On Christmas day, 1886, Mat Hammond pulled his heavily loaded wagon full of lumber onto the site of the old cattle roundup ground. The lumber was to be used on the construction of the first buildings for the town of Cortez. The town had been laid out by M.J. Mack, engineer for the Montezuma Valley Water Supply Company on land owned by J.W. Hanna, the company’s president. Unlike many towns which formed around a river or transportation network, Cortez was built to house the men who would complete the elaborate network of tunnels, irrigation ditches, and laterals required to divert water out of the Dolores River and into Montezuma Valley. By the spring of 1887 hundreds of men and teams were at work on the new system. The newly formed town was born out of speculation that the sandy red soil of the Montezuma Valley would produce a wide variety of abundant crops.
In the early days, water was hauled from Mitchell Springs located just east of the intersection of Oak and County Road H, some two miles south of town. In time, a well was dug in the center of Main Street but it was dry. Reservoirs and flumes were built and the struggle to maintain a continuous and reliable flow of water into the valley has been a reoccurring theme throughout the town’s history.
In those early days the corner mercantile was the focal point of community and social interaction. By 1889 the “stone block” was completed on the corner of Main and Market and the Guillet Mercantile located inside. By 1890 the town center was further marked by the addition of the Montezuma Valley National Bank, a massive sandstone building on the corner opposite the “stone block.” People gathered around these two landmarks as the shopped, visited, and exchanged information about the mining and land speculation occurring around the town.
By the 1900’s, the cattle industry around the nearby town of Dolores was booming. The large orchards down McElmo Canyon were winning worldwide fame for their giant Delicious apples. Placer mining was occurring to the south, spectacular Indian ruins had been discovered by cattlemen on the Mesa Verde, and in 1906 that area was designated as a National Park. Farmers were growing exceptional crops of alfalfa, potatoes and wheat. The town of Cortez had prospered and continued to expand as it provided supplies for the various industries which surrounded her. All of the industrial threads which exist today had begun to weave into a pattern.
Although Cortez was the center for labor and supplies in the valley, she was plagued by the lack of a railroad spur. The Rio Grande and Southern had come to Durango in the 1880’s, to Dolores in 1891, but the spur to Cortez was never completed. She had resources, markets, but no transportation system other than the stage and freight lines. During this time, communities sprang up at three to five mile intervals based on the horse and wagon and walking as the two primary modes of transportation.
Between 1900 and 1910 the town prospered and the commercial districts of the town expanded while storefronts sprang up in and among the earliest homes along Main and Market. Land was selling for $40 per acre and it looked like you couldn’t go wrong if you moved into the Montezuma Valley. If you could pick a year in the whole valley’s history which would be the best, it would probably be around 1909. The real estate speculators were selling Montezuma Valley lands back east and luring eastern banking money out west. The water system, although financially troubled, continued to expand and in time the eastern portion of the valley received water.
But Mother Nature has always had a large role that she plays here and on July 10, 1911 the storms came in and washed out the flumes, laterals, and much of the irrigation system. A wall of water took off down McElmo Creek and cut a canyon within a canyon. In that rich farming area whole orchards and wheat fields were washed out into Utah. That flood marked the beginning of the inevitable bust which followed the boom years. Dry winters, scorching summers, rains at the wrong times, World War I, national flu epidemics, unstable silver markets, the town was hit hard. Now the base industries of the community, agriculture, logging, mining, and tourism were threatened.
The town shrank back as the plight of the farmers continued through the 20’s. Those that had the guts and commitment stayed. Others were forced to leave. With the dust bowl, however, came a new migration of people. Driven out of Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and West Texas, they sought the promise of rich land in the Montezuma Valley. Many came into grub out the sagebrush and cultivate beans in the rich farmlands to the north. A new attitude toward the harshness of the land surfaced.
By the 30’s the dairy industry began to flourish and Cortez had one of the finest creameries in the State. Gas was discovered in a well down McElmo Canyon, there were a few wet years and the town began to expand once again. A new courthouse was built, as was a new high school where the old race track and fairgrounds had been located at the west edge of town. With community pride and a lot of effort the citizens pulled together to stabilize their town.
True to its history of boom and bust, in the 50’s the town became overrun with jeeps, caterpillar tractors, and men with Geiger counters in hand in search of yellowcake uranium.
A new boom erupted on the Western Slope and on out into Utah. Speculators swarmed over the mesas and canyons. In addition, a major strike of oil was hit to the southwest in Aneth, Utah. The downtown surged and expanded. Every vacant downtown lot was filled in with a building and the heart of the community swelled to service the needs of the land speculators, promoters, transient workers and newcomers to the area. New power groups entered the community and diverted its development to meet their needs. Old timers found the character of their community changing. Local merchants were threatened by large chain stores and worked hard to improve their merchandising and their storefronts in order to compete. Suburbs of trailer parks spread out in and around town. Better water systems and social services were needed. Main Street was finally paved in the 50’s and U.S. Highway 160 linked up with Gallup, New Mexico to the south. The 50’s were a time of continuous growth and change.
It didn’t take long, however, for the boom to become a bust. Main Street businesses were boarded up. Vacant houses and trailers were everywhere. Hard times and a slow economy hit the town once again. Land prices were depressed and few jobs were available. At the same time, however, two threads began to emerge in the economic picture of the times. These threads were tourism and government. Tourism revolved around the increased popularity of and highway access to Mesa Verde National Park with its spectacular store of Indian ruins. Government related to the large number of personnel required to manage the vast amount of public lands in the county.
By the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the town began once again to stabilize itself as it built upon the strengths of these two industries. In addition, the promise of another boom loomed on the horizon. The Dolores River was to be dammed up and a giant reservoir created for agricultural and recreational use in the area. Land prices began to raise, new business opportunities developed, old buildings were given a facelift and the population began to swell. In addition to the dam project, the prospect of CO2 development and coal enhanced the vision of a spectacular boom.
Throughout the late 70’s, old buildings like the original post office on Main Street were redone and a new sense of community pride was building. By 1980, government was our foremost personal income generator in the county followed by tourism and then agriculture.