Category Archives: Colorado Ghost Towns

French Blanche: Last of the Harlots

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

For more on French Blanche, see Jan’s new book, Good Time Girls of Colorado: A Red-Light History of the Centennial State. Click here to order.

Of all the forgotten soiled doves in the Cripple Creek District of Colorado, French Blanche=s story is one that bears mention.

Born in France, Blanche LaCroix first came to America to work as a prostitute in New Orleans. She later stated that she was hired by Morris Durant to come to Cripple Creek. A saloon owner in Cripple Creek and Victor, Durant apparently commissioned several girls from France to work on Myers Avenue, Cripple Creek=s notorious red light district.

Naturally, French was quite beautiful in her youth. Durant fell in love with her. When his wife heard French Blanche was pregnant with his child, she accosted French and threw acid in her face. The wounded harlot retreated to the nearby town of Midway, where for many years she concealed her scarred face behind a veil. At Midway, she could still service miners coming to the Midway Saloon along the High Line railway. When her daughter was born, French was forced to give her up for adoption.

For years, French=s only company at Midway was a handsome man who lived next door. The two had a brief courtship until French discovered he was seeing another woman. Despite his being her only neighbor in Midway, French never spoke to the man again, and he eventually moved away.

During her remaining years at Midway, French Blanche lived a quiet life. No one is certain when she ceased doing business. After a time she would accept groceries delivered to her door, and old timers recalled seeing her sitting in the window with the evening sun on her face. She waved at folks passing by, but if someone happened to knock at her door, French never answered the door without her veil in place.

As she grew older, wrinkles disguised her scars and French stopped wearing the veil. Certain children of the district began visiting her and recalled she made wonderfully delicious cookies. Her tiny cabin was wallpapered and clean, with a green and white porcelain cook stove.

Perhaps the children gave French Blanche courage, for she began making monthly trips to Victor for groceries. Before long, a local woman began giving her rides back to Midway and learned she received no more than $35 per month to live on because she wasn=t a U.S. citizen.

Lack of money and failing health are probably what enticed French to move to Victor in the 1950’s. The same woman who had given her rides to Midway put her up in a small cabin next to the family home. In the early 1960’s, French contracted pneumonia and died at St. Nicholas Hospital. Per French=s instructions, the woman who cared for her found $200 stashed in a drawer for her burial.

French Blanche=s story doesn=t end here. Two years after she died, the daughter she had given up years ago came looking for her. The woman said she had been adopted by a doctor in Kansas, who revealed her mother=s true identity on his deathbed. She received a photograph and a few of French=s belongings, and disappeared. All that remains of French Blanche is a small metal sign, which marks her grave at Victor=s Sunnyside Cemetery.

Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Chapter 3

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

The following chapter is excerpted from Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado 1860-1930, which can be ordered at https://www.unmpress.com/search?keywords=MacKell. 

Chapter Three: In the Beginning There Was Denver

The miner came in ‘59

The prostitute in ‘61

And between the two,

They made the native son!

—old western proverb

The miners in the 1859 Pikes Peak or Bust gold rush arrived in the new West primarily alone, without female companionship. Many had left their families behind, hoping to bring them out later once gold was found and riches were secured. For many a man, Denver, and its surrounding country was a desolate, lonely place. Pioneer Albert Richardson remembered how he and his comrades sorely missed the presence of a lady in their midst. “We were all in the habit of running to our cabin doors in Denver on the arrival of the ladies,” he said, “to gaze upon her as earnestly as at any other natural curiosity.”

In 1860 the ratio of men to women in Colorado was sixteen to one. In California Gulch near Leadville alone, there were two-thousand males and only thirty-six females. South Park boasted an amazing 10,519 men to ninety-one women! Most members of the gentler sex were well admired, respected and obeyed. In their absence the men, desperate for companionship, held dances anyway and designated “female” dance partners by tying ribbons or handkerchiefs on their arms. If by some miracle a woman did attend a dance or other social gathering, she could rely on being treated with the utmost kindness despite wearing out her dance slippers with dozens of partners. Married men were fully expected to permit their wives to attend such social gatherings rather than keeping them at home. To keep other men from feasting their eyes upon the rare and coveted female was considered downright rude.

The prostitutes of the early West were making themselves known, however. Following the gold booms of the West could prove especially successful for the gal who knew how to move quickly and ply her trade. Denver’s very first “white” prostitute was said to be Ada LaMont, a nineteen-year-old beauty who married a young minister and came West with him in about 1858. Lo and behold, midway through the trip the minister disappeared, along with a young lady of questionable character. Ada arrived in Denver alone—but with a whole new outlook on her situation. “As of tomorrow,” she said, “I start the first brothel in this settlement. In the future my name will be Addie LaMont.”

More women of vice were quick to follow. A leader of the demi-monde in 1861 and 1862 was Lizzie Greer, a successful beauty who had many admirers, an expensive wardrobe and plenty of diamonds. In general, however, Denver newspapers and authorities do not appear to have paid much attention to the illegal vice of prostitution in the early days. Their complacent actions were balanced by those in Central City, located due west high in the mining country. Central City was the site of the first real gold boom in Colorado in 1859. Surprisingly, however, the prostitution industry found it hard to flourish there at first. In 1860 a brothel in nearby Nevadaville was cleaned out by irate citizens. Six years later, another den of sin in Central City suffered the same fate.

Indeed, ousted ladies from other parts of Colorado found little shelter in Central City. An 1864 news article in the Miners Register complained heavily of a Madam Wright, who had been operating for some time on respectable Eureka Street directly below the Methodist Church. The wicked woman had recently been arrested for larceny. Most interestingly, however, the Register did concede that it was possible to permit prostitutes to operate in any given city. “Perhaps such creatures should be permitted to live in a community,” admitted the writer, “but they certainly ought to be severely treated for their offenses against morality and law, and compelled to remove to some remote locality where their presence will not be so annoying.” With time, Central City at last fell victim to the same vices as every other mining town in the state, even as newspapers and city authorities threatened to close them down as early as 1868. The proper folks in town were always quick to voice their disapproval of the red-light district and even banned those who patronized brothels or dance halls from other social events. One of these was Pat Casey, a miner who eventually struck it rich. In his wealth, Casey retaliated against the puritans of Central City by loading up his favorite fancy girls each Sunday and driving them past the churches just as services were letting out.

When journalist James Thomson visited Central City in November of 1872, he described in his diary a Saturday night outing: “The prostitutes’ ball at —. Four fellows in four-bedded attic, three with girls at one time. The prize for the best dancer. Girl who had got it four times, refused it 5th. Went and undressed save stockings and garters. Danced wonderfully for five minutes, music playing, hall crowded. Then ‘Here’s the leg that can dance, and here’s the arse that can back it up!’ Redressed and danced with the others till daylight.” After unsuccessfully trying to establish themselves in town, Central City’s naughty girls migrated to Gunnell Hill above town instead.  For years, Central City’s red-light district enjoyed its lofty position while looking down on the city from the end of Pine Street, just a few blocks from the Catholic church. There the girls were free to service miners from both the Galena Mine and the Coeur d’Alene Mine above them. Downtown, places like the Shoo Fly Dance Hall still prospered.

The best remembered of Central City’s shady ladies is Madam Lou Bunch, a three-hundred-pound delight whose presence in town surely could not be missed. But there were others. May Martin was one girl who practiced in Central City. Others included Della or Lizzie Warwick, Mae Temple, the “elegant courtesan” Ruby Lee and Ada Branch, known alternately as the Big Swede. Ada’s house and wardrobe were among the fanciest in town, and Pine Street was alternately known as Big Swede Avenue in 1880. Cora Fish was one of Ada’s employees. Other girls of Central are all but forgotten, with hardly a name to remember them by. A warehouse near downtown, however, is said to still bear graffiti from higher times: “Myrtle crib #13—wow. Sweetheart.”

One of the earliest comments on prostitution first appeared in Denver papers in 1874. An article reported on a local tavern called The Cricket, which was “ablaze last night with festivities. There was a dance from 1 a.m. to sunrise with liquor pouring freely throughout the night.” Prostitutes present at the gathering included Belle Deering, Sadie Bent, Eva Hamilton, Elva Seymour, Kittie Wells, Laura Winnie, Gertie and Cora, Jennie Logan, Emma Marsh, Dutch Nellie, Mormon Ann, Frankie and Annie.

Just two years later, the first truly notorious madam of Denver arrived. Her name was Mattie Silks, and her appearance was so renowned that at least one folk song immediately surfaced about the illustrious prostitute and some of her more famous cohorts:

Mattie Silks and Fanny Ford

Drank theirs from a gourd,

Poker Alice she smoked a cherout;

Lily Langtree, they say,

Had been led astray

By the juice of forbidden fruit 

Mattie was just twenty-nine years old when she arrived in Denver. Born in New York or possibly Indiana, she began her first brothel in Springfield, Illinois in about 1865 at the age of nineteen. Next, Mattie attempted to run a brothel in Olathe, Kansas, but was run out of town. Wisely, she decided to spend her winters working in Kansas City while working the cattle town circuit during the summer months. It was also said Mattie worked as a freighter between Missouri and Colorado before opening up for business in Dodge City, Abilene and Hays City, Kansas. A sign on her parlor house there read, “Men taken in and done for.” After hiring four girls in Kansas, Mattie headed for Colorado and traveled by stagecoach and freighter wagon around the Pikes Peak region, visiting a number of mining camps. Her vehicles contained a “portable boarding house for young ladies”, which was actually no more than a canvas tent attached to a wagon. The bordello did, however, include a canvas bathtub.

By 1873 Mattie was in Georgetown where she operated one of five brothels on Brownell Street. While there, she married Casey or George Silks, a faro dealer from Pueblo. The couple may have had a child together. The two eventually separated, perhaps because Mattie’s lover, a fireman named Cortez D. Thomson, was also living in Mattie’s brothel. When Mattie arrived in Denver in 1877 Cort was still with her, having left behind his wife and daughter in Georgetown. It must have been love, for Mattie was willing to put up with Cort’s drinking and gambling habits. She often gave him money, and it was said that despite two terrible beatings Cort gave Mattie, she loved him too much to leave him. Mattie Silks was certainly not the angel she aspired to be, however. The March 28, 1877 issue of the Rocky Mountain News reported Mattie was fined $12 for drunkenness, which she paid. In August, it was said that Mattie challenged madam Katie Fulton to a duel over Cort. Folklore claims that when the women took their shots, they both missed—save for a bullet that went astray and struck Cort in the neck. He lived, and even pledged to be faithful to Mattie.

The Rocky Mountain News reported a different story: Katie and Mattie had an argument after a footrace in which Cort was victorious and for which Mattie won $2,000. During the argument, Cort punched Katie in the face and knocked her down. Katie’s friend Sam Thatcher was knocked down as well. Then Katie was knocked down again and kicked in the face, which broke her nose. After the fight broke up, Cort took off towards town in his buggy. A carriage soon pulled up beside him and a shot from said carriage hit him in the neck. Katie left town for awhile, but in September returned to Denver, where she had another fight with Mattie. This time, Mattie punched Katie, knocking her down and injuring her nose again.

No doubt Mattie was a feisty little vixen, but it was certainly no trouble for her to set up shop. She was described as blonde with blue eyes, clear skin and a striking resemblance to actress Lily Langtree. Besides her good looks, Mattie quickly gained a good reputation for excellent service and pretty, honest, high-class girls. Under her regime, the girls paid Mattie room and board starting at $5 per week and split their earnings with her. Mattie’s first brothel, which she purchased for $13,000 from Nellie French, was at 501 Holladay Street, now known as Market Street. Mattie’s elite business cards were shaped like an oyster shell—a grand treat for Denver dinner tables in the Victorian era. In addition, Mattie rented or operated in the buildings on either side of her brothel and prospered there as well.

Over the next four years, Mattie’s competition grew steadily. Women like Lizzie Greer slowly fell to the wayside. In fact, the Denver Republican took due notice when Lizzie’s looks and talents began fading. By 1881 Lizzie had lost all of her money and admirers and had turned to alcohol to drown her sorrows. The newspaper noted she had been living for years in back alleys and along river fronts, purchasing liquor when she could and eating out of the garbage bins of local restaurants. She was last noted as being found sleeping in a lumber yard and taken to the County Hospital. The paper commented that her end was not far off. After her death, which probably occurred in January of 1881, the sight of Lizzie’s ghost lingering near the undertaker’s parlor was the subject of Rocky Mountain News stories as late as 1885.

In 1882, there were approximately 480 prostitutes working in Denver. In those times, two room cribs on the row were rented to prostitutes for $15 – $25 a week. White sections of the red-light district were called “dollar houses”, with the parlor houses of Denver costing $5 and up per trick. The black sections—located beyond 21st & Market Street—were called “two bit houses”, reflecting the price paid for time with a prostitute. Thus, a girl had to turn 15 or even as many as 50 tricks per week just to make her board.

There is little doubt that Mattie Silks ruled with an iron fist. Some said she carried an ivory handled pistol with her, concealed in a special pocket of a gown she had replicated from Rubens’ portrait of Marie de Medici. But stagecoach driver Martin Parsons remembered that Mattie “didn’t carry a gun in her clothes…for she didn’t have to. She could control people by her voice, but then, they were spending money, and after all, that’s what she wanted.” Mattie also provided food to those who were down and out. Sometimes she even sheltered them in the tent she had formerly used as a brothel. It seemed as though everyone trusted her. Admirers and even Mattie herself liked to boast—wrongfully—that she was never declared a prostitute in any arrest record or Denver newspaper.

Mattie’s biggest competitor was Leah J. Tehme or Leah Fries, better known as Jennie Rogers. Jennie actually spelled her name “Leeah”, and once she told local police her real surname was Calvington. Born to Mr. and Mrs. James Weaver, Jennie was said to hail from Pittsburgh and may have been married to a doctor at one time. The union proved too dull for Jennie, and she allegedly ran away with a steamboat captain named Rogers. After living in St. Louis for a few years, Jennie arrived just two years after Mattie in 1879. She purchased her first house on Holladay Street for $4,600 in 1880. There, it was said, the chief of police from St. Louis would come to visit, and Jennie even had a portrait of him hanging in her brothel.

In fact, Jennie’s St. Louis paramour did more than pay the occasional visit. A story was widely circulated in later years that the police chief decided to assist Jennie in opening her Denver house of ill fame by blackmailing one of Denver’s leading citizens. Apparently this man’s first wife had pulled a disappearing act, and the gentleman next married into a wealthy Denver family. Jennie’s St. Louis friend and other political adversaries began circulating the rumor that the first wife had been murdered, and even buried the skull of an Indian woman found on the plains in the man’s backyard. Next the St. Louis officer and two other men called at the man’s home posing as investigators, conducted a search, and dug up the skull. The surprised tycoon knew he was innocent, but he also knew that such a scandal could ruin his political career. Accordingly, the man “donated” $17,780 to Jennie for a new house. Jennie’s St. Louis friend disappeared, and the matter was forgotten until it was related years later by someone who remembered the story.

Jennie was a tidy, astute and almost studious looking woman who knew her business. But she also had a temper. In about 1889, Jennie married Jack Wood, a bartender at the Brown Palace Hotel who was fourteen years younger. It was said Jennie shot Wood in Salt Lake City a few months later when she found him in the arms of another woman. When police asked why she did it, she exclaimed, “I shot him because I love him, damn him!”

Jennie maintained a friendship with her competitor, Mattie Silks. When Denver adopted an ordinance requiring prostitutes to wear yellow arm bands, Mattie and Jennie agreed to have their girls dress in yellow from head to toe and parade all over town. The ordinance was repealed. For a short time, Mattie and Jennie enjoyed their spot at the top of Denver’s red-light district.

There were complications in Jennie’s life, however. Even the elite Jennie Rogers, known for her fine dress and excellent horsemanship, could not avoid the occasional brush with the law. In 1880 she was arrested along with madam Eva Lewis for racing their horses through town. The past time seems to have been popular among prostitutes, as two other girls were seen doing the same thing on Boulder’s Pearl Street in 1880. (Incidentally, some say that Pearl Street was actually named for a prostitute. Others say it was named for a respectable woman who was an early pioneer.) In 1881 Jennie made the papers after her horse slipped on some ice and she fell to the street in the middle of the red-light district. Three years later, the classy madam was sentenced to ten days in jail for vagrancy and for taking morphine. The arrest did little to limit Jennie’s ambitions, however. In 1884 she built her own three-story brothel on Market Street with three parlors, a ballroom, a dining room and fifteen suites.

Shortly after Jennie’s new house of pleasure was complete, Cort Thomson, whose ex-wife had just died, and Mattie Silks were united in matrimony in Indiana. When the couple returned to Denver, Mattie found herself with yet another competitor, Belle Barnard (a.k.a. Birnard). Belle had her beginnings as a prostitute in Cheyenne, Wyoming. At the age of twenty-nine she gave birth to a daughter, Grace, whom she later claimed was a niece. By 1885, Belle had a stately, two story brick brothel at 518 Holladay Street. (When the name of Holladay was changed to Market, the address changed to 1952 Market Street.)

Two years after marrying Mattie, Cort received a telegram saying that his daughter, presumably the one left behind in Georgetown, had died during childbirth. Her surviving baby daughter needed looking after. Mattie convinced Cort to adopt the child rather than put her in an orphanage, and it was said Mattie willingly purchased her ranch on the eastern plains at Wray as a suitable place to raise the girl. There are several mysteries surrounding the child that Mattie and Cort took in. Once, when Mattie took in an abused little girl, police arriving to take the girl back to her mother discovered another five-year-old named Theresa Thompson. It was speculated that Theresa may have been a daughter of Mattie and Cort, or even perhaps a child by Casey Silks who was adopted by Cort. Or she could have been Cort’s grand daughter for whom Mattie purchased the ranch at Wray. The ranch served other purposes as well, namely as a place to keep Mattie’s twenty-one race horses.

Throughout the mid-1880’s, Mattie continued to bask in Denver’s limelight. It was said that Mattie once agreed—under pressure from Denver’s Chamber of Commerce and also Cort—to serve as a courtesan to the president of the St. Louis Railroad. Her mission was to convince the tycoon to extend his railroad to Denver. For a month, Mattie and the railroad magnate posed as husband and wife while touring California. Ultimately the endeavor was unsuccessful, although the Chamber did pay off a $5,000 note for Mattie in return for her efforts. In 1887 Mattie purchased two connecting brothels at 1916 and 1922 Market Street for $14,000 as well as other real estate around Denver, including a brothel at 2019 Market Street. She also kept two or three call girls in uptown Denver hotels to run appointments she made for them. Mattie’s girls were well cared for, receiving two meals a day and half of their earnings in return for paying room and board. Mattie’s good business sense saw her through some tough times in Denver; during the winter of 1887-88, one-hundred-seventy-nine women were arrested for prostitution. Much to the dismay of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, many of these women were jailed right along with male prisoners, guarded by male jailers. The W.C.T.U. convinced the city council to secure a matron for its female prisoners. The permanent position went to Sadie Likens, the second matron in the nation.

In about 1889 Jennie Rogers purchased what was to become the infamous House of Mirrors at 1942 Market Street. She also married Jack Wood, the lover she had once shot. Over time, 1942 Market Street became one of the most prominent establishments in Denver’s red-light district. The Circus, a three story brothel that also housed Jim Ryan’s Saloon, was located across from Jennie’s place. Sadie Doyle, one of Jim’s employees, later recalled a night in 1901 when she was thrown in jail. Later that night, after her release, the jail caught fire. Fay Stanley’s Parlor House was just down the street. Other famous red-light establishments of Denver included Ruth Jacobs’ Silver Dollar Hotel, Miss Olga’s and Mamie Darling’s.

There were twenty-seven rooms in all at the House of Mirrors, including a kitchen, ballroom, four parlors, a wine room and sixteen bedrooms. The front parlor was furbished in mirrors from ceiling to floor. A single bathroom, luxurious for the time, serviced the house. Under Jennie’s ownership, suites in the house were said to be well stocked with fancy furniture, commodes, slop jars, rockers, lace curtains and even writing desks. Known for her love of grand  and eccentric things, Jennie also had five stone faces adhered to the facade of the building, including a bust of herself at the top. There has been intense speculation about who the other faces represented, including a story that they depict those involved in the blackmailing of the rich man who gave Jennie the money for her house. But the truth about them will likely never be known. The exterior decor also came complete with fancy scroll work in a variety of mysterious designs.

Another notorious brothel could be found at the Navarre, formerly the Brinker Collegiate Institute for young ladies wanting to learn “customary Christian virtues.” Known as the Hotel Richelieu in 1890, the stately hotel, saloon and gambling hall had fallen into the hands of gamblers Ed Chase and Vaso Chucovich during a poker game. Chase and Chucovich renamed the place the Navarre after a sixteenth-century French king, Henry of Navarre, and added prostitution. Belle Malone and Mary Paxton were among the working girls at the Navarre, which also welcomed visiting girls from nearby brothels if no other girls were available.

Mattie Silks’s troubles with Cort Thomson escalated in 1891, when she caught him with prostitute Lillie Dab of Leadville. Mattie sued for divorce, but then forgave Cort and withdrew the suit. In the uproar, Mattie may have just plain missed out on Jennie Rogers’ plans to sell the House of Mirrors. Madam Ella Wellington got it instead, and with it she automatically became a part of Jennie and Mattie’s elite circle. When the madams and bar owners of Denver cooperated to produce the Denver Red Book in 1892, Ella was a prominent advertiser. The Denver Red Book was published just in time for the grand opening of the ritzy Brown Palace Hotel across the street, which allegedly had an underground rail system or tunnel running to the notorious Navarre.

As the most brazen of directories, the Denver Red Book listed ads for the Arcade Bar on Larimer, Silver State Cigars, Schlitz and the Walhalla Club Rooms. Prostitutes listed therein included Blanche Brown, Belle Birnard and Minnie A. Hall. Belle Birnard advertised fourteen rooms, five parlors, a music and dance hall, plus twelve boarders. Jennie Holmes outdid Belle with twenty-three rooms, three parlors, two ballrooms, a pool room and thirteen boarders. But madam Minnie Hall at 2045 Market Street took the prize with thirty rooms, a music and dance hall, five parlors, a Mikado parlor and twenty boarders. Minnie had purchased her house from Sybil Field. When the only known copy of the Red Book was found on the floor of a streetcar and eventually donated to the Colorado Historical Society, it was noted that two pages were missing. The missing pages might have contained advertising for Mattie Silks and the Navarre, as well as other well known hot spots.

Ella Wellington, Mattie Silks and Jennie Rogers continued to prosper during 1893, despite the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Originally, the Sherman Act was meant to assist the public by requiring the United States Government to purchase silver in order to boost the economy. The plan was simple enough, but did not pan out as well as expected. When Congress repealed the act and the government stopped buying silver, thousands of silver miners—including millionaire H.A.W. Tabor of Leadville and Denver—went broke overnight. As the silver boom towns quickly depleted, hundreds of families flocked to Denver. A good number of destitute women approached Jennie Rogers for work. Jennie put them up in respectable boarding houses, but refused to let them work for her or anyone else. As money allowed, she gradually sent them home to their families instead.

Jennie’s kind act was no doubt overshadowed by the shocking and tragic suicide of Ella Wellington in 1894 at the House Of Mirrors. The former wife of Fred Bouse (or Bowse) of Omaha, Ella had forsaken her confining life as a wife and mother of two adopted children and run off with one Sam Cross. After Cross apparently left her in Salt Lake City, Ella had made her way to Denver in 1889, taken on the name Wellington, and gone into business in the red-light district. After purchasing the House of Mirrors from Jennie Rogers, Ella spared no expense in her advertising and business cards and seemed to be doing quite well.

On the evening of July 27, 1894, Ella was in attendance at her brothel wearing a silk gown and a $2,000 necklace, as well as several ruby and diamond rings. Ella’s regret at leaving her husband became painfully apparent when some old friends of the former couple unexpectedly paid her a visit. Fred was remarried, they said, and was very happy. So were the children. The news was too much for Ella, who began babbling, “I too am happy, O so happy!” Then she abruptly started upstairs, exclaiming, “O I am so happy! So happy that I’ll just blow my goddam brains out!” Upon reaching her bedroom, Ella did just that. Arapahoe County Clerk William R. Prinn happened to be lying in Ella’s bed at the time and later gave his statement to the coroner.

Poor Ella’s story does not end there. After a funeral procession that took every available carriage in town, Ella was buried at Riverside Cemetery. Her most loyal admirer, Frederick N. Sturges, slept on top of her grave for several nights and purchased a plot next to Ella’s. Within three weeks the heartbroken Sturges overdosed on morphine. In his pocket was a picture of Ella with a note written on the back: “Bury this picture of my own dear Ella beside me.”

The death of Ella Wellington seemed to be the beginning of several unlucky incidents in Denver’s red-light district. The most prominent was a series of mysterious murders of prostitutes. Three murders in particular caught the eye of authorities, possibly because of their similarities: a towel had always been stuffed in the victim’s mouth, and there was never a sign of forced entry. Thus, the girls were assumed to have fallen victim to one of their customers.

The first woman to die was Lena Tapper, who was strangled in her home on Market Street in September. Next, twenty-three-year-old Marie Contassot was strangled to death on October 28. Despite the deceased’s swollen  purple face, eyes bugging from their sockets and the presence of a rope nearby, the Coroner listed Marie’s cause of death as unknown. Marie was from France, having come to America with her sister Eugenie some years before. In Denver, Marie worked for Charles Chaloup, a Frenchman who served as her pimp. The number one suspect in Marie’s death, however, was her beau Tony Saunders. Alternately known as Tony Sanders and Antonio Santpietro, Saunders led a double life as both a Denver policeman and a pimp on Market Street. Marie had just moved in with Saunders a week before. After repeated questioning, however, Saunders was released.

Next, police focused on Chaloup and Eugenie. Marie and Eugenie had been due to inherit a large sum of money from a relative in Paris, and Chaloup and Eugenie had just recently returned from a trip to France. Chaloup had also purchased property in Paris. Furthermore, friends and neighbors of Marie claimed her sister and Chaloup had planned to acquire the inheritance and leave Marie with nothing. Eugenie refused to deny or confirm any of the rumors. Chaloup claimed Marie had received $2,000 in property and jewelry from him and produced a signed receipt from her that released him from any further obligations to her. Neither Chaloup or Eugenie were charged with the murder.

Marie Contassot merited burial in Denver’s Riverside Cemetery. After her original interment, Marie’s body was moved to a plot purchased by Eugenie. Her grave was decorated by a large tombstone and a life-sized angel. The heartening inscription read:

“We regret the loss of our sister

All of her family and friends

Pray for her.”

In the wake of Marie Contassot’s murder, Mattie Silks had iron bars installed on the windows of her brothel. By now, the girls of the row were frightened, and Denver newspapers spread panic with headlines declaring “Jack the Ripper” was in town. They also dubbed Market Street “Strangler’s Row.” Despite upgraded security in the red-light district, a third murder happened in November when Kiku Oyama was also found choked to death. After Oyama’s murder, the better-class parlor houses shut down or shortened their business hours for a time. Most of the lower-class, one-room crib girls could not afford to cease business and were forced to remain open. Police began taking a harder look at murders that happened in the red-light district, but there were no more murders immediately after the death of Oyama.

At least two other unsolved murders are documented in Denver’s red-light district. One was the killing of a black prostitute named Nettie Clark in the late 1890’s, but Nettie’s death was probably not associated with the killing sprees of 1894. In 1903 yet another woman, Mabel Brown, was strangled in her home on Market Street. Again the killer was never caught, but by then the murders of 1894 were only a faint memory on fast-moving Market Street.

In about May of 1895, the House of Mirrors came back to Jennie Rogers’s ownership. A couple of years later, Jennie and Mattie Silks were only slightly overshadowed by another Denver prostitute, Verona (a.k.a. Fannie) Baldwin. In 1883 in San Francisco, the British beauty had made big headlines after she shot her millionaire cousin, E.J. “Lucky” Baldwin, in the arm. Verona claimed Lucky had sexually assaulted her while she was teaching school at his expansive ranch. Baldwin survived, about which Verona commented, “I ought to have killed him. Yes, I ought to have killed him at the ranch.”  Verona was just twenty-three years old at the time. Three years after she was acquitted due to Lucky’s refusal to testify, Verona sued her cousin for child support. Afterwards, he successfully committed her to an insane asylum. She fought him, along with the general public, and was released.

In the late 1890’s, Verona arrived in Denver and purchased a house at 2020 Market Street. Her life in Denver appeared to be fairly uneventful, the exception being an 1898 newspaper article which reported that Verona had taken in a young girl calling herself Mary Anderson. Mary, fresh off the train from Wyoming, was seeking employment at various brothels. Escorting her was a strange woman who had approached her at the employment office and talked her into becoming a prostitute. Madam Baldwin, however, upon seeing the girl was truly innocent and a virgin at that, convinced Mary to return home and notified the police to put her on the next train home. This they did, paying for the ticket themselves. Verona was in business in Denver for over twelve years. She eventually retired and died in the 1940’s.

In 1898 Mattie Silks and Cort Thomson followed up a tour to Great Britain with an excursion to Alaska, where Mattie opened a temporary brothel in Dawson City. The endeavor lasted only three months due to Mattie’s aversion to the cold weather, but it was said she netted $38,000 for her efforts. Upon returning to Colorado, Cort continued with his wild ways while Mattie got back to business. In April of 1900, after several weeks of debauchery involving alcohol, opium, and the celebration of his birthday, Cort Thomson died sitting in a rocking chair at the Commercial Hotel in Wray. Mattie was by his side, and she paid for his funeral costs. What became of the child Mattie and Cort were raising is unknown, but most historians say Mattie adopted her. Some speculate the girl was then educated in some far-away school and raised to become a respectable woman.

Jennie Rogers also suffered hardships. Jack Wood had died in 1896, at the age of 38. Competition along Market Street was ever-growing, with prostitutes like Mildred Ackley and Pearl Adams joining the ranks. The year 1902 proved to be even more stressful: Jennie’s beloved dog died and she was diagnosed with Bright’s Disease. To escape her woes and pressure from authorities, she temporarily moved to Chicago where she opened another brothel. There she met a politician named Archibald T. Fitzgerald, a man 20 years her junior whom she married at Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1904. Shortly afterward Jennie returned to Denver for the funeral of prostitute Lizzie Preston, a much-admired colleague who had also been a friend of Mattie Silks. Back in Chicago, she found out Fitzgerald was still married to someone else, left him and came back to Denver for good in 1907.

In Denver Jennie forgave Fitzgerald. She lived at the House of Mirrors but periodically made short excursions with him to Arkansas. She died on October 29, 1909, having willed her estate to her sister and a niece and nephew. She was buried in Denver’s Fairmont Cemetery under the name Leah J. Wood, next to her husband Jack. Fitzgerald contested her will and claimed half of her estate. He eventually settled for $5,000 in cash, jewelry and some property in Illinois.

In 1910 or 1911 Mattie Silks purchased the House of Mirrors for $14,000. Mattie immediately moved in with her longtime housekeeper, Janie Green, and commissioned a local tile worker to inlay her name, “M. Silks”, on the front step. It was like putting a final, victorious stamp on the red-light district. At last, Mattie Silks was the reigning queen of Denver’s tenderloin district.

Good Time Girls of Colorado: A Red-Light History of the Centennial State

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

A quick note about this book: expanding on the research I have done for Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado 1860-1930 (University of New Mexico Press, 2004) and Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains (University of New Mexico Press, 2009 – out of print), presented here are some notable shady ladies like Mattie Silks, Jennie Rogers, Laura Evens and others. Also included however, are some ladies seldom written about: French Blanche LeCoq, Lou Bunch and Laura Bell McDaniel (whom I was pleased to first introduce to the world clear back in 1999).

Why do I write about historical prostitution? Because I believe that these women made numerous unseen, unappreciated contributions to the growth of the American West. They paid for fines, fees, business licenses and liquor licenses in their towns. They shopped local, buying their clothing, furniture, food, jewelry, medicine and other needed items from local merchants. These women were often angels of mercy, donating to the poor, helping the needy, and making or procuring sizeable donations for churches, schools and other organizations. Many took care of their customers when they were sick, or sometimes when they became elderly.

Hollywood and the general public like to laugh at and shame women of the night for selling sex for a living. In reality, these women often turned to prostitution as the only viable way to make enough money to survive. Theirs was one of the most dangerous professions of the time, the threat of devastating depression, domestic violence, disease, pregnancy and often subsequent abortion, and alcohol or drug related issues being very real issues the ladies faced daily.

I hope you enjoy reading this book as much as I enjoyed writing it and furthering the truth about our good time girls from the past. You can order it here: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781493038060/Good-Time-Girls-of-Colorado-A-Red-Light-History-of-the-Centennial-State

High Altitude Adventures with Corydon Rose

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article first appeared in Colorado Central magazine.

Fifteen miles from Lake City, Colorado, high up along Engineer’s Pass, lie the ruins of a dream held by one man. His name was Corydon Rose, and today he is remembered as the courteous host at his namesake mining camp, Rose’s Cabin.

Born in New York in 1835, Rose had made his way to Colorado by 1873 where he took up mining in the majestic San Juan Mountains. He chose a gorgeous high—mountain meadow, roughly halfway between Ouray and Lake City, to build his home. When entrepreneur Otto Mears built a toll road along Engineer’s Pass in 1877, Rose’s place officially became known as Rose’s Cabin, complete with a store, eating house and roughly 50 miners. A passing stage line guaranteed further success, since the coaches stopped at the camp to change horses.

Rose’s mining endeavors also paid off. By August, his “Blue, White and Gold” silver mine was assaying at $243 per ton. A month later, a travel correspondent for Lake City’s Silver World newspaper described the genteel hospitality extended to some proper ladies who spent the night at Rose’s Cabin:

“A small log cabin with dirt floor and side bunks partially filled with pine boughs was assigned to the ladies. The roof covered with dirt, a few stones in one corner in which was made a fire, nearby a beautiful, clear, cold rivulet furnished facilities for making their toilets; a couple of miners’ candles were substituted for gas, and the sides of the berths were utilized for seats. It was a novel sight to see a bevy of ladies accustomed to luxurious surroundings thus quartered for the night, and from the peals of laughter continually pouring forth, the novelty was evidently enjoyable in the extreme.”

Nearby, Merritt’s Restaurant contained a cookstove, a “rough plank” table and benches made from planks set on empty powder kegs. A “very creditable meal” was served in tin plates and cups. The writer and his friend slept in this cabin alongside five or six other men. Their accommodations consisted of “blankets spread on the bare, hard ground, with not even the intervention of pine boughs.”

In February 1878, Corydon Rose and his partner, Charlie Schafer, were inured in a rockslide. The two were at Schafer’s cabin at the Moltke lode when they heard the slide roaring down the hill. The men “attempted to escape but were caught in it and carried down the mountain and badly hurt,” reported the Silver World. Rose especially was “pretty effectually jammed up”, leading to speculation as to whether he would live. He  survived, but with permanent injuries.

Rose’s Cabin continued gaining popularity. In June, the Silver World reported that “the mines above Rose’s Cabin and in that vicinity are employing quite a force of men.” A post office opened later that year with Schafer as postmaster. Advertisements for the camp offered “meals and lodging, hay and grain, liquors and cigars”, as well as a “pack train of 60 animals”, and a second floor was added to Rose’s original cabin.

Rose typically stationed himself at the door, wearing a long black coat and a high hat. His signature greeting was “Howdy, stranger,” followed by an invitation to step inside where a bar ran along one side of the room. There also was a faro table, with a dealer wearing “short sleeves, plush waistcoat and long flowing tie”. Upstairs, twenty-two spindle beds, divided by partitions, awaited the weary traveler.

In 1880, Rose shared his roomy cabin with several others, including two women. One was Cornelia Porter, wife of silver miner William Porter. The other was Jennie Eastman, a divorcee with three children whose oldest son, 14—year—old Ira, worked as a teamster. Male residents of the camp included laborers, miners, carpenters and teamsters, as well as a blacksmith, saloonkeeper, butcher and druggist.

On his wedding night in 1884, Charles Schafer and his wife Augusta, still wearing her wedding gown, walked the whole fifteen miles from Lake City to Rose’s Cabin. When the census was taken in 1885, one of the couple’s lodgers was identified as mail carrier William Owens. Corydon Rose, meanwhile, was in Lake City and also worked as a mail carrier. Rose and Owens likely stayed at both Lake City and Rose’s Cabin as they transported mail back and forth.

That same year, George Crofutt’s Grip-Sack Guide of Colorado counted 120 people at Rose’s Cabin. For a dollar, the camp could be reached by hack during the summer months. In winter, Crofutt suggested reaching the camp via “winter saddle and snow—shoes.” Overall, Crofutt noted, there were “a great many mines and good ‘prospects’ which, with improved facilities, will make this one of the prosperous camps of the country.”

In spite of Crofutt’s prediction, the post office closed in 1887. Although about 50 miners continued living in the area, Corydon Rose was in Montrose by 1890. Meals were still available at Rose’s Cabin as late as 1895, when a correspondent for the North Platte Semi-Weekly Tribune recalled, “At noon we halted at Rose’s Cabin and had a good dinner—the finest in milk and butter.”

The Schafers remained at Rose’s Cabin as late as 1900. In time, larger mining conglomerates moved into the area. One of them, Golconda Mines Inc., proposed using Rose’s Cabin as their headquarters, and a telephone was installed connecting callers to Lake City. The new phone came in handy in September of 1900, when Jos. Nevin and Andy McLaughlin scuffled over a card game at Rose’s Cabin. “Nevins assaulted McLaughlin with an axe and was shot and killed by the latter,” reported the San Juan Prospector newspaper.

The news likely did not reach Corydon Rose, who had moved to Utah. His trail might have been lost but for a 1905 article in the Salt Lake City Herald. “Corydon Rose, an old gentleman who had been a county charge for the last two years, placed an advertisement in the Moab paper inquiring for his relatives in Kansas,” the paper explained. “The advertisement was answered by a nephew, who took the old gentleman back to Kansas with him. The young man stated that Mr. Rose was the owner of a farm of 160 acres within ten miles of Kansas City, which is worth $10,000.”

Rose’s brother, August, had apparently made significant improvements to the farm. Although August died in 1904, Rose’s nephew willingly took in his uncle. Rose lived out his life comfortably, dying in 1908. His gravestone bears the simple inscription, “Uncle Corydon”. Charles Schafer had also died, in 1907. He is buried in Lake City, where his tombstone identifies him as “owner of Rose’s Cabin on Henson Creek.” Today, not much is left of Rose’s Cabin but the ruins of a chimney and a couple of log walls.

A Quick Synopsis of Animas Forks, Colorado

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Animas Forks, now a highly popular ghost town, was officially founded in 1877. People had already built cabins on the site as early as 1873. Three years later there were thirty cabins, a general store and one saloon, and the postoffice had been operating for a year. Since hundreds of miners were already working silver claims in the area, the need for a town was more than welcome.

Animas Forks’ first newspaper, the Animas Forks Pioneer, began printing in 1882 and remained in business until 1886. The population in 1883 was 450. At the time, many residents lived in the town year round. Because the dwellings of Animas Forks were more modern than those occupied by typical miners cabins of the day, roughing out the winter wasn’t as harsh. Rather, many homes were made from milled lumber and featured such Victorian decor as gabled roofs and bay windows. But winters could be brutal, with twenty foot drifts and snowslides. After an 1884 blizzard lasting 23 days buried Animas Forks under 25 feet of snow, many residents began spending their winters in Silverton.

Earl mines included the Big Giant, Black Cross, Columbus, Eclipse, Iron Gap, Little Roy and Red Cloud. Two smelting and reduction works processed ores. Travelers could access the town from Silverton, but also Lake City. The latter route really began at Rose’s Cabin along Engineer Pass on what was called the Hensen Creek and Uncompahgre Toll Road. The fare was $3.00 per person for the twenty-two mile trip. In time, Otto Mears’ Silverton-Northern Railroad Company also reached the town.

Even at 11,584 feet in elevation, Animas Forks’ population soon grew to roughly 1500 people. Serving the miners, citizens and visitors were two assay offices, numerous shops, a hotel and several saloons. Beginning at the turn of 1900, mining profits began to decline. Investments lagged. In 1904, a last stab at profitable mining was made with the construction of the Gold Prince Mill. Unfortunately, the even the convenience of Mears’ railroad could not save the town. The mill closed in 1910.

For a time, Animas Forks became a popular stop on the railroad because of the many wildflowers blooming around town in summer. In 1911, Mears sponsored a special trip on his railroad, called the “Columbine Special”. The purpose of the trip was to gather a many of Colorado’s state flowers as possible for an upcoming convention in Denver. In all, passengers picked an amazing 25,000 flowers for the event.

In 1917, major pieces of the Gold Prince Mill were moved to Eureka. Mining waned further, and Animas Forks was a ghost town by the 1920’s. The Silverton-Northern Railroad tracks were removed in 1942, and the town settled into quiet desolation. In the decades since, ghost town tourists rediscovered the abandoned buildings, and Animas Forks remains a popular destination. The famed Duncan house, which survives with its beautiful bay window, has been repaired and restored in recent years, as have some of the remaining cabins around town. Animas Forks remains one of the most picturesque ghost towns Colorado has to offer.

 

 

Early Fur Trappers Around Huerfano Butte, Colorado

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in Backwoodsman magazine

Picture today’s Huerfano County in southern Colorado, circa 1700: the prairies roll out like a natural carpet over rolling hills, interrupted by the occasional rocky ridge or mountain range slicing through the plains. Strange and wonderful rock formations and patches of fauna, including a rainbow of colorful prairie flowers, enhance the landscape. Antelope, deer and smaller animals roam the hills at will. The skies are strikingly blue most days and pitch black at night as a million stars shine across the prairie grass. Wind and snow strike in winter, making travel and shelter difficult. The land is noticeably quiet, save for the occasional village built by Native Americans, and a few Spanish or Anglo explorers as they pass through.

There is water too, from creeks to streams to rivers. The Huerfano River, the largest in the county, winds its way nearly through the middle of the land. The river has been known by many names: “Chiopo” during the 1700’s, “Rio San Juan de Baptista” during General Juan de Ulibarri’s expedition in 1706, “San Antonio” when Spanish explorer Antonio Valverde traveled through in 1719, and “Rio Dolores”, so-named by Juan Bautista de Anza in 1779. Explorer Stephen H. Long called it “Wharf Creek” in 1823, and Thomas Farnham bastardized the name to “Rio Wolfano” in 1839. Soon after, the river officially became known by its present name.

The Huerfano River actually takes its name from a small volcanic hill of the same name located halfway between today’s Colorado City and Walsenburg. Spanish for “orphan”, Huerfano Butte was, and is, highly visible to travelers from all directions. Spanish explorers are said to have visited the area as early as 1594. Two Frenchmen, identified in history books only as the Mallett Brothers, may have been the first Anglo-Americans to pass through the area in 1739.

The Malletts were thought to have traveled over Sangre de Cristo Pass along an ancient Indian trail. Ten years after the Malletts visited the area, a group of French traders told their Spanish captors in Taos that Comanches had guided them over the pass. The Spanish subsequently found Sangre de Cristo Pass (Spanish for “Blood of Christ”) and began using it alongside the Native Americans for the next seventy years as they continued exploring Colorado. Anglo and French pioneers also arrived, and the region became known as an excellent place to hunt and trade. Sangre de Cristo Pass soon gained the nickname of “Trapper’s Trail” as more men used it to travel between Huerfano Butte and Taos.

Huerfano Butte was also conveniently located near the Huerfano River, making it a prime landmark for those seeking any settlements in the region. The first of them was a small Spanish fort built along Trapper’s Trail at a place called Huerfano Canon. The fort was likely built near the place known today as Badito, in 1819. The fort was actually built in an effort to ward off attacks from Anglos and others. Within a few months, however, a band of 100 men “dressed like Indians” attacked the fort. Six Spaniards were killed; the survivors fled.

The desire of incoming pioneers to explore and settle the area, the abandonment of the fort, the growing popularity of Sangre de Cristo Pass and the dawn of the fur trade in Colorado brought many changes to the Huerfano Valley within a very short time. The area made for excellent hunting and trapping year round. Beaver, buffalo, venison and a host of other game was readily available. Trapper’s Trail provided a viable means to transport goods to Taos. Thus, between 1820 and 1835 many more forts were constructed in the region at which to conduct trade. They included Gantt’s Fort and Fort William (a.k.a. Bent’s Stockade), both built along the Arkansas River 1832.

When Gantt’s Fort folded in 1834, William Bent relocated Fort William some seventy miles east along the Arkansas in order to be closer to buffalo ranges and plains Indians. Regular trappers around Huerfano Butte had no problem making the trip to sell and trade their wares, especially since they could easily hunt, camp and trade along the way. In a short time, Bent’s New Fort was the hot spot for doing business. At the time, the fort was identified as being at what was then the Mexican border, and was the only place to trade between Missouri and Taos.

In time, many of the trappers and fur traders around Huerfano Butte were contracted to keep Bent’s Fort supplied with buffalo meat and robes. They included Bill New, Levin Mitchell, plus several others who camped along the Huerfano River, took trapping expeditions into the mountains and held their own smaller rendezvous’ in preparation to take their goods and money to the fort. In the meantime William Bent, along with his brothers Charles and George, plus trader Ceran St. Vrain, worked to improve the Bent’s Fort.

The fur trade began declining beginning about 1840 as Europe began favoring silk hats over those made of beaver. For traders around Huerfano Butte, however, trapping remained a staple of the economy for several more decades. During the 1840’s another, closer trading post was established at Badito between Huerfano Butte and Sangre de Cristo Pass. There was also Greenhorn near today’s Colorado City, favored because of its namesake creek and shady trees. Both Badito and Greenhorn were accessible within a day or so ride, depending on the goods being hauled. Both also persevered through constant Indian threats, especially throughout the 1840’s.

Ex-trapper John Brown deserves credit for officially establishing Greenhorn, although French-Canadian and American fur trappers had already long favored the place for camping and trading. Over the next decade, visitors and residents at Greenhorn included such historic characters as Archibald Metcalf, Marcelino Baca, Kit Carson, Jim Dickey, Jim Swannick, William Guerrier, Charles Kinney, Alexander Barclay and Bill New. Over at Bent’s Fort, no less than forty-four fur traders remained gainfully employed by 1842.

More and more explorers began looking for Huerfano Butte. Amongst them was a party comprised of John W. Gunnison, Lieutenant Edward Griffin Beckwith and Richard Kern. John C. Fremont also made frequent trips through the area. On his last expedition in December of 1853 Fremont’s daguerrotypist, Solomon Carvalho, captured what was surely the first photograph of Huerfano Butte. Carvalho actually suggested in his memoirs that an equestrian statue of Fremont should be placed on the butte. Senator Thomas Benton also suggested that the butte be carved into a giant statue of Christopher Columbus pointing West.

Thankfully, nobody ever came back to carve up Huerfano Butte. Trappers and traders continued living in the area, sometimes venturing as far as Hardscrabble some 50 miles northwest. Maurice Le Duc had a store there in 1853, and most of the occupants were French and American traders, Mexicans and fur trappers with their Indian wives. The next year, following a smallpox outbreak amongst the Utes, the Indians attacked both Hardscrabble and Fort Pueblo. They believed goods traded to them by Anglos were contaminated with smallpox germs on purpose.

Following the battles, things settled down and fur traders and trappers continued working to live peacefully amongst Native Americans. In 1859, a community called Huerfano was identified as being approximately fifteen miles south of Alexander Hicklin’s ranch near today’s Colorado City. Hicklin’s, the only Anglo hostelry between Pueblo and Taos, was located just over the hill from Greenhorn. A good friend of Alexander Hicklin’s, Boanerges “Bo” Boyce (more correctly identified amongst historians as a Frenchman named Beaubois), homesteaded just a short distance from Huerfano Butte. Between them, Hicklin and Beaubois were able to establish an even better network amongst traders and trappers.

Together, Beaubois and Hicklin also influenced area settlers. As the Civil War loomed on the horizon Colorado, which was not yet a state, was claimed by the Union. Beaubois and Hicklin, the latter of whom hailed from Missouri, were southern sympathizers. In 1862 Leander and Norbert Berard, Louis Joseph Clothier, Leon Constantine, French Pete and Antoine Labrie—all former employees of Bent, St. Vrain & Company—helped found Butte Valley along with a John Brown (it should be noted that this John Brown was not the same John Brown who established Greenhorn). The community as a whole decided, probably at the urging of Hicklin and Beaubois, to side with the south.

Furthermore, Alexander Hicklin was harboring rebel fugitives and secretly fighting against the union by posing as a mail station to gain information. The clever farmer would sell beef to Union troops who were heading south. However, the cattle always seemed to scatter in the dead of night near Butte Valley, and most of them found their way back to the Hicklin Ranch. Residents of Butte Valley also knew to direct southern rebels to the ranch, where Hicklin would send them up into a mountain hideout near Beulah to receive training and arms.

Union troops largely ignored Butte Valley until the summer of 1864, when Jim Reynolds’ notorious Reynolds Gang began robbing stagecoaches in southern Colorado. After a skirmish near Canon City, one gang member was killed and another arrested. The prisoner revealed the gang was headed for Butte Valley. Lt. George Shoup of the First Colorado Cavalry later claimed he had sent word to Butte Valley for the men to be detained should they appear. But residents of the community were either unaware of or chose to ignore Shoup’s command when only two gang members passed through. The men purchased supplies and went on their way without incident. When it was learned that the bandits had been allowed to leave Butte Valley, Shoup had the entire population arrested. Only John Brown later returned to the area and later ran a grocery store in Walsenburg (founded circa 1870). The other residents fled and were never heard from again.

Butte Valley was replaced in about 1864 by Huerfano Canon, also known as Huerfano Crossing, at the site of Badito. The community had two general stores, a post office and a teacher. Beaubois sold his ranch to Ceran St. Vrain in 1865 and moved to Greenhorn, where he was killed within a year by an irate sharecropper. A post office, named Little Orphan after Huerfano Butte, was established at Badito on May 1, 1865. Four months later the post office was renamed Badito and in 1866 became the county seat of Huerfano County.

Dozens of settlements continued to pop up in Huerfano County over the next hundred years. Some, such as Walsenburg, Cucharas, La Veta and Gardner (established as Huerfano Canyon circa 1871), still exist as small and charming communities. Others went through a series of names and changes before becoming ghosts. They included Spanish Peak and Fort Francisco (both now part of LaVeta); Malachite and Tom Sharp’s Trading Post, Huerfano Crossing (later Farisita), Quebec (later called Scissors and Capps, circa 1880), Rouse, Apache, Santa Clara, Maitland, Pryor, Muriel, Orlando, Winchell, Mayne, McGuire, Larimer, and many others after the turn of the century. All lived amazing short lives and have been virtually forgotten.

Badito contined serving as a rest stop along stage routes and Trapper’s Trail until about 1873. The community of Huerfano no longer exists and many historians are confused as to its exact whereabouts. Huerfano County slowly moved into a new era as a farming and ranching area supplemented by the railroad. The area as a whole began experiencing a population decline in the late 1950’s. But the region does still uphold its historic roots with several museums and no less than an amazing twenty or so burial grounds in the vicinity. The burials are testimonials to all of the pioneers of the area, including the fur traders and trappers that once inhabited this area.

Ashcroft: A Premiere Colorado Ghost Town

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in The Colorado Gambler magazine.

High up in the hills near Aspen lies Ashcroft, one of the best preserved ghost towns in Colorado. During summer, Ashcroft fairly comes alive with visitors who love to walk along the old roads and explore the nine buildings comprising what is left of the town. Although it is still highly accessible during winter, the snowy months drive away tourists as Ashcroft—altitude 9500’— settles into slumber and waits for spring thaw.

Ashcroft had its beginnings during the winter of 1879-80, when miner Thomas E. Ashcraft joined 22 other prospectors in Castle Creek Valley. Named for the castle-like spires on nearby Castle Peak, the valley was identified by the Hayden geological survey as having valuable silver deposits. Despite threats from Ute Indians, Ashcraft stuck it out and soon laid out a small settlement called Highland. A short time later, Ashcraft and his fellow miners moved a short distance from Highland and named their new camp Castle Forks City, a name they also assigned to their placer mine. Highland flourished for a short time before succumbing to the popularity of Ashcroft.

A Miner’s Protective Association was soon formed, with each of the 97 members having an equal say in Castle Forks’ future. Eight hundred and sixty four lots were sold at $5 each. The idea of renaming the picturesque little town soon came under fire. According to postal records, Castle Fork’s post office was first known as Ashcroft as of August 12, 1880 (the census taker called it Ashcraft when he came around a week later). Even at that early date, there were 130 people living there. Their numbers included several miners, but also an assayer, a mason, a merchant, a restaurant owner, a saloon keeper, a surveyor and two blacksmiths. A surprising five entrepreneurs, a news reporter and even a government scout were included in the eclectic total. And, there was nary a woman around.

The following year, the postmaster general assigned the name of Chloride. But local miners were calling the place Ashcroft by the time that name was reassigned in January of 1882. John R. Nelson was the first postmaster. As was the case with so many mining camps, the town grew quickly. Initially Ashcroft was only accessible via Taylor Pass, an extremely rough road that was closed through winter. Wagons traversing the pass were required to stop, disassemble the vehicle, raise or lower it over 40-foot cliffs, and reassemble it before moving on.

The Carson Brothers Stage Line made its debut in 1881 and charged travelers $2 for a ride to Buena Vista and points in between via Cottonwood Pass or Independence Pass. Two other stage lines eventually served Ashcroft as well. Easier access made Ashcroft a gateway to Aspen, while telegraph poles along Taylor Pass enhanced communications. Famous visitors to Ashcroft included Bob Ford, the killer of outlaw Jesse James, and silver magnates Horace and Baby Doe Tabor. In fact, Tabor purchased interests in the Tam O’Shanter and Montezuma mines and built a lavish home at Ashcroft that included gold-encrusted wallpaper. Whenever Baby Doe visited, Tabor declared a holiday and bought drinks for everyone.

By 1882 the $5 lots were selling for as much as $400 and by 1883 Ashcroft had outgrown the nearby town of Aspen. Some historians place the population of 1,000 and others 2,500. The residency consisted mostly of miners and was served by two newspapers the Herald and the Journal. There were also two sawmills, a school, a courthouse and jail, a theater and an amazing 20 saloons. There were also four hotels: the Farrell, Fifth Avenue, Riverside and St. Cloud. Main and Castle were the two main streets.

Unfortunately, much of the silver ore mined around Ashcroft was low grade. The town of Aspen began to grow. Aspen’s mines also excelled where Ashcroft’s did not, and local mining strikes also affected the town. Sealing its doom was the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad’s decision not to extend their tracks to Ashcroft. Very quickly, Aspen came into the limelight while Ashcroft faded into the past.

Ashcroft’s population had dwindled to 100 souls by 1885 with a mere $5.60 left in the city treasury. Many of Ashcroft’s citizens moved to Aspen, often lifting their cabins right off the foundations and moving them as well. There were 75 residents in 1900, but the number still only included three women. Ashcroft’s population was nearly depleted by 1906 when the town was sold to a New York syndicate. When the population was reduced to nine residents, the post office finally closed in 1912.

Eventually only two residents remained at Ashcroft: poet and former postmaster Dan McArthur and former saloon owner John “Jack” Leahy, who had helped form a union during the strikes. A resident of Ashcroft for some 57 years, Leahy also offered legal advice and served as a justice of the peace. Interestingly, his services were never required in an official court of law, and in later years he became known as the Hermit of Ashcroft. When Leahy died in 1939, he was the last official resident of the town.

Ashcroft next caught the attention of sports figure Theodore Ryan and Olympic gold medalist Billy Fiske, who wanted to turn it into a ski resort. The pair built the Highland-Bavarian Lodge in anticipation of constructing an aerial tramway to the top of Mount Hayden. World War II put a stop to the plans when Fiske died in action. Ryan was also drafted and but offered to lease Ashcroft to the 10th Mountain Division for only a dollar per year. But the army was already using Camp Hale near Leadville and while some training exercises took place at Ashcroft, the small town never reached its full potential as a base camp. A decision to move the ski resort to Aspen was Ashcroft’s final undoing.

After the war, dogsled operator Stuart Mace became a caretaker at Ashcroft in exchange for using the land for his sleds. Mace, his huskies and Ashcroft were all featured in the 1950’s television series “Sgt. Preston of the Yukon.” Stuart and his wife also ran the Toklat Restaurant at Ashcroft, and their descendants have turned the building into an exclusive gallery with crafts from all over the world. The Mace’s also saved the town from land developers by donating its 15 acres to the Forest Service in 1953. The Aspen Historical Society began working in 1974 to preserve what was left of the town.

Today, Ashcroft is a great place to snow shoe in a quiet mountain valley. There is a caretaker nearby and a fee of $3.00. From Aspen, take Highway 82 west. At the roundabout, take Castle Creek Road for approximately 11 miles. The road is paved all the way to Ashcroft, but the ancient streets of the town will remind you of how it must have looked over a century ago.