Lumber Barons and Timber Pirates
By Jennifer Leithauser
 towns and railroads - key components to successful logging businesses. Opportunities for both prestige and profit inspired each man to incorporate railroads separate from their logging companies. There was money to be made from more than hauling lumber, and being a railroad official brought with it a special status in the community.
Their railroads brought civilization into an area that had been bypassed by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. In October 1900 Sullenberger's Rio Grande, Pagosa and Northern Railroad provided Pagosa Springs with a long-anticipated connection to the outside world. Of Sullenberger the Pagosa Springs News wrote, "To him the people of Archuleta will be forever grateful for taking them out of the wilderness and into civilization." The people of the county, however, would not always hold such a high opinion of the lumber barons, including the once-glorified Sullenberger.
Along with their business activities, Biggs and Sullenberger became involved in politics. In the controversial election of 1899, Biggs was elected county commissioner, and from that point on, the sawmill interests kept a firm hold on political decisions. For years the lumbermen manipulated the system in order to avoid high taxes on their businesses. Biggs, convicted in 1899 of cutting timber without a permit, was even able to use his influence to obtain a pardon from President McKinley.
That conviction would not be the last time Biggs would end up in court. He and Sullenberger both were charged with defrauding the government. They were accused of hiring people to file claims for land under the Homestead Act, then turn the land over to the lumber companies. The two also were involved in some shady dealings with the D&RG Railroad, whose government charter allowed them to cut timber for ties and other building needs up to three miles from their right-of-way. However, D & RG officials interpreted this loosely and, along with the lumbermen, cleared vast amounts of government timber from land far beyond the reaches of its right-of-way. The cases would spend years in court, one in particular eventually making its way to a grand jury. But in the end, Biggs and Sullenberger were acquitted on a technicality.
A Pagosa Lumber Company logging train and its crew pose on a trestle near Pagosa Springs in 1912. The photo was taken by William H. Allen, a Pagosa Lumber Company employee who worked at Sullenberger's Azotea, New Mexico, sawmill in 1887.
"Officers Alleged to Have Fraudulently Secured Claims on Timber Land Worth Nearly $100,000" read the headline of the Durango Democrat on May 10, 1907. The charge was just one of many brought against two giants of the local lumber industry. 
Edgar M. Biggs, with his New Mexico Lumber Co., and Alexander T. Sullenberger of the Pagosa Lumber Co., were two of the most influential and controversial figures in the lumber business. For years these men twisted the political situation to suit their own needs, sidestepping federal regulations to profit from the lush forests around them. At the same time, though, they also ultimately transformed the economy of Archuleta County, incorporating new towns, employing hundreds of workers, and providing lumber for building and expansion.
Being shrewd businessmen, each recognized the monetary potential of the vast timber resources in the Pagosa Springs area. The two moved into the area and setup sawmills, incorporating their own mill
Biggs' and Sullenberger's influence stretched throughout Archuleta County, just as their logging railroads had done. There were many in the area who wanted to put a stop to their control, nobody more so than Daniel Egger, editor of the Pagosa Springs News. Drawing from Frank Norris's book The Octopus, which was written in opposition to the Southern Pacific Railroad's hold over the state of California, Egger dubbed local sawmill interests the "Sawmill Octopus."
For years Egger used his newspaper to fight against the corruption. In 1899 he editorialized against Biggs during the race for county commissioner, claiming that Biggs was rigging the election. Egger also exposed the fact that the lumbermen were not paying their share of taxes. The newspaper editor did his best to inform his readers of all of the lumber barons' shady dealings. Biggs and Sullenberger tried many times to silence Egger's criticism and although he put up a good fight, in the end Egger could not defeat the "Sawmill Octopus." He eventually left the area to publish other papers in Arboles and Bayfield.
Eventually, these two powerful lumber barons would lose their grip on Archuleta County. Fire, flood, and the depletion of timber around his mill towns forced Biggs to cease operations on the Rio Grande and Pagosa Springs Railroad in 1911, though he and his New Mexico Lumber Company would continue with lumber interests elsewhere in Colorado. In 1912 Sullenberger sold his interest in the Pagosa Lumber Company and retired to the Bayfield Area. In 1917 the Pagosa Lumber Co. closed down all operations in the Pagosa area, thus ending the era of the lumber barons in that part of Archuleta County.
Born in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, in 1849, Alexander T. Sullenberger came to Southwest Colorado at the invitation of his brother-in-law, Robert E. Sloan. Sloan and Thomas Graden had been awarded the contract for the D&RG Railroad's San Juan Extension, and Sullenberger became the inspector during the line's construction in 1880-81. Shortly after the railroad reached Durango in 1881, Sullenberger began construction on the first sawmill at Azotea about eight miles west of Chama. In the decades that followed, Sullenberger became a major figure in the logging business in Southwest Colorado and Northwest New Mexico.
Animas Museum Photo Archives
Animas Museum Photo Archives
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Jennifer Leithauser was born and raised in Silverton Colorado. She attended Gettysburg College and Colorado State University before graduating Suma Cum Lade from Fort Lewis College with a degree in American History. While at Fort Lewis she was a member of Phi Alpha Theta and received the senior history award. Jennifer is currently the Museum assistant for the Animas Museum.