By Norm Davis
If you drive past Carson on State Highway 567, there’s not much to look at—just a small Post Office, and a store, surrounded by thousands of acres of sagebrush and a few lonesome trees.
A few miles east on the highway to Taos stands an old rock schoolhouse, a handful of small, ancient houses, and a rancher and his wife who live in the. original location of the community.
But there’s more to Carson than what meets the eye from the highway—lots more. Turn south on S Post Office Road and you are soon in a Piñon and Juniper forest that spreads for miles. Myriad paths and trails veer off from the main road. Most go to houses or National Forest land where locals go to cut their winter firewood. Others lead to BLM land. All this government real estate was once private property, homesteaded by the early settlers.
Carson squats on the mesa across the Rio Grande Gorge about 14 miles from Taos as the crow flies, but getting there requires driving about 30 miles, ever since the rock slide that closed old State Highway 570 in 1992 — but that’s another story.
The history of Carson began long before there were any English or Spanish-speaking citizens about. This ancient plateau has been occupied for thousands of years by some of the oldest citizens on the continent, Native artifacts; arrowheads, pottery shards and stone tools have been popping up around Carson since the first settlers. Some outrageous collections are rumored to exist containing spearheads, grinding bowls–even a prehistoric camel skull embedded in a rock.
The community of Carson was born in 1909. William K. Shupe, a farmhand and workabout who was a devout Mormon, was the founder. Shupe came from Virginia and for years, while he worked at Tres Piedras and elsewhere, he rode horseback or walked all over the west mesa, searching for a good place to start a Mormon community. He studied the water flow in the Petaca for 18 years and finally homesteaded what became the original Carson in 1907.
Shupe was an active man and during his youth he had been forced into inactivity by a broken arm. During his convalescence he read a lot of books. One that made a big impression was the autobiography of Kit Carson.
After he recovered, he visited Taos to see Carson’s former headquarters and visit his grave. When it came to naming the new community, Shupe refused to consider Spanish names because he thought they were hard to say. And he believed New Mexico should have a town honoring his hero as Colorado and Nevada did, so Carson was born.
At first, the Carson community was successful. Shupe brought his brother and father and their families out. A fourth family came a few months later. A church and school were established. Shupe was the Elder and the Teacher.
The community boomed for a few years. More Shupes came from Virginia and others; the Rogers and Baumgartners, then the Kling’s. By this time the community had become known among church members as “The Virginia Settlement.”
The group petitioned for a post office and on September 6, 1912, Mr. J. X. Shupe was appointed first Postmaster. Carson was also assigned a school district and on December 1, 1912, school opened for the children of eight or ten families. School was held in a small frame house and one of the Shupes was the first teacher. Other families came in 1913 and especially during the year 1914, there was an influx of new homesteaders.
The settlers began construction of a road and bridge across the Rio Grande (still in use today.) Before the bridge, all wagons or cars came by way of the Arroyo Hondo road, over John Dunn’s toll bridge, a good many miles upriver and fifty cents a crossing to boot.
In 1914, a branch of the Mormon Church and a Sunday school was established in Carson. W K Shupe was appointed the first Elder. C J Stover, another early pioneer, was the Sunday school superintendent. The church grew and soon had ninety-eight members including the children.
This little settlement of courageous homesteaders, who year after year planted suitable dry farming crops and then hoped that they would harvest enough to live on, grew and prospered until 1920. The census that year recorded 243 inhabitants.
Life was hard in those early years. The only wells were those hand dug along the Petaca. When the Petaca dried up, so did the wells. Water was available for 25 cents a barrel at Taos Junction. The only alternative was a trip to the Rio Grande by horse and wagon. All families saved as much rainfall as possible in barrels and stock tanks.
Then, in 1923, high wages were being paid at the Tres Piedras sawmill, and the mica mines nearby were also hiring. Many homesteaders became discouraged by the increasing drought each year and left their plows and homesteads in Carson to earn money elsewhere. But W. K. Shupe remained, along with a few hardy others. In 1929 Shupe was elected Taos County Probate Judge.
By 1930 the population of Carson had dwindled to less than 150 including those who lived in Taos Junction, some five miles to the west. This was the railway station of the Denver and Rio Grande Western and had been no more than a railway building while Carson was prospering. However, the railroad had attracted business and the small community of Strong (Taos Junction) slowly developed there, while Carson was going downhill.
The year 1933–34 brought the most severe drought and those few farmers who still remained on their homesteads were reduced to bringing water in barrels and tanks loaded on trucks and wagons hauled five miles from the Rio Grande River. This water supply had to take care of both household and stock needs. More farmers left.
Through all the bad years, the Carson farmers had a dream. They hoped to build a dam and create a large reservoir to contain the water that flowed down the Petaca each year. They started work on this project around 1917.
Many years and many thousands of work hours later, the dam was finished, with help. from the WPA in March 1937. It promised to make irrigable land of several thousand acres.
Carson expected to prosper. Some of the farmers moved back and planned their spring crops. Many ditches were dug, and flumes built to carry the reservoir water to the farms. As the reservoir filled with water plans were made to stock the new lake with warmwater fish. The Game Department planned to stock the lake with bass, crappie and bream, but before they could do much of anything, the lake began to disappear!
Whirlpools appeared on the surface and the water level started dropping a foot every day. In two weeks, all the water that had been collected disappeared. Carson Lake dried up and with it went the hopes of the struggling fanners. The. families drifted away one by one.
By 1954, Carson was down to six families. Later it was reduced to only three, the Boxbergers, the Drakes. and the Kirks. It was not until the 1970s that Carson began to attract new residents and became a thriving community.