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La Junta's Exciting History

various art from Spanish explorers

The La Junta area has a rich history that spans thousands of years. The Arkansas River was a natural corridor for prehistoric peoples, nomadic hunters, Spanish conquistadors, trappers, explorers, traders, and pioneers.

La Junta means "The Junction" in Spanish; La Junta was and still is the place where the legendary trails meet. La Junta is located in the Arkansas Valley of Southeast Colorado along the Old Santa Fe Trail where the spirit of the old west lives on.

a cave painting of a personIn the Picketwire Canyons of the nearby Purgatory River can be found one of the largest collections of prehistoric rock art in the United States; attesting to the fact that the area has been home to man for many millennia.

The Spanish explorers came through the area looking for gold and riches. In fact the Purgatory River was named for one such ill-fated expedition. According to legend a party of conquistadors quarreled and split up here centuries ago. The remaining party that stayed behind in search of riches were set upon by Indians and massacred - all without the benefit of having a priest along for the last rites. Their forlorn souls were condemned to wander throughout eternity in Purgatory. It is said that on still nights, with the sound of the Purgatory running in the background, if you listen closely you can hear hoof beats of weary horses and the clink of armor as these lost souls pass by, forever searching for salvation.

In the early 1800s, the La Junta area would become the staging ground for some of the most exciting events in American history. At that time the plains around the Arkansas Valley ran with vast herds of buffalo and were home to the Comanche, Arapaho and Cheyenne. These were their favored buffalo hunting grounds and evidence of their hunting camps can be found all along the Arkansas River and its tributaries. Because of this the Bent Brothers, William and Charles, established a fort along the river in 1833. Originally conceived as a trading post for the nomadic plains Indians and the rich buffalo robe trade, it soon became a focal point along the mountain branch of the old Santa Fe Trail. Bent's Old Fort became a layover point for supplies and repairs, a social center in the wilderness, and a place to rest in safety for both white man and Indian alike. Bent's Fort became the Southwest's most important outpost and a stopping place along the Santa Fe Trail for travelers, trappers, and explorers, including such western notables as John C. Fremont, Kit Carson and many others.

a white building with a large staircase
Bent's Plaza
a green wagon with large red wheels and a white cover
Bent's Wagon

At that time the Arkansas River was an international border. At Bent's Fort the merchant caravans of the Santa Fe Trail would cross the river into Mexico. The Arkansas River was the international boundary until 1848 when war with Mexico saw the conquest of Upper Mexico, now New Mexico. General Kearny's invasion force, the Army of the West, used Bent's Old Fort as a staging area in preparation for this invasion. The war with Mexico, unrest among the native tribes, and the influx of travelers along the Santa Fe Trail due to the California Gold Rush brought an end to the importance of Bent's Fort. In 1849, tradition says that William Bent, frustrated with the U.S. Government's treatment of Indians, and failure to compensate him for housing the army during the War with Mexico, set fire to the powder room of the fort and blasted this once important center to oblivion. It was the end of an era. The fur trade was gone, the buffalo were disappearing and the Indians' freedom on the high plains was soon to end.

The Santa Fe Trail continued in importance until 1880s when the railroads arrived in the area. Following the route of the old Santa Fe Trail the coming of rail effectively made the old trail obsolete. In late 1875, a small settlement was established along the tracks to service the railroad. What would someday become La Junta was established as a stop for the Santa Fe Railroad. It was a terminus for a spur of the the Kansas Pacific Railway, coming in from Kit Carson. The town, if it could be called as such, was a motley collection of tents and hastily built clap board structures.

It was important as the main forwarding point for the trade going into New Mexico, Arizona, and the southwestern United States. As with many of these "end of the line" railroad encampments of that time, the camp was quite lively, with no lack of "watering holes" and entertainment emporiums. In 1877 the Santa Fe was finished down to the south, and the Kansas Pacific spur closed down in mid-1878. The small Santa Fe Railroad settlement on the south bank of the Arkansas River began to decline as the construction crews of the railroad moved on. The town was nearly forsaken. However, the Santa Fe Railroad recognized the value of the location, and built a depot and roundhouse there and by 1879 the Santa Fe RR shops had been established. This once rowdy town became the headquarters for the Santa Fe Railroad's Colorado Division.

On May 15, 1881 the residents of this small railroad supply town along the south bank of the Arkansas River incorporated and formed "The City of La Junta." The name "La Junta" is Spanish for junction or meeting place, and is pronounced "La Hunta". La Junta was truly the place where the rails and roads met and diverged to the mountain passes or the wide plains. Legend maintains that a herd of antelope ran down what passed for Main Street back then, prompting the city fathers to use antelopes on the city seal - where they can still be seen today. In the heyday of the railroad, La Junta was a transportation hub for produce and cattle shipments. It was a lively town that saw people passing through looking for their dreams down the line. But some stayed and prospered here in the Arkansas Valley. The area saw major homesteading activity through the early part of the twentieth century. Farms and ranches were established along the Purgatory and Arkansas River.

a black-and-white photo showing a horse in the middle of a street
Colorado Avenue in the 1890s. (Photo courtesy of Otero County Genealogy and History)
a black-and-white photo showing an Office building
La Junta Coal. (Photo courtesy of Otero County Genealogy and History)

By the turn of the 20th century La Junta was a town of substance with brick and stone buildings replacing the old wooden clap board structures. It was obvious, even back then; La Junta was here to stay.