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The Christening of Cotopaxi

Brief by Central Staff

Local History – September 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

The Christening of Cotopaxi

The question of how our Cotopaxi got christened may have been answered in 1950, in a master’s thesis presented to the history department of the University of Colorado by Flora Jane Satt, who then lived in Highland Park, Michigan.

A copy of her thesis, The Cotopaxi Colony, arrived from Randy Brady of Cañon City, a former president of the Frémont-Custer Historical Society.

Most of Satt’s work details the failed agricultural experiment there (of which we hope to publish more one of these days, perhaps in an account of “Great Scams of Central Colorado”). But she does have this about the naming.

“The man responsible for the strange name was Henry Thomas, known to contemporaries as `Gold Tom.’ He was an itinerant prospector who left the Central City gold camp in 1867, and crossed the Divide to investigate the Upper Arkansas Valley around California Gulch. There he conceived the idea that some of the heavier gold might have washed downstream so he continued south along the river, reaching the forks near the present site of Salida about 1870.

“At the same time, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad began its survey of a proposed transcontinental route through the Arkansas Valley. By October 31, 1872, track had been laid as far west on this route as Labran, seven miles east of Cañon City, and Henry Thomas had taken a job with the railroad to augment his meager prospecting income.

“His duties included procuring timber for ties and this meant he had to scout not only the region then being graded but neighboring valleys and mountains. Particularly struck by one of these valleys as closely resembling an area he had once prospected in northern Ecuador, he named the Colorado counterpart after the dominant Andean geographic feature, a volcano called Cotopaxi.

“At the juncture of the small tributary streams which flow into the Arkansas River at Cotopaxi, Colorado, looking westward through the narrow canyon of the river, one can see a conical-shaped peak, part of the Sangre de Christo Range, framed by the steep walls of the canyon. Old residents of the area who knew Henry (Gold Tom) Thomas say that it is this unusual view which recalled to his mind the Andean volcano and caused him to call the little valley by the odd-sounding Spanish [actually, Quechua] name.

“In 1873 he built a cabin there as a base for his prospecting in the surrounding hills. In 1874 he had filed several mining claims at Cañon City and is credited with discovery of the Cotopaxi Lode, one of the richest deposits of silver with zinc in Frémont County.”