Del Norte: What was…What could have been…And what it is!
The town of Del Norte was formed in 1871. According to J. Cary French’s diary, he and a few friends plotted the town on the sage land plain where the Rio Grande del Norte issued from the Mountains. The town fathers used a mariner’s compass brought from Scotland to assist them. Del Norte was officially named on Monday, October 23, 1871 after supper and a meeting in J.Cary French’s room.
From that point on, the strategically placed town served as a supply base and a jumping off place for the freighters and miners coming from the Midwestern states, the Atlantic seaboard, as well as Northern Europe, England, Scotland, and Germany. Freight wagons lined up on Grand Avenue for a mile waiting to embark on their journey to make their fortune.
Del Norte became an exciting, busy, hard-working boom town. Aside from being the base for freighters coming and going, it became a major stopping point to load up on supplies and do their banking and business transactions. Stately businesses and houses were built on Grande Avenue during its prosperous years. Locally quarried stone, brick, and adobe buildings still stand today.
If the walls could talk, the buildings would relate tales of a boom town that had white picket fences and wide tree lined streets. The San Juan Prospector, the local newspaper, also talks of the saloons, dance halls, and even the red light house. Like any old west boom town, it had its share of murders, stage robberies, jail escapes and lynchings. One of the most notorious cases during the 1880’s was that of Billy Leroy. Coming to Colorado from Ohio, Arthur Pond (alias Billy Leroy), had a short lived career as an outlaw. He terrorized stage coaches throughout southern Colorado, but met his demise when the Del Norte sheriff
cornered him 11 miles east of Lake City. Determined to bring him to trial, Sheriff Armstrong snuck into town with his prisoner only to have a lynch mob take Billy Leroy and his brother and string them up to a cottonwood tree near the old Barlow Sanderson Stage Station. The next day, they propped the two outlaws up against the jail with the rope still wrapped around their necks.
During Del Norte’s boom years, the population swelled to around 10,000 people. The town boasted an opera house, movie theater, library, and other cultural establishments. However, by a quirk of fate, there were several events that would have altered Del Norte forever. In 1883, George Darby established the Presbyterian College of the Southwest. It was complete with a church, college, and a dormitory. It even had farmlands to support it. The small college also built an elaborate dome observatory on the rock summit of Mt. Lookout. It was reported to have the only telescope west of the Mississippi. Had it not burned in 1893 and eventually moved to Denver, would Del Norte be a college town?
The William Bingel family came to Colorado from Germany at the same time Adolph Coors and the Budweiser families arrived. He and a colony of Germans moved to the valley and built a brewery on San Francisco Creek. If it had not been for a tragic accident at the brewery that killed Bingel and then his son, would Del Norte be as famous as Golden and its famous brew?
Lastly, during the boom years, there was a push to make Del Norte the state capitol of the “State of San Juan. ” Having failed by one vote, what would Del Norte look like if it were the state capitol?
Despite the boom being long gone, Del Norte has endured. With remnants of the past still remaining, Del Norte is a beautiful and peaceful little town. Every evening, you see people walking or riding bikes in the safety of their neighborhoods and town. People wave and children’s laughs can be heard up and down the streets. Del Norte is home to a wonderful group of people. Our ancestors would be proud.
History by Murry Polk