Secrets of the Arroyos

Hidden Treasure

by Curtis Von Fange


Common in the desert are the drainages or draws often called “arroyos.”   They come in all sizes.  Some are mere depressions that channel small amounts of runoff during infrequent cloudbursts.  Others are deep ravines with steep sides, products of the erosion caused by water moving rapidly down a steep slope after a hard desert thunderstorm.  Still others may be shallow canyons fashioned by water moving deliberately and patiently over more level terrain.  Interestingly, arroyos often figure prominently in human history.

Near Owen’s Lake

One day as a friend and I drove across the barren highway along Owen’s Lake on the way to Death Valley, a sparkle well off the road caught my Graveeye.  Since we weren’t in a hurry we pulled our car off the roadway, got out, and did a little hiking up an arroyo for a quarter of a mile or so.  As we approached the site that had caught my eye, we were excited to find an old dumpsite.  Further examination led to a small grouping of log foundations hidden in thick sagebrush.  Off to one side an obscured wrought iron fence outlined a small square with a weatherworn wooden grave marker inside.  At the trash pile, we poked around the rusty old tin cans, broken bottles, bedsprings and the like, and we wondered who had lived and died in such a desolate area. 

To an archaeologist, a trash heap can be a treasure trove for historical research.  Old bottles and tin cans may help date an occupation site, and create an historical account of what went on there.  This particular site was near an area that, over a hundred years earlier, had produced silver and other minerals from mines on the ridge above.  The log ruins were close to a once well-traveled road that had provided an avenue for trade and the purchase of vital supplies at a nearby town.  Common in the trash pile were many purple glass shards, remnants of late 1800s bottles which contained lead and arsenic -- ingredients that turn purple after many years in sun exposure.  The tin cans, which had a particular type of solder seam and lid, suggested occupation into the early 1920s.  These clues, combined with a bit of further study in the local library, gave us a fascinating history of the mines and settlements in this locale along the arroyo. 

In Southern Colorado

In southern Colorado, some 20 miles north of Trinidad, a deep arroyo hides a time capsule of another kind, one that helped transform public attitude about labor laws and shape the images of mega corporations such as the Rockefeller empire.  The location was a small, almost unknown whistle stop called Ludlow. 

In the early teens of the 20th century, the tycoon Rockefeller held the economy of this section of Colorado in his hand.  His giant Colorado Fuel and Iron Company in Pueblo churned out massive amounts of steel to meet the booming industrial needs of our growing country.  He owned the railroad that shipped in raw iron ore from his own mines in Wyoming.  He owned the limestone quarries to the west, the coke-producing kilns to the south, and the coal mines to the southwest.  Rockefeller’s companies owned the towns where the miners lived, the stores where they bought their goods, and the schools where their children went to class.  In effect, he owned the miners themselves.

Arroyo Ludlow

In 1913, the United Mine Workers of America organized a strike against the Rockefeller-owned companies.  The 1200 miners and their families were immediately evicted from the company-owned mining towns.  They relocated to a tent city erected by the UMWA on leased property near Ludlow and the arroyo.  The company further responded to the strike by using its influence with the governor of Colorado to obtain state militia to protect its interests and retain order.  But by April of 1914, Colorado recalled most of its militia due to financial restraints.  The company arranged to pay for a portion of the militia, and with its own hired men, decided to take action against the strikers.  On the morning of April 20, the company-financed militia opened fire on the UMWA tent city.  Throughout the day the firefight between the miners and the militia continued.  Families fled a few hundred yards to the north to take cover in the arroyo.  Machine guns placed on a ridge to the north across the rail tracks cut down the canvas tents.  A fire started from the overturned camp stoves and quickly spread to adjacent tents.  Previously, the miners had dug pits under their tent floors to hide their families from the random gunfire of the previous months.  Now those cellars became a refuge from the carnage.  By the end of the day, the militia moved into the camp, looting and destroying anything left standing.  Sadly, among the 20 dead were 11 children and 4 women who had suffocated in one of the pits as the tent above them burned to the ground. 

Although the UMWA failed in its attempt to win recognition by the company, the strike altered public opinion about labor relations on a national scale.  John D. Rockefeller reformed the mines and towns, giving them safer working conditions and a better living environment.  Eventually a union was voted in by the miners.  The U. S. commission on Industrial Relations reviewed what became known as the Ludlow Massacre, and suggested numerous reforms that provided support for many congressional bills establishing an eight-hour workday and a ban on child labor. 

I could feel the current that changed history when I stood in that now empty arroyo near Ludlow.

Pickwire Canyon

Arroyo with pictographs

Arroyos not only provide a glimpse of historic places and events, but of prehistoric cultures as well.  Pickwire Canyon, a treeless expanse in the Comanche National Grasslands in southeastern Colorado, is a large, shallow chasm that began as a small arroyo carved by a permanent stream and runoff.  Over thousands of years, flowing water dug the arroyo into a wide canyon, creating a beautiful setting for prehistoric hunters who tracked game to the stream bottom.  Lush grass grew in the wet season, food was plentiful, and the scenery was extraordinary.  Evidence of prehistoric human presence is found in the artifacts and especially in the rock art, which bands scratched, pecked and painted onto the tops, sides and bottoms of canyon walls and large boulders scattered along the valley floor.  Experiencing, seeing and knowing that someone made these pictorial expressions thousands of years ago is exhilarating.

Rock art horse

A Word of Caution

A few words of caution might be in order for those interested in exploring arroyos.  First, stay aware of the weather.  Sudden thunderstorms or cloudbursts can fill and overflow an arroyo quickly and without warning.  Keep an eye on the sky, even when the weather appears miles away.  Wear sturdy footwear and a hat.  Sagebrush and plant growth can hide rocks that yearn for an ankle to sprain.  Leather-topped shoes and long pants keep the sharp desert plants from scraping legs.  A wide-brimmed hat keeps the sun out of one’s eyes and off one’s head.  Be cautious about wildlife, especially rattlers.  Some many not respond too favorably to a stick or hand poking into their domain.  Take plenty of water.  A hike up an arroyo can lead one on such an adventure that the distance and time involved in the journey may well get lost in the excitement of discovery.

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