Forest Fires and the Poudre Canyon

“Forest Service: fighting a forest fire,” Library of Congress

In Norman Fry’s autobiography Cache La Poudre: The river: as seen from 1889 (published in 1954), he recounted the “Forest Fire of 1893.” In June of that year, one of the “driest summers,” a fire began in the upper country between Bennett Creek and the Little South of the Poudre. Back then “there was no organized way of fighting fires, it just burned away. For days and weeks, all that was visible of the sun was the appearance of a big red ball through the smoke.”

The fire burned everything up to timber line and dropped into Mineral Springs Gulch (which feeds into what is now Rustic Road). It was getting closer to the river and the County sent six men up to fight the blaze, but the fire still raged and made it to the head of Sheep Gulch and timberline. Luckily the monsoon season began in July and extinguished the fire. They didn’t go to great lengths to discover the cause but suspected lightening. Fry recounts how the burned area “was a blackened waste with nothing but the trunks of the Pine and Spruce standing to show where once had been a magnificent Forest.” However, Fry remarked “Nature, however, is a wonderful re-builder.” “As always, the first growth to be noticed were the raspberries, which started the year after the fire.”

Department of Interior Artwork. “Fighting Forest Fire,” by Ernest Fiene. Library of Congress.

In 1910, the Big Blowup Fire occurred in northern Idaho and western Montana.  The fire burned over 3,000,000 acres of land. It killed 87 people (primarily firefighters) and destroyed numerous structures including entire towns. In the aftermath, the Forest Service was recognized for its firefighting efforts and their budget was nearly doubled. Early wildfire prevention and suppression strategies developed as a result of the fire. In Colorado the policy became “all fires out by10 am.”

Likely there were numerous small fires that subsequently occurred in our area, but those of note include the 1939 Panhandle Fire, northwest of Red Feather Lakes, which burned 1,060 acres; the 1944 Glendevey Fire that burned 900 acres; the 1952 Roosevelt Fire north of Red Feather Lakes that burned 2,000 acres; the 1958 Deadman Fire that burned 300 acres west of Red Feather Lakes; the 1971 Bull Mountain Fire that burned 3,100 acres in northwestern Larimer County; the 1978 Kilpecker Fire west of Red Feather Lakes that burned 1,112; and then in 2012 the High Park Fire that burned 87,284 acres west of Fort Collins, killed one person, and destroyed at least 248 homes. Many of us remember the High Park Fire, the smoke plumes, ashes and cinders falling around us and the firefighters from all over the country who came to combat that massive burn.  I can’t attest to the raspberries coming back, but I do know, as Norman Fry pointed out in 1893 “Nature, however, is a wonderful re-builder.”  As it will be again.  With time.

Norman Fry and the Poudre Canyon

Historic Larimer County has received permission to share a video on Norman Fry and his life in the Poudre Canyon. Here’s Sue Schneider, one of our board members, to introduce this 40-minute film.

Welcome to Norman Fry Country!  Watching this video you will learn all about Norman Fry, who came to the upper Poudre Canyon in 1889 at the age of 17.  I was lucky enough to grow up in the first place Norman Fry called home when he arrived in America.  My family acquired the property, “Pinehurst” in 1893 when my great-great uncle, AW Scott purchased it in a tax sale.  It has remained in our family ever since, and now the Abbott Family Trust of Pinehurst maintains the property and works to preserve a small bit of history.


I would Ike to thank Tim Mikkelsen, videographer, for his long hours filming and editing to make this video possible.  I’d also like to thank my lifetime friend, Sandra Lundt, for getting me involved in preserving and presenting the history of the upper Poudre Canyon and for her help in putting this video together.  Enjoy!

History of the Stewart Toll Road

This cabin is believed to be the original toll booth for the Stewart Toll Road
at the base of Pingree Hill.

Before Highway 14 (the Cache La Poudre and North Park Scenic ByWay) was completed through the Poudre Canyon in 1920, the only way to get to the upper Poudre Canyon from Fort Collins was via Livermore. In the early 1860s, George Pingree built a cabin on the riverbank of the Cache La Poudre River. Mr. Pingree trapped beaver and hunted wild game and was allegedly responsible for cutting a trail through the timber and down the gulch to his cabin site. The trail was two and half miles long and boasted a descent of 1,100 feet.

In the late 1860s tie contractors and lumbermen widened the trail as well as the road up the Poudre Canyon, and in the 1870s S.B. Stewart further improved the descent to accommodate increased wagon traffic. In 1879, Stewart and others incorporated the Cache la Poudre and North Park Toll Road Company to build a wagon road from the base of Pingree Hill to North Park (which at that time was part of Larimer County). Stewart took on the task of widening the trails used by the tie cutters and had reached Chambers Lake when silver fever broke out in North Park. He proceeded to the top of Cameron Pass and created two branches, one to Lulu City and one to Gould and Teller City.

The original Stewart Toll Road passing in front (north) of the historic Kinikinik Ranch.

The May 31, 1881 Fort Collins Courier reported “That the people of Collins have this splendid mountain road to the mines, is due to the energy of Mr. Stewart. With rare pluck, and under the most adverse circumstances, Mr. Stewart carried this work through to a successful termination.”

He built the Rustic Hotel in 1881 to service the toll road and proceeded to charge anyone using the road. The small (private) cabin on the northwest corner of Highway 14 and County Road 69 (known as the Pingree Hill road to locals) is thought to have been the toll house for the road.

Mr. Stewart charged $2.00 for each vehicle drawn by a horse, mule or oxen; loose stock was .40 cents a head and sheep were .20 cents a head. The toll was dropped in 1902 when the road became public.

With the steep descent down Pingree Hill, the road could be treacherous.  In 1911 a new route was surveyed that created a gentler grade on the mountainside above the gulch, and the new route was completed by a crew of convicts in 1912. During this time there was much disagreement between Loveland and Fort Collins concerning their pet road projects — the Fall River Road in Rocky Mountain National Park and the Poudre Canyon Road. Politics won out and the convicts were sent to the Fall River Road, but when the snow got too deep they were moved back to the lower Canyon in February 2013.

The road was finally completed through the Canyon to Rustic in October 1920. It was not until 1979 that Highway 14 (many portions of which were the former Stewart Toll Road) was finally paved all the way to North Park and opened year round. Almost 100 years after the Stewart Toll Road was opened, the Highway was finally modernized!

Author and photographer: Sue Schneider, whose family owns a historic cabin in the Poudre Canyon. Sue is also a member of the board of Historic Larimer County.

This article first appeared in the Historic Larimer County newsletter from September 12, 2018