Jack Haverly and His Colorado Towns for Suckers

c 2023 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article have appeared in Lost Ghost Towns of Teller County and Colorado Central magazine.

For Jack Haverly, life was truly an up and down affair. The man who gained fame and fortune on the theater circuit during the mid-to-late 1800’s was well known throughout America over his long career. But he also filed bankruptcy so many times that newspapers truly lost count of just how often Haverly found himself broke. It could be said that in his day, Haverly was a force to be reckoned with, an idea man who tried everything once and twice if he liked it. He was also said to be quite lucky, for as much as he was down, Haverly nearly always bounced back up. His many friends never hesitated to loan him money when he needed it, knowing he would pay it back the next time fortune smiled upon him again. “Jack Haverly was a fine man and a lovable character,” wrote Edward Le Roy Rice in 1911. “None did more for minstrelsy than he, and some of the greatest names in theatricals were once associated with him.

John H. “Jack” Haverly was born Christopher Heverly in Pennsylvania in 1837. As a young man he worked as a “train boy”, selling peanuts and candy on passenger trains. He also worked as a “baggage smasher” for the railroads, and did a brief stint as a tailor’s apprentice. By 1864 he had moved to Toledo, Ohio where he opened his first variety theater. A misspelling on a poster changed his name from Heverly to Haverly, and the new moniker stuck.

Acquisition of the theater in Toledo was subsequent to the formation of “Haverly’s Minstrels”, which gave its first performance on August 1 that year. Within a short time, Haverly was partnering with other promoters and visiting grand places across the United States and as far away as Toronto, Canada. During his travels, Haverly married Sara Hechsinger, of the famed singing duo known as the Duval Sisters. When Sara died in 1867, Haverly married her sister, Eliza, later that year. Neither marriage resulted in children.

Theater life appeased Haverly greatly. Over time he bought and sold numerous theater houses, and also headed up a number of traveling troupes. The man was also remembered by some as “a compulsive gambler and speculator” who sometimes threw his money away as quickly as he made it. Somehow, however, Haverly made it work. At the height of his career, he owned six theaters and an amazing thirteen road companies.

Haverly’s greatest achievement was probably in 1877, when he merged four of his minstrel companies to form “Haverly’s United Mastadon Minstrels.” After the fashion of P.T. Barnum and other entertainment promoters of the day, the “Mastadons” consisted of some forty performers and a marching band. Upon arriving in town for a show, the troupe would march up and down the streets, spreading themselves out as thinly as possible so that while performers marched through one part of town, the band played in the other. The Mastadons became so famous they even performed seventeen shows in London during 1880 alone.

It is unlikely that Haverly was with the performance in London, for he was busy discovering the mining boomtowns of Colorado around 1880. Folks around Gunnison remembered him as “famous theater and minstrel millionaire,” and a “colorful and key figure in the development of early Gunnison.” Indeed, Haverly “bought up fine ranch land just east of Gunnison, had a town named for him, invested heavily in silver mines at Gothic and Irwin, bought coal land up in Washington Gulch, and purchased several ranches and a sawmill up Ohio Creek.” The town of Haverly proper consisted of a group of claims, which the entrepreneur advertised “extravagantly.”

Although Haverly was initially welcome in Gunnison country, others took his claims of fortune with a grain of salt. At the nearby town of Irwin the local newspaper, the Elk Mountain Pilot, had nothing good to say about Haverly’s investments. “Take a man from his line of business and place him in a business entirely foreign to his own,” sniped the paper, “and he will surely make a wreck of it.” True to the newspaper’s prediction, Haverly’s first namesake town in Colorado ended up being “essentially a promotional scheme.” Newcomers almost immediately started squabbling over who owned what claim. Eventually, the forty or so miners at the camp “‘jumped’ the town and left Mr. Haverly ‘out in the cold.'” The town of Haverly survived for a few more years, taking on different names and residents until the place faded away altogether. Jack Haverly, however, had long ago moved on.

Haverly continued to conduct a successful theater tour in Colorado. Not only was he continuing his minstrel shows, but he began forming opera companies as well. The names of his shows generally changed as much as his address. In 1880, “Haverly’s Church Choir Opera Company” performed Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore at Barnum Hall in Greeley, the Central City Opera House, the Denver Opera House and the Tabor Opera House in Leadville. The outfit came complete with its own orchestra and starred such celebrities of the day as C.M. Pyke, Dora Wiley and Pauline Hall. Like everywhere else, Haverly’s show received rave reviews. Success was sweet; an 1881 article in the New York Clipper commented on sixteen of Haverly’s minstrel shows and opera companies. In addition, Haverly’s company had offices in Boston, Chicago, Denver and New York.

With so many troupes on the road, it was impossible for Haverly to travel with each one. Instead, he hired capable theater managers and road agents. In 1883, manager J.H. Mack accompanied the Colorado circuit. In February 1883 alone, the troupe—under the name “Haverly’s English Opera Company”—performed Strauss’s Merry War at the Colorado Springs Opera House, the Fort Collins Opera House, the Tabor Opera House in Leadville and the Tabor Grand Opera House in Denver.

Keeping up with his many traveling troupes could not have been easy, and Haverly often spread himself too thin to conduct his businesses well. In spite of the success of the Colorado circuit, his finances were soon taking a dive. Throughout much of 1883, the New York Times was full of articles regarding Haverly’s many legal and financial troubles. Haverly carried on, however, borrowing money to invest in various endeavors, paying back the money to his lenders, then losing everything all over again on a bad risk. By 1884 his fortunes were said to be beginning “their final collapse”. The enterprising man, however, wisely decided to start investing in mining as a means to make additional money. It is true, his love for speculation in the mines often proved costly, but at least he remained successful with his shows.

Throughout 1884 and 1885, Haverly’s shows continued performing in London and even Scotland. He was still dabbling in theater and doing quite a good job of it when he visited the Cripple Creek District in January of 1896. According to the Cripple Creek Morning Times, the minstrel man had “bade farewell to minstrelry several years ago, and when his face becomes sooty now it is from a miner’s lamp instead of a makeup box.” Haverly told the reporter that he planned to be in the area for a couple of weeks. “I came here to see if I couldn’t get hold of some property in this district,” he said. His plan was fortified with some extra cash he had lying around from his mining investments in Clear Creek County.

Within a short time, Haverly had purchased “a plateau known as Bull Hill when in the height of its prosperity,” according to the Hoosier State Chronicle in Indiana. Due to his rags-to-riches-to-rags reputation, however, few investors showed much interest in partnering with him. After some fast talking, Haverly was finally able to convince some prospects into having a look at his mines themselves. The properties did look mighty promising, enabling Haverly to acquire partners. The group filed a plat and divided up some town lots. They naturally named the new town Haverly. As reports circulated about the findings on Bull Hill, one hundred miners and several saloon keepers converged on the new town within just four days.

“Jack Haverly is rich again,” announced the Hoosier State Chronicles. The paper went on to illuminate Haverly’s up-and-down financial career, but ended by announcing that Lady Luck had smiled upon him once again. This time, he was said to have made upwards of $200,000 by investing in mines around the Cripple Creek District. Also, “the story has been further told in Chicago that Jack would soon be a millionaire.” The folks of Chicago remembered Haverly well, for at one time he purchased the controlling interest of the Chicago Jockey Club race track for a whopping $150,000.

From all appearances, Haverly was back on top. “Colonel Jack Haverly and associates have a shaft down 20 feet on a well-developed vein in Camp Haverly,” announced the Mining Industry & Review magazine in July of 1896. “A new steam hoist has lately been put in operation and ore is being saved for a shipment, which will be made sometime next week. A double shift of men  will be put to work on Monday.”

One source says that Haverly simply wanted no more than a town named for himself, platting the town, selling lots at high prices and skipping town. If the story was true, it may have been because Haverly was seeking vindication for having been swindled before. Yet no evidence of a swindle at Cripple Creek appears in local papers, although neither does news of the new town. In fact, Jack Haverly’s name is curiously absent from Colorado newspapers until June of 1897 when it was simply noted he was staying at the Sheridan Hotel in Telluride. The next mention of him came in September, when it was reported he was on his way back to New York via Kansas with a plan to get back in showbiz.

Haverly later declared that he had lost $250,000 by investing in the mines of Colorado. But he hadn’t lost faith in the entertainment industry. By 1898 his famed minstrel troupes were on the road again. He stayed in New York for only a short time, bouncing between there and Salt Lake City beginning in 1899. His last endeavor was starting a small museum in Brooklyn, New York in May of 1901. Just a few months later, on September 28, Jack Haverly succumbed to some longtime heart problems. His body was shipped back to Pennsylvania for burial. Newspapers all over the country published Haverly’s obituary, paying tribute to the flamboyant theater man who had entertained the country for decades. One of his good friends, writer Eugene Field, paid tribute to him in the New York Times with a poem titled “Memories of ‘Jack’ Haverly”:

‘Jack’ Haverly, ‘Jack’ Haverly, I wonder where you are.
Are your fortunes cast with Sirius, or ‘neath some kindlier star?
How happens it we never see your wondrous minstrel show,
With its apt alliterations, as we used to, years ago?
All the ebon aggregations that afflict these modem times
Are equally unworthy our prose and of our rhymes.
And I vainly pine and hanker for the joys that used to come
With the trumpets um-ta-ra-ra and the big base drum.
‘Jack’ Haverly, here’s a-hoping that some bright propitious star
Beams kindly down upon you, whereso’er your interests are,
For my heart is warm toward you for the joy you gave me when
I was a little rambling tyke; and I were glad again
To see you marching up the street with your dusky knights of song—
By George, I’d head the gang of boys that whooped your way along;
And I’d stake that all our plaudits and acclaims would over come
The trumpet ump-ta-ra-ra and the big base drum.

Today, theater history buffs fondly remember the man who entertained the world with his minstrel shows and opera companies. In the Cripple Creek District, however, Jack Haverly seems to have had the last laugh.

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