The San Luis Valley is the largest alpine valley in the world. The sunniest spot in Colorado, the valley is very level and has a dry climate. The valley floor averages 7500 feet in elevation and averages 7-8 inches of precipitation each year. The mountain streams generally flow into the Rio Grande River which originates in the San Juan Mountain range.
Early settlers viewed the valley as an area to graze stock. The Spanish were the first to introduce horses, sheep and cattle to the valley. They drove their herds of cattle and flocks of sheep into the valley for summer grazing before actual settlements were established. It is thought that Native Americans may have planted some maize, beans, squash and possibly tobacco along the river bottoms but the first real gardening that was recorded was behind the walls of Fort Massachusetts. At this same time Hispano settlements along the Culebra and Costilla rivers worked with wooden plows, mattock and shovels to dig ditches so they could cultivate small fields of crops, using the acequia system to irrigate. Non-irrigated land was used for pasture. Early settlers generally had a small flock of sheep, a few cattle, chickens, a few acres of hay and crops such as corn, wheat and beans.
Anglo-Americans, primarily of German and Scandinavian origin, came to the valley from the Midwest in the 1870s, taking up land under the Homestead Act. The first settled in Hooper, Mosca and Moffat area of the valley, thinking the deeper soils would be beneficial for farming. They used dry farming methods and turned to raising wheat because the growing season was too short for corn. Many learned the hard way that the same crop could not be grown year after year on the same land without depleting the soils fertility. Many of them left to start farms in the Del Norte area.
Ranching became a lucrative business, due in part to the excellent nutritional value of the native grasses and clover. The abandoned homesteads around Mosca and Hooper were gradually acquired and extended in to large grazing ranches. The Sangre de Cristo Ranch became two large ranches; the Trinchera Ranch of 160,000 acres, and the Baca Ranch consisting of 80,000 acres. These ranches added to the Medano and Zapata ranches near Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and San Luis Lakes. Turmoil arose over Hispano settlers raising sheep and Anglo settlers raising cattle in the area.
Mormon settlers founded the towns of Manassa, Sanford, Ephraim and Richfield. They built a central village where everyone resided and was surrounded by fields where people worked. The farms ranged from 80 to 160 acres. The Mormons prospered introducing and growing hardy varieties of spring wheat, barley and oats in the valley. They also established large and extensive canal systems learned from the existing acequia systems.
The Japanese-Americans moved to the valley in the 1920s and introduced truck farming. The valley’s abundant sunshine and cool summers made growing lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots, peas and cauliflower particularly profitable. The success of the Japanese-American farmers was so successful that at one time 90% of the spinach marketed in the U.S. came from the San Luis Valley.
Railroads were a necessary component to success in agriculture. The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad built a narrow gauge over La Veta pass in 1877. The extension to the new railroad town of Alamosa was completed in June of 1878. The railroad shipped in whole buildings from Garland City and aligned them along the tracks facing the train depot to form the new destination. Railroad construction later connected Alamosa to La Jara, Antonito, over Cumbres Pass to Chama, to Durango and Santa Fe. Passenger trains arrived and departed daily to Santa Fe, Denver, Salida, Durango, and Creede. Goods could now be sold and shipped out including ore, lumber, cattle, sheep and farm products.