Closed for renovation

By Pat Sunderland

Closed for renovation | Escalante Canyon, history

Two historically signicant properties in Escalante Canyon -- Captain Smith's Cabin and the Walker Homestead -- have been secured by volunteers from Colorado Preservation Inc. and the Interpretive Association of Western Colorado in cooperation with Colorad

For public safety, and to prevent further damage, two homestead cabins in Escalante Canyon have been closed until June 2018.

The Walker Homestead and Captain Smith's Cabin, along with a historic water wheel, are listed on Colorado's Most Endangered Places List (2013) by Colorado Preservation Inc. Efforts are underway to secure funding for restoration and interpretation of the structures, which represent the pioneer spirit of Escalante Canyon.

For decades, both historic properties have been exposed to intense summer heat, spring monsoons and winter snow accumulation. Today, they add historical context to the recently established Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area.

The Interpretive Association of Western Colorado (IAWC), in cooperation with Colorado Preservation Inc., is seeking grant funds from History Colorado's State Historical Fund to complete the repairs identified in a historic structures assessment completed by preservation specialists.

Until repairs can be completed -- hopefully in the spring of 2018 -- IAWC and Colorado Parks and Wildlife agreed to close both sites.

"This is our heritage, this is our history and if we want to have these cabins available for future generations, we need to all cooperate and support the efforts to preserve them," said Chris Miller, IAWC executive director.

Miller and a group of volunteers secured and stabilized the structures earlier this month. Signs notifying he public of the closure, and asking for support, went up a few days later.

"When we open the cabins back up, we'll be ready to go to work," Miller said.

At the Walker Homestead, the structure has suffered from exposure to severe weather, neglect, vandalism and open range cattle. Prior to the installation of a cattle fence in 1995, cattle entered the building and hoof-punched several holes through the door, and butted and rubbed holes in the wall.

Repairs will include improved drainage, removal of a cottonwood tree leaning toward the historic structure, repair of masonry walls, and replacement/repair of portions of the roof, flooring, windows, doors and framing. Total cost is $53,250.

The Walker Cabin was built in 1911 by Harry Walker and his four sons. According to the historic structures assessment compiled by Silverton Restoration Consulting, the family came to the area in two covered wagons, long after pioneering by prairie schooner was passé. By that time, much if not all of the good homesteading land in the region was already taken.

"However, as the story goes, this remote spot within the narrow Escalante Canyon, though short on acres and water for irrigation, was long on rocks, which may be why they settled there."

Harry Walker was a stone mason, and he and his sons built their five-room home from the rocks found in the canyon. At one time, there were 11 children and grandchildren living in the Walker home while Harry's sons built their own homes. It was, in addition, the home of the schoolteacher and was the community center for the people living in the canyon.

Silverton Restoration notes that the property was later acquired by the state fish and game commission from Nelson Huffington, who irrigated and pastured the state-owned meadows nearby in the canyon. Huffington is credited with the cabin's survival. The state fish and game commission had set up a small game habitat, stocked it with chukar partridge, and in keeping with the prevailing policy of returning public lands back to a "wild state," planned on burning all structures. After a nearby log building, the first Lower Canyon schoolhouse, was bulldozed, Huffington was instructed to do the same to the Walker Cabin. He managed to stall until personnel and policy changed. Now, with the cooperation of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Bureau of Land Management and the Delta County Commissioners, the Walker Homestead is being protected because of its historical significance within the remote Escalante Canyon area.

Captain Henry A. Smith built his rock-walled cabin in 1911. Being a stone carver, Smith likely chose this site to construct his homestead because of the opportunity provided by a huge fin of sandstone which at some time had fallen from the Escalante Canyon wall. Landing on edge, and burying itself deep in the talus slope, this massive fin of natural rock formed a stable, usable vertical slab. This slab was used as the fourth wall of the main 20' x 30' cabin structure. Uphill of the slab, Smith dug out a level floor and laid up sandstone talus, crudely fitted and bedded in a soft adobe mortar, for the other three walls of the cabin. Using his skills as tombstone carver and stone mason, he carved several large niches into the face of the standing slab that formed the east wall of his cabin, carving a cabinet space for his guns and a deep half round shelf for a bed.

A second masonry walled building, or guest cabin, was built to the north of the original cabin, using similar techniques and skills reflected in the construction of the first cabin. Both cabins have sign-age carved into their sandstone masonry that identifies them as being constructed by Smith.

The property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.

"A more practical man would have put his house up by the spring," Miller said. "But by selecting the 'wrong' location and building against the slab, Cap gained immortality. The whole of Escalante, with all its rich history, fabulous people and scenery, is ever-increasingly known as 'the place where Cap Smith's cabin is.' "

Vandalism and deterioration of the cabin have increased. Major cracks in the exterior wall continue to expand, the doors and window are missing, the interior walls have begun to crumble leaving piles of rubble, and the cedar roof needs to be replaced, Miller explained. The northwest wall of the guest cabin is bowing out due to sloughing off of the hillside on the opposite corner.

Repairs to the guest cabin are estimated at $34,600; preservation of the main cabin comes in at $34,775.

When renovations are completed, IAWC plans to install interpretive kiosks. The structures will hopefully be transferred to the BLM, so they can be incorporated into the master planning process for the NCA.

"The parcels are owned by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and they have been very, very cooperative, knowing that they are not mandated to preserve historic structures, nor do they get funding," Miller said. "There is a possibility BLM will take over management, but they don't want to take over management in the condition those cabins are in. The IAWC is the middle guy trying to move this effort forward."

The water wheel is the third endangered place in Escalante Canyon and while Miller would love to see the water wheel working, she's concentrating her efforts on the homestead properties -- and on responsible recreation throughout the canyon.

More and more people are discovering Escalante Canyon, from off-roaders to rock climbers, and Miller said it's important to figure out how to manage -- not restrict -- increased usage. Signage is part of the answer, so people understand the importance of protecting the resources that make Escalante Canyon a historical treasure.

"We need to make the statement that we care about our history," she said. "Escalante Canyon is a great place to set the example and the precedent of this county's passion to preserve our history."

More information about the cabin closures is available from IAWC, 874-6695, or Colorado Preservation Inc., 303-893-4260, ext. 222.

(Editor's note: This article is based in part on an April 23, 2014, article by Kami Collins titled "Keeping history alive." Details about the structures' history was obtained from the historic structures assessments prepared by Silverton Restoration Consulting and Reynolds and Associates, architect/engineer.)