The trappers made terrible havoc among the Ute’ horses, killing so many of them that the Indians in despair abandoned the fight and gave Wooton and his men an opportunity to get away, which they did as rapidly as possible.
The Raton Pass, through which the Old Trail ran, was a relatively fair mountain road, but originally it was almost impossible for anything in the shape of a wheeled vehicle to get over the narrow rock-ribbed barrier; saddle horses and pack-mules could, however, make the trip without much difficulty. It was the natural highway to southeastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico, but the overland coaches could not get to Trinidad by the shortest route, and as the caravans also desired to make the same line, it occurred to Uncle Dick that he would undertake to hew out a road through the pass, which, barring grades, should be as good as the average turnpike. He could see money in it for him, as he expected to charge a toll, keeping the road in repair at his own expense, and he succeeded in procuring from the legislatures of Colorado and New Mexico charters covering the rights and privileges which he demanded for his project.
In the spring of 1866, Uncle Dick took up his abode on the top of the mountains, built his home, and lived there until 1893, when he died at a very ripe old age. The old trapper had imposed on himself anything but an easy task in constructing his toll-road. There were great hillsides to cut out, immense ledges of rocks to blast, bridges to build by the dozen, and huge trees to fell, besides long lines of difficult grading to engineer.
Eventually, Uncle Dick’s road was a fact, but when it was completed, how to make it pay was a question that seriously disturbed his mind. The method he employed to solve the problem I will quote in his own words: “Such a thing as a toll-road was unknown in the country at that time. People who had come from the States understood, of course, that the object of building a turnpike was to enable the owner to collect toll from those who traveled over it, but I had to deal with a great many people who seemed to think that they should be as free to travel over my well-graded and bridged roadway as they were to follow an ordinary cow path.
“With the stage company, the military authorities, and the American freighters I had no trouble. With the Indians, when a band came through now and then, I didn’t care to have any controversy about so small a matter as a few dollars toll! Whenever they came along, the toll-gate went up, and any other little thing I could do to hurry them on was done promptly and cheerfully. While the Indians didn’t understand anything about the system of collecting tolls, they seemed to recognize the fact that I had a right to control the road, and they would generally ride up to the gate and ask permission to go through. Once in a while, the chief of a band would think compensation for the privilege of going through in order and would make me a present of a buckskin or something of that sort.
“My Mexican patrons were the hardest to get along with. Paying for the privilege of traveling over any road was something they were totally unused to, and they did not take to it kindly. They were pleased with my road and liked to travel over it until they came to the toll-gate. This they seemed to look upon as an obstruction that no man had a right to place in the way of a freeborn native of the mountain region. They appeared to regard the toll-gate as a new scheme for holding up travelers for the purpose of robbery, and many of them evidently thought me a kind of freebooter, who ought to be suppressed by law.
“Holding these views, when I asked them for a certain amount of money, before raising the toll-gate, they naturally differed with me very frequently about the propriety of complying with the request.
“In other words, there would be at such times probably an honest difference of opinion between the man who kept the toll-gate and the man who wanted to get through it. Anyhow, there was a difference, and such differences had to be adjusted. Sometimes I did it through diplomacy, and sometimes I did it with a club. It was always settled one way, however, and that was in accordance with the toll schedule so that I could never have been charged with unjust discrimination of rates.”
Soon after the road was opened a company composed of Californians and Mexicans, commanded by a Captain Haley, passed Uncle Dick’s toll-gate and house, escorting a large caravan of about a hundred and fifty wagons. While they stopped there, a non-commissioned officer of the party was brutally murdered by three soldiers, and Uncle Dick came very near being a witness to the atrocious deed.
“They were taken into custody and made a confession, in which they stated that one of their number had stood at my door on the night of the murder to shoot me if I had ventured out to assist the corporal. Two of the scoundrels were hung afterward at Las Vegas, New Mexico, and the third sent to prison for life.”
The corporal was buried near where the soldiers were encamped at the time of the tragedy, and it is his lonely grave which frequently attracts the attention of the passengers on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad.
In 1866-67 the Indians broke out, infesting all the most prominent points of the Santa Fe Trail, and watching an opportunity to rob and murder so that the government freight caravans and the stages had to be escorted by detachments of troops. Fort Larned, Kansas was the western limit where these escorts joined the outfits going over into New Mexico.
There were other dangers attending the passage of the Trail to travelers by the stage beside the attacks of the Indians. These were the so-called road agents — masked robbers who regarded life as of little worth in the accomplishment of their nefarious purposes. Particularly were they common after the mines of New Mexico began to be operated by Americans. The object of the bandits was generally the strong box of the express company, which contained money and other valuables. They did not, of course, hesitate to take what ready cash and jewelry the passengers might happen to have upon their persons, and frequently their hauls amounted to large sums.
When the coaches began to travel over Uncle Dick’s toll-road, his house was made a station, and he had many stage stories. He said: