Beulah — The Frontier Pathways Scenic Byway in south-central Colorado is celebrating a special milestone in 2019: The 100th anniversary of the opening of the very first United States Forest Service campground.
It was in June, 1919, that the Squirrel Creek Recreational Site opened for public use along a mountain stream west of the town of Beulah, about 30 miles southwest of Pueblo. It was an immediate success.
Within months, the U.S. Forest Service and private partners developed miles of scenic roadways and scores of camping and picnic sites, all with surprisingly modern amenities, and all for the purpose of encouraging recreational use in America’s national forests.
The visionary for all this was Arthur Hawthorne Carhart, who was the USFS’s very first “recreational engineer.” Although his work with the federal agency lasted only three years, his early efforts are still evident in the hundreds of campgrounds located withi n the nation’s 175-plus national forests.
For all of this vision, we can ultimately thank the European immigrants who worked in southern Colorado’s steel mills and coalmines in the early 20th century. And it was Carhart who connected the dots.
Born in Iowa in 1892, he was a trained landscape architect and in 1918 he turned his attentions to public and federal lands, primarily the national forest system established in 1905. Those forests were well utilized for grazing, timbering, mining and watershed development, but Carhart thought another use could be added — recreation.
In early 1919, USFS gave Carhart a chance to prove his case. He visited forests in Oregon, Michigan and elsewhere but ultimately focused on the 1.1 million-acre San Isabel National Forest west of Pueblo. Pueblo was dominated by the massive Colorado Fuel and Iron Co., which tapped into coal from scores of mines, from Fremont County south to Trinidad. The muscle for these enterprises often came straight from Greece, Italy, Eastern Europe and elsewhere.
Carhart realized early that these laborers and their families re-created pastimes from their homelands — visiting the mountains for picnics, fishing, gathering mushrooms and simply connecting with nature. Recent labor laws also had given these workers greater income, leisure time and mobility.
Carhart worked with Albin Hammel, supervisor of the San Isabel forest, and for Carhart’s first experiment, they agreed on the Squirrel Creek site due to its proximity to Pueblo and the fact that the area already was attracting visitors. (The Squirrel Creek drainage runs westerly and upstream from Beulah to the present-day Davenport Campground along Highway 165; a trail from the Davenport Campground provides access to some of the 1919 improvements.)
Work along Squirrel Creek began immediately. With no federal funds available, Carhart arranged for financing from the San Isabel Public Recreation Association, a nascent booster group from Pueblo. With funds in hand, roads were improved, 10 campsites developed and, more importantly, the hallmarks of Carhart’s genius appeared: proper sanitation, drinking water, fire pits and fireplaces, and communal shelters where families could mingle. Many of Carhart’s designs continue to be utilized today.
The Squirrel Creek Recreational Site opened to the public in June 1919 and on its first weekend, 750 vehicles were counted, newspapers reported. Within months, 20 more campsites were added and work began on other nearby recreational sites — South Hardscrabble, Smith Creek, North Creek, Ophir Creek and others. All were stamped with Carhart’s trademarks: well-planned multi-use sites that were comfortable, safe and sanitary.
Accessing these remote sites was a challenge. Most “roads” led to the many isolated homesteads or prospector holes. Some had been used by the Utes and Paleo cultures.
Compounding the accessibility problem was Carhart’s own brilliance. He wanted to develop various “loop” drives so visitors would never have to travel the same route twice. These loops, totaling some 250 miles, were developed and ready for the public’s growing use of automobiles. (Modern day travelers along the Frontier Pathways Scenic Byway can still ply this network via highways 96, 165 and 78; North Creek Road; the Ophir Creek Road to Gardner; and others.)
In 1922, funding sources dried up and Carhart left the federal agency to become an urban architect. But over the previous three years and by the age of 30, Carhart had changed the nation’s attitudes about the use of public lands and many of his designs — lodges, ponds, pavilions and picnic sites — can be seen in the 600-acre Pueblo Mountain Park in Beulah.
Now, 100 years later, we honor Carhart for leaving an indelible legacy on public recreation, here and throughout America.