The county seat (1859, 6,025 feet) is strategically sited on the Purgatoire River at the northern base of Ratón Pass on the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail. According to one story, sheepherder Gabriel Gutierrez named the place for a sweetheart left behind in New Mexico, Trinidad Baca. To console himself, he opened a tavern that helped attract other settlers, including Anglos. The Goodnight-Loving Cattle Trail ran through town, and Trinidad became headquarters for the Prairie Land and Cattle Company's vast land holdings. The settlement grew slowly and did not incorporate until 1879, in part because litigation of Mexican land grant claims kept ownership of many lots cloudy until the mid-1870s. Despite its hilly site at the base of Fisher's Peak, Trinidad is laid out on a grid.
Trinidad boomed between the 1880s and the 1920s, when the thriving coal industry made it Colorado's fourth largest city. Trinidad is noted for its red brick streets and sidewalks, some of the bricks stamped “Trinidad.” Perhaps no town in Colorado has more fine stone structures, many constructed with the local golden sandstone by master masons such as Trinidad stonemason-architect Charles Innes. The town's golden age is also preserved in the architecture of the brothers Isaac Hamilton Rapp, Jr., and William Morris Rapp, who practiced in partnership first with C. W. Bulger (1889–1902) and later with A. C. Hendrickson. The Rapps, not to be confused with the early twentieth-century Chicago firm that specialized in theaters, rose to prominence in Trinidad, where they did much work in the Victorian, Pueblo Revival, and Mission modes before moving on to Santa Fe. In New Mexico they pioneered the Santa Fe Style, which was refined and popularized by John Gaw Meem, as Carl D. Shephard points out in Creator of the Santa Fe Style (1988). The Rapps designed the original La Fonda Hotel and the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, as well as the New Mexico Building for the 1915–1917 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego's Balboa Park.
Since the 1930s Trinidad has lost population and two fabulous Pueblo Revival buildings, the Santa Fe Railroad depot and the Cardenas Hotel. Despite thsse losses the town is unusually rich in late nineteenth-century Victorian and early twentieth-century architecture, as highlighted in the Corazón de Trinidad (heart of Trinidad) Historic District (NRD), which includes virtually all of downtown Trinidad. Survivors include the Toltec Hotel (1911, Frank E. Edbrooke), 126–128 North Commercial Street, a clean design with the old Toltec logo on the plate glass windows; an elegant stone waterworks (1879, Charles Innes), 201 West Cedar Street; and Zion Lutheran Church (1889, C. W. Bulger and Isaac H. Rapp), 613 Prospect Street (southwest corner of Pine Street), a small, richly detailed brick and frame church. Handsome red brick buildings in predictable styles house the Trinidad State Junior College (1925).
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