St. Joseph Parish began in the midst of the pioneer days of Colorado. The settlement of Fort Collins was just beginning to emerge as a city in its own right. It would be helpful to examine the atmosphere of the time and of the city in order to see in what kind of setting the Church was established.
Larimer County, named for General William Larimer of Denver, was created by the first Territorial Legislature of Colorado on November 1, 1861. The county is large – larger than the State of Delaware, and more than twice as large as Rhode Island. Other than the Indians who roamed the area, the first settlers – French Canadian trappers with their Indian wives – established themselves at what is now LaPorte on the Cache la Poudre River about 1828. Aside from the trapping opportunities on the river and the other streams which came from the mountains nearby which drew these first settlers, the available water supply and irrigable land, coupled with the sub-humid climate, drew many subsequent settlers to the county. The Laramie, Grand, Cache la Poudre, and Big Thompson rivers offered a then-generous water supply with suitable reservoir sites for the Impoundment and irrigation development.
The earliest occupations centered around LaPorte were trapping, hunting, and fishing, and the simple pastimes of horse- and foot racing and target shooting provided recreation.
The incident which lead to the naming of the Cache la Poudre River, told in the Fort Collins Courier of February 8, 1883 as related by Abner Loomis, a pioneer settler, is an interesting one. Mr. Loomis stated that he learned the story from Antoine Janis, widely believed to be the first permanent settler in Larimer County, who participated in the events narrated. Mr. Janis was a Catholic, born of French parents, who came to the area from Missouri. As Mr. Loomis related the story, a group of employees of the American Fur Company, bound from St. Louis to Green River, Wyoming, were stranded in a snowstorm near to what is now the town of Bellvue in 1836. There were several wagons in the party, and Antoine Janis, then a boy of twelve, was with his father in the group. They had camped for the night near the river, and morning found them snowbound.
When the storm abated, they decided to jettison some of the freight from the wagons to lighten them enough to permit travel through the snow. They decided to bury the freight, so that they might return later and reclaim it, and among the stores thus buried was several hundred pounds of gunpowder. Hence the name “Cache la Poudre.” The pit was carefully camouflaged, and some of the travelers returned in the spring to reclaim the buried goods. Over the years, other explanations for the naming of the river have been offered, but this appears to be the true one.
Fort Collins, the county seat of Larimer County, is located in southeastern Larimer County on the Cache la Poudre River, about seven miles east of the original settlement of LaPorte, and was established as a result of a flood in the summer of 1864. LaPorte had become a station on the Overland Stage Line, protected from Indian depredation by soldiers of the First Colorado Volunteer Cavalry. When the guard proved ineffective, Lieutenant Colonel William Collins at Fort Laramie sent two companies of regular Army troopers to replace them, commanded by Captain Evans. This force established a post near LaPorte, and proved more effective in controlling the Indians. The melting snows from the severe winter of 1863-1864, coupled with a violent rainstorm in June of 1864, produced a flood which wiped out the military post and destroyed a bridge at LaPorte which was essential for the heavy migration of the period. When the report of the disaster reached Colonel Collins, he directed Captain Evans to find a new and safer location for the military encampment. High ground at the present site of Fort Collins was selected, and the encampment was named Camp Collins in honor of the Colonel. In August 1864 after inspecting the site, Colonel Collins issued an order appropriating the land for military purposes.
During the month before this inspection and order, Antoine Janis was appointed to act as guide and interpreter for Camp Collins. Camp Collins was abandoned as a military post in 1866, and the Colonel died on October 26, 1880 in Ohio. His son, Lieutenant Casper Collins, was killed by Indians in Wyoming, and is commemorated in the town of Casper, Wyoming.
In 1868 by vote of the people, the county seat was moved from LaPorte to Fort Collins, and this event seemed to infuse new life into the community. The year 1870 saw increasing interest in social, educational and religious affairs by the less than one thousand residents of Fort Collins. By then the varied backgrounds and interests of the settlers had become somewhat assimilated, and the primary frontier requirements for food, shelter and clothing had been met. The settlers constructed the first school in 1870, taxing themselves to pay for it, and in 1872 the military reservation was opened for settlement. At the same time, the establishment of an agricultural colony attracted many new settlers. 1873 saw the opening of the first bank and newspaper, and many businesses in the community began to prosper.
Setbacks were experienced in the years 1874 to 1876: the bank failed, and a plague of grasshoppers destroyed much of the crops. The disappearance of the grasshoppers in 1877 brightened prospects considerably, and the Colorado Agricultural College was established to spur the development of farming skills. Fort Collins’ dream of a railroad to connect it to Denver and Cheyenne began to come true in 1877 as well. Captain Berthoud surveyed the route, and construction began, and trains began running in 1878, thus marking a new era for the community, with a renewed influx of farmers and businessmen. In 1880 the population of the community was 1356, which grew to 2034 two years later, conferring second class status on the city.
The municipal election campaign of 1883 was a most bitter one, with candidates contending for the office of mayor, eight seats on the city council, city clerk, marshal, attorney and treasurer. The principal issue was the cost of liquor licenses, one side contending for no change from the current fee of $300 per year, the other side advocating an increase to $1000 per year. By a vote of 263 to 236, the increase won, and many saloonkeepers, gamblers, prostitutes and other transients took their business elsewhere. There have been several re-runs of this conflict throughout Fort Collins’ history. The year after the election, the sale of liquor within the city limits was banned completely, and from 1885 to 1896 the high license fee was reinstated. This was followed by the reinstitution of total prohibition, which was finalized in 1909. Ansel Watrous, historian of Larimer County, wrote, “It was thus that the open saloon in Fort Collins passed into history, unhonored, unwept and unsung.”