[media-credit name="Kenneth Jessen" align="alignleft" width="300"][/media-credit]The Cherokee Trail was the first route along the foothills through Larimer County. In 1861, it was recognized by the Colorado Territorial Legislature. The importance of this route was amplified the following year when Ben Holladay moved the Overland Stage Company’s line from central Wyoming south into Colorado. In the process, the route was defined by a series of stage stations and river crossings. Initially, the route followed the Cache la Poudre River from Latham, east of Greeley, to LaPorte, then northwesterly through Virginia Dale with a branch running south to Denver. At the time, Denver was growing rapidly and was soon put on the main route.
Holladay gave the task of establishing new locations for the stage stations to one of his most trusted employees, Joseph “Jack” Slade. In 1862, Slade picked a picturesque valley or dale naming it Virginia Dale. Virginia was his wife’s name. This was Slade’s headquarters and a home station where travelers could rest and eat.
The Overland Trail was not a single road such as today’s highways or four-wheel drive roads. The old ruts paralleled each other, and the route selected by the drivers depended on conditions. If the ruts got too deep, the driver would take his stagecoach or wagon to one side or the other, sometimes just a few feet away. If one section of the trail was soft during spring runoff, the driver might use a nearby route across rocky ground. The routes came together at the stage stations typically adjacent to a river crossing.
Railroads precipitated the end of stagecoach travel. The Union Pacific dipped into Colorado in June 1867 at Julesburg. Denver was now within 33 hours of a railroad by stage along the South Platte River. On Nov. 14, the tracks entered Cheyenne, a town founded by the Union Pacific. The Colorado-financed Denver Pacific reached the mile high city through Union Colony (Greeley) three years later. Holladay sold the Overland Stage Company to Wells Fargo in 1867 for $1.8 million as the era of long-distance travel in horse-drawn stagecoaches was drawing to a close. As the end of track advanced across Wyoming and Utah, stage travel was still necessary until the rails of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific were joined at Promontory in 1869.
What the Overland Trail meant to Larimer County was profound. It connected settlements along the Front Range and provided the county’s first scheduled delivery for freight and mail, yet it lasted only a few years as an active route. All that remains today are a few old photographs, faint ruts along the foothills, a few historic markers and a small swing station located on private property at Spring Creek. By far the most important of all structures is the 150-year-old Virginia Dale home station now in need of help, both in the form of money and labor, to preserve it for future generations.
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The old stage station leans 3 degrees the south and desperately needs stabilization. The southeast corner is starting to pull apart and the gap is large enough to allow rain and wind driven snow to enter the interior. The west wall is crooked and internal chimney leans. Engineering work will be furnished by the American Society of Civil Engineers as a community service project. Volunteer labor will be used to the greatest extent possible. Even with all of this, the stabilization work is expected to cost more than $200,000.
The specific details are quite complex and involve many steps, both minor and major. The building will have to be pulled back to vertical then stabilized with an internal structure to hold it in place. All of the masonry must be re-pointed. Copper flashing is needed along with a new internal roof structure. The electrical service does not meet code and the building must be completely rewired. Wind whips through the space between the hand-hewn logs and re-chinking is essential. The list goes on and on.
June 8 marks the start of a three-day event and a birthday party at Virginia Dale stage station. It begins with a Western dance at 7 p.m. that features a pie auction and live music by “Just Gettin’ By.” On June 9, there will be a craft show, quilt raffle and the appearance of Jack and Virginia Slade as well as Mark Twain. A history of the Overland Trail will be given by Wayne Sundberg. Caricature artist Dale Crawford will lend his talent to the show. On June 10, a 10 a.m. country church services will be held in the station followed by a picnic lunch, bake sale, horseshoe tournament and the sale of crafts.
It is hoped that all of this celebration will provide some of the money for the stabilization of the building. Cash donations are appreciated and can be sent to the Virginia Dale Community Club, 844 Country Road 43F, Virginia Dale, Colorado 80536.
For more information on the 150-year celebration, visit www.virginiadalecommunityclub.org or call Marcie Wells at 970-568-7646. To volunteer time or to donate money or materials to the restoration project, contact Paul at 970-482-8101.