c 2017 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article first appeared in New Legends Magazine.
Trinidad, Colorado is Santa Fe Trail country where, beginning in 1821, the “Mountain Branch” spanned from today’s Pueblo and south through Trinidad, Raton and on to Santa Fe. While the majority of women who traveled the trail were wives and daughters, it wasn’t long before ladies of the night also joined the caravans heading west.
When Fort Pueblo was established in 1853, several red light districts appeared over time as the city grew. One was by the Arkansas River near today’s central Pueblo. Another was near Santa Fe Avenue and today’s 1st Street. Some of the more notorious bordellos in Pueblo included the Stranger’s Home and the Hotel de Omaha, where fights, murders and suicides occurred with alarming frequency.
The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad began laying rails south of Pueblo in the late 1800’s. The tracks first passed through El Moro, a “company town” located four miles from Trinidad. Such places normally forbid prostitution, but in El Moro, George Close successfully ran a dance hall just around the corner from the New State Hotel with its fancy saloon.
South of Trinidad, the railroad continued over the New Mexico border to Raton. By the 1880’s a red light district was flourishing along Garcia Street, just across the tracks from the business district on First Street. Early soiled doves of Raton included a woman called La Josie, who they say could dance up a storm despite having a peg leg.
When the business district relocated to Second Street, Josie and her cohorts immediately filled the empty buildings along First. In time, Raton’s bawdy houses spanned a two block area near the depot and downtown. In 1888, a devastating fire burned much of the red light district and the business district after a disgruntled working girl threw a lamp at one of her customers.
Further south of Raton was Fort Union, near the Cimarron cutoff of the Santa Fe Trail. Soon after the fort was established in 1851, a group of shady ladies set up shop in some nearby caves. A Captain Sykes discovered their presence when he found that stolen goods from the fort were being used to pay them. Sykes ended the sinful business by capturing the women, shaving their heads, and commanding them to move on.
The ladies did move on—to Loma Parda, a small farming community six miles away. There soldiers could gamble, drink, dance, and carouse with women. Julian Baca’s dance hall featured live music twenty four hours a day. The town’s signature whiskey, “Loma Lightening” was often the cause of thefts, fights and murders.
In contrast to these woolly and wild places along the trail, Trinidad offered more refined places of vice. In its early days, Trinidad was as raucous as anywhere else, marked by the 1874 murder of a call girl named Moll Howard. Her killer claimed the woman attacked him with a butcher knife, and owed him a dollar besides. Moll’s friends heard about the murder, formed an angry mob, and hanged the man by the Purgatoire River.
Within a decade, however, Trinidad’s brothels and parlor houses were neatly situated behind Commercial Street on Mill and Plum Streets, but also near Main Street. The fancier houses sported dance floors, and the Grand, at Santa Fe and Main, even had a swimming pool and Turkish baths. “Bar girls” also offered sex above the saloons, and certain restaurants provided curtained booths, where waitresses could offer more than what was on the menu.
Such places received plenty of business from men living in outlying company towns like Berwind, Ludlow, Morley, and Jensen. On slow nights, some brothels resorted to calling the fire department with some made up “emergency”. The firemen would duly show up to “rescue” girls from the second floors via ladders on which the women descended—wearing no underclothes!
When an ornate building on Main was constructed in 1888, the architect’s plans allegedly included the bust of a local madam on the front facade. Who she was remains unknown, but the best known madam was Mae Phelps. In 1900, Mae employed ten lovely ladies from her brothel at 228 Santa Fe Avenue. Mae defied public officials; once during a court appearance, attorney Jamie McKeough demanded whether Mae “operated a public place on the Santa Fe Trail.” Mae replied, “You ought to know, you’ve been there often enough.”
But Mae also worked with the city, establishing a “Madams’ Association” to construct a special trolley system leading to the red light district. The system was built by a written agreement with the city. Mae also established a “Madams’ Rest Home” outside of town where ill or injured girls could recuperate in peace.
Mae and Trinidad’s red light ladies are long gone, but many of their historic bordellos remain in the downtown area, if you know where to look.
Pictured: The Palace in Raton, New Mexico where shady ladies once took center stage. Photo by Jan MacKell Collins.