On July 4, 1871, up-and-coming lawyer Melvin Whitson Mills delivered the Independence Day oration at Baldy, the center of gold mining activity on the east side of Baldy Mountain north of Ute Park, New Mexico Territory. The celebrations included a parade of 500 people marching to a grove of trees outside town. There, the local newspaper editor read the United States Declaration of Independence and Mills, the young lawyer and would be politician who had so ably defended serial killer Charles Kennedy a year and a half before, delivered a “spread eagle” oration. A formal dance ended the day.
Although there were those who weren’t impressed that Mills had almost succeeded in rescuing Kennedy from the hangman’s noose, he was respected enough in the county to be elected as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1873 as well as various other municipal, county, and Territorial positions. Along with his legal practice and his connections to the Santa Fe Ring, these activities gave Mills the financial ability by the end of the decade to construct a handsome three-story mansard-roofed home in Springer which was known throughout the territory for its more than twenty rooms and its maple interior trim. He also owned a large ranch outside in eastern Colfax County, where he raised cattle and planted the fruit trees that can still be seen in what is now Mills Canyon.
150 years ago today, on June 12, 1907, Colfax County rancher and businessman Charles Springer submitted an application to the New Mexico Territorial Engineer to build a dam at the head of the Cimarron River, thereby creating what would become known as Eagle Nest Lake.
The application called for impounding 113,700 acre feet of what it called “surplus flood waters” from the Cimarron and its tributaries: Cieneguilla, Moreno, and other creeks in the Cimarron watershed. The water would be “used for power plants as it goes down Cimarron canyon and for irrigation, for supplying cities and towns and water users generally, . . . for irrigating, mining power and other purposes.”
Charles Springer, who had arrived in the Territory in 1878, was brother to Frank Springer, one-time attorney for the Maxwell Land Grant Company. The Springer application to dam the headwaters of the Cimarron was approved in August 1907. Due to a variety of issues, including lack of capital and the need to buy the lands to be flooded from the people who owned them, construction of the impound dam did not get underway until Spring 1917.
The half-grown pup had followed Old Pete and the mule from the Ute Indian encampment down-canyon. It was a gangly thing, large for an Indian dog, with dirt-matted curly black hair. Pete looked at it in disgust as it half-crouched at his feet.
“Damned if the thing ain’t smilin’,” Pete muttered. He poked the dog’s side with his foot. “You a doe or a buck?” The animal rolled over obligingly, paws in the air. “Buck.” Pete toed it again. “Well, you won’t last long, I expect. Be runnin’ off to the first camp with a bitch in heat.” He turned and twitched the mule’s lead rope. “Giddup.”
They trailed the Cimarron River up-canyon through the afternoon and settled into camp under an overhanging sandstone boulder as the light began to fade. It was still early: the sunlight went sooner as the canyon walls narrowed. But Old Pete was in no particular hurry and the pup was acting a mite tired.
“Gonna hafta keep up,” Pete told it as he cut pieces of venison off the haunch he’d traded from the Utes. The dog slunk toward the fire and Pete tossed it a scrap. “Too small fer my roaster anyway,” he muttered as he skewered a larger chunk onto a sharpened willow stick and lifted it over the flames.
He wasn’t a man to pay much attention to girl children, but this one was different. She didn’t seem interested in cooking or clothes. More likely, she’d be in the canyon, fishing the Cimarron River. Her brother was the dreamy one, the one watching the fish swim ’stead of trying to catch ’em.
So the man was surprised when she came around the curve of the path and stopped to watch him cook the wild carrot root. He’d cut off the flowers and was slicing the root into the pot on the fire.
“Good eatin’,” he told her. “Back home, they say these make your eyes strong.”
She frowned. “Not that,” she said, shaking her head.
He was hungry. He lifted the last piece to his mouth.
“No!” she said sharply.
He raised an eyebrow at her and lowered his hand.
“That isn’t carrot,” she said. “It’s poison hemlock.”
On the brink of what would become known as World War I, in March 1917, construction on the Eagle Nest dam and reservoir at the head of the Cimarron Canyon had finally gotten underway. The project had been held up for nine years while the Cimarron Valley Land Company, under the leadership of Charles Springer, fought to acquire the land that would be flooded by the impounded waters. Long-time Moreno Valley property owner Mary Gallagher had fought valiantly against the project, but when she died in 1916, her eight children seem to have quickly capitulated to the company’s demands. The deeds for the condemned lands were handed over on January 17, 1917, and work commenced. Even with the shortages in material, equipment, supplies, and laborers as a result of the war in Europe, construction proceeded rapidly and the dam was 90 percent complete by mid-December that year.
Sources: Charles Springer affidavit dated Jan. 29, 1921; Gallagher protest letter dated January 31, 1908.
As they watched, a wild turkey hen stepped onto the frozen riverbed. She walked carefully up the ice-covered stream, stopping occasionally to peck at a fallen leaf or twig.
Finally, she disappeared into the coyote willow at the river’s edge. Carla let out a long breath and sat back against the Model T’s battered seat. She put her bare hands to her neck to warm them, and looked at her mother. “We’re really lucky,” she said.
“Why do you say that?” Eileen poured thin tea from the thermos into their single mug. She held it for a moment, warming her hands, then handed it to Carla.
“We see wild turkeys on a frozen river in January.” Carla sipped the tea carefully. “Not many people have that.”
Eileen looked out the cracked windshield, up at the bare cottonwoods etched against clear turquoise sky. “Not many do,” she agreed. “Not many do.”