Tom Ross: Yampa cabins have stories to tell
April 10, 2010
Steamboat Springs — A couple of the best Routt County tales you've never heard are embedded in the chinked log walls of the Van Camp Cabins in Yampa.
There's the story of the cattle rustler and horse thief Joe Ward, who got away with killing his partner, but not for long. And then there's the story of the current owner of the cabins, Susan Rygh. She has received the approval of the spectral beings who, as mortals, once frequented the cabins and the grove of cottonwoods that surrounds them.
The Van Camp Cabins, alternatively known as the Van Camp Stage Stop, were named a historic district and approved for the Routt County Register of Historic Properties this week by the Routt County Board of Commissioners.
The cabins date to the 1880s. According to documents filed in support of the Van Camp Cabins historic designation, Yampa was on the main trail heading west and north from Gore Pass into Routt County in the late 19th century. Beginning in 1888, the stagecoach route from Wolcott and the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad 80 miles south ran through Yampa on its way to Steamboat Springs.
Stage stops where horses could recover and travelers could take meals and sleep overnight were important facilities in those days. Yampa was one of those stops on the jarring journey
Ward built his cabin on the property in 1883. It was complete with gun ports that have since been filled in.
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The historical record shows that he and his family had no legal claim to the land but were squatters. In his book "The Tread of Pioneers," newspaper publisher Charles H. Leckenby described Ward and his family, who ran an eating house, as "the toughest outfit that ever came to Egeria Park."
Ward and a man named Charles Fox had a business butchering stolen cattle and selling the meat in the Leadville mining camps. Ward killed Fox in 1884 in what was the first recorded murder in South Routt County. Two Egeria Park residents arrested Ward, but the settlement had no law officer and no jail, so they simply told him to leave town, according to local historian Paul Bonnifield.
The Ward family moved to the town of Lay on the Yampa River west of modern-day Craig. Joe was shot by a posse for rustling cattle near Rawlins, Wyo. His wife died several years later when the ranch house burned down, and his son drowned when he rode a stolen bike off the bridge over the Yampa.
The cottonwood grove began a new history in 1884, when Ira Van Camp and his wife, Louise, moved to Routt County from Leadville and acquired Ward's cabin. Van Camp filed his 80-acre homestead in 1890, and the settlement of Egeria (yet to be named Yampa) began to grow around the shaded trees. It's interesting to know that historically, Egeria was a minor Roman deity who offered travelers shelter in her sacred grove of trees.
"The history of the Van Camp Cabins speaks to the days when people traveled by stagecoach from Wolcott north to Steamboat and the diversity of the people who came to Routt County," Arianthe Stettner, of Historic Routt County, said.
By 1892, the homestead was functioning as a community center, as well as a stop for freight wagons and stagecoaches. The Van Camps were among the town's earliest philanthropists and donated land for a church. The town's first school and store were located on the Van Camp homestead.
Eventually, the arrival of the railroad in Steamboat Springs made the stagecoach stop irrelevant, but the cabins continued to host people on their way to explore the Flat Tops into the modern era.
Mildred and William Pidcock owned the property from 1951 until 1990, when they sold it to Rygh and her former husband. They in turn restored the main U-shaped residence and two smaller cabins.
Rygh, who winters on a South Dakota ranch and returns to Yampa every spring to manage the rental cabins, had an interesting experience that she related to Stettner.
Rygh told Stettner that one night, she heard the noise of a party of apparently disembodied, but happy, people in the house — the sounds of eating, discussion and laughter and cutlery clinking on plates. No one was visibly present in the room.
It wasn't an eerie experience but a reassuring one for Rygh. On a separate occasion, her ex-husband heard the sounds of wagons and teams of horses arriving in the yard in front of the house. He went out in the morning but could find no tracks in the snow to verify what he had heard in the night.
"It only happened once for each of us," Rygh said Friday. "They sounded to me like they were excited that we were here, taking care of the property."
It's good to know those folks from days gone by approve of what's happening today.
Janet Ray and the town of Yampa, Mike Olsen, Rita Herold and the Historic Preservation Board, Historic Routt County and a determined volunteer, Dee Bolton, worked hard to secure the historic designation for the Van Camp Cabins that embody such an important era in the history of Northwest Colorado.
"After all of our hard work, it's good to see it will be here for generations to come," Rygh said.