County Bank. The town added a new county courthouse (1910) and a new town hall (1915) as well as commercial buildings such as the Saguache Hotel (1910) and the First National Bank (1915).
The population of Saguache continued to grow throughout the 1920s and 1930s, but the commercial district along Fourth Street was already filled out by 1920. The town continued to serve as a supply center for the surrounding San Luis Valley, where livestock grazing had become the primary agricultural activity.
Little new construction occurred during the 1930s, but many businesses in Saguache’s downtown commercial district survived the Great Depression. The town continued to grow, counting more than 1,200 residents in 1940. Around that time, the Federal Writers’ Project described the town as “a thriving but isolated community retaining some of the spirit of the old frontier.”
Post–World War II Developments
Perhaps the most important development in Saguache’s twentieth-century history occurred in 1946, when US Highway 285 was rerouted. Formerly the highway had run right through the heart of Saguache on Fourth Street, but the new alignment took the highway four blocks west, where it skirted the edge of town. Businesses in the commercial district along Fourth Street could no longer rely on a steady stream of highway traffic past their front doors.
Businesses could no longer rely on local traffic, either, as the population of Saguache began a gradual but inexorable decline from its 1940 peak. The town’s population dropped nearly 30 percent in the 1950s, and by 2010 Saguache had fewer than 500 residents. Fewer people in town meant less regular business for local shops and institutions. As shops relocated to the new highway route, some buildings on Fourth Street became vacant or converted to residences.
Downtown Saguache saw a wave of new activity in the early twenty-first century, including antique shops, art galleries, and restaurants. Historic preservation efforts also began to take shape. In 2000, with help from the State Historical Fund, Front Range Research Associates and Central Colorado Preservation Partners collaborated to survey historic sites around Saguache and prepare a preservation plan. The team identified a potential historic district along several blocks of Fourth Street downtown. In 2009 Colorado Preservation named the Saguache Downtown Historic District to its statewide “Endangered Places” list, and in 2014 the downtown historic district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.