Category Archives: Florence Colorado

Adelaide, Colorado: The Ill-Fated Stop Along the Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad

c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins

Shortly after gold was discovered in the Cripple Creek District in 1891 merchant James A. McCandless of Florence, to the south, was one of many men who took an interest in generating commerce from the gold boom. In McCandless’s mind was Eight-Mile Canyon, an old, windy and sometimes precarious trail used by Ute natives to travel to the high country and make their summer quarters. With a creek of the same name meandering alongside much of the trail, the canyon was ideal for reaching the District. McCandless and several engineers first surveyed the canyon in 1891. By 1892 Thomas Robinson, whose endeavors included promoting the Florence Electric Street Railway Company, had opened the “Florence Free Road” leading to the District. Around this same time, give a take a few years, the name of the canyon was changed to Phantom Canyon.

Robinson intended for the road through Phantom Canyon to eventually run between the borders of Wyoming to the north and New Mexico to the south. When the Salaman Stage Line debuted on the Florence Free Road, its success inspired plans for the Florence and Cripple Creek State Line Railroad. A map of the new railroad was filed in May of 1892, and the company was reformed as the Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad.

As plans unfolded for the new railroad, Denver & Rio Grande Railroad magnate David Moffat got involved. Under his wing, the F&CC was incorporated in April of 1893, and construction of the railroad commenced the following December. Robinson also remained involved with the project, to the effect that one early camp along the line was named for him. Railroad workers and travelers could stop at Robinson, situated nearly halfway between Florence and Cripple Creek, to buy supplies at a general store or stay at a boardinghouse nearby.

By 1894, for reasons unknown, the name of Robinson had been changed to Adelaide. A depot was constructed for the F&CC, as well as some homes and a water tank for the train. Two men worked at the tank, each in a 12 hour shift, so that it would remain full of water for the locomotive. They, as well as other railroad employees, lived in a nearby bunkhouse with a coal-burning stove for warmth. The former boardinghouse was converted into a hotel called the Great Elk. The station agent’s quarters were in the back of the depot.

Adelaide served a second, more important purpose too. As the F&CC tracks progressed up the canyon, it was soon discovered that the last few miles into the district proved steeper than originally thought. A “helper” town of sorts, Alta Vista, was constructed on the edge of the Cripple Creek District near the city of Victor, wherein engines could travel down the canyon to the station at Adelaide in Fremont County and assist the trains in making it up the grade.

For about a year, everything was grand at little Adelaide, nestled there among the trees and below the majestic rock walls of Phantom Canyon. But there came an evening in July of 1895 when a horrific thunderstorm, typical for late summer in Colorado, let loose with a destructive might like no other.

The Cripple Creek Weekly Journal later described the carnage that ensued. A F&CC train with 14 cars had just been lightly damaged when a small landslide derailed the train just a mile above Adelaide. Four railroad men from the train walked down to the Great Elk Hotel, and Conductor Brown had just wired news of the incident when he chanced to step outside. In the twilight he could see a wall of water, towering some 20 feet high and flowing at about thirty miles per hour, roaring down the canyon, and Adelaide was directly in its path.

Just up the tracks from Adelaide, a helper engine with engineer Mathew Lines and fireman Bert Kreis had just passed through Glenbrook, the closest stop above Adelaide, on its way down from Alta Vista. Lines and Kreis saw the wall of water, quickly stoked the fire in the engine and sped up as fast as they could as the flood chased after them. If anyone saw the engine fly past Adelaide, there does not seem to be a record of it. The engine managed to pass by the next stop, McCourt, before reaching Russell where the tracks diverted away from the flooded creek. Lines and Kreis survived.

Back at Adelaide, meanwhile, the railroad men and the station agent and his family quickly climbed to safety, as well as three other men and “three tramps” who were dining at the hotel. The railroad men turned around in time to see the Great Elk Hotel smashed to pieces by the water and carried away. Tragically, inside were the hotel’s proprietress, Mrs. Carr, as well as waiter Lee Tracy and cook John Watson. Tracy’s body was eventually found nine miles south of Adelaide, near Russell. Mrs. Carr’s body was carried several miles further, almost to Vesta Junction near Florence. Watson was found too, as well as the bodies of three other men who were believed to be section men for the railroad. Three other men surfaced safely in Florence the next day.

In all, the flood washed away ten miles of tracks as well as several bridges. It took quite some time to reach Adelaide and assess the damage, which was estimated at $100,000—over $3 million dollars in today’s money. One would think that would be the end of the F&CC, but the company remained resilient. Over the next year, workers toiled to rebuild the railroad at a cost of just over $238,000. At Adelaide, the station was relocated about half a mile down from its original location on today’s Phantom Canyon Road, well above the creek. A new water tank, a large cistern and a new depot were eventually built at the site.

Although other cloudbursts and occasional floods continued to plague Phantom Canyon, Adelaide remained safe until July of 1912 when another storm sent yet another wall of water crashing down the F&CC tracks. This time, twelve bridges were wiped out and five miles of track were either damaged or lost altogether in the flood. Rather than rebuild again, the F&CC took into consideration its own finances but also those in the Cripple Creek District, where the mining boom was slowly fading away. In 1915 the F&CC was dissolved, and the remaining tracks were removed from the canyon.

Over the last several decades, any structural remnants remaining at Adelaide have disappeared altogether. The only evidence of the whistle stop today is the large cistern, which can be seen below the road along Phantom Canyon. Small signs denote Adelaide and most of the other stops along the route, making for a most scenic drive through the canyon with a little history thrown in. And in Florence, both the McCandless house and the Robinson mansion bear proof that, for a time, the F&CC was a good investment indeed.

Lillian Powers, Genteel Harlot of the West

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article first appeared in the Colorado Gambler magazine, as well as Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado 1860-1930 (University of New Mexico Press, 2003).

While the general public tends to think of prostitutes in the west as being slovenly, uneducated and rude, such was not always the case. A good many of the would-be wild women who worked in the camps, towns and cities of Colorado during the 1800’s and early 1900’s were just the opposite. Most could read and write. Many came from good homes and had good educations, some from some of finest schools back east.

At least some women carried their education and manners into their professions as prostitutes. In the higher dollar “parlor houses”, madams were known to send their employees to finishing school, so that they may conduct themselves in a more respectable manner. Drug and alcohol use notwithstanding, most parlor house girls were quite refined. Most could also play an instrument or sing, and practiced good table manners and conversational talents. Such was the case of Lillian Powers, whose intelligence and kindness endeared her to many of her customers.

Lillian Powers was the city of Florence, Colorado’s most famous madam. She arrived after working for, and then partnering with, madam Laura Evens in Salida for several years. In Florence, Lil set up her own place south of the railroad tracks cutting through town. It was said that Lillian had been a school teacher in Wisconsin before coming West. She had formerly been a laundress, and her boss fondly dubbed her “The Laundry Queen”. But such work was dull to Lillian, who looked younger than she really was. Before long she had made her way to South Dakota where she heard about the money prostitutes were making in Denver.

Lillian actually had her start in Denver right around the turn of the century, when she ran a house called “The Cupolo”. But she didn’t like the way prostitutes were being treated or the low wages they received. In about 1907 Lillian moved to the Cripple Creek District, where she worked in Victor for four years before relocating to Cripple Creek. There, she could rule over her own crib, a small apartment she could rent and operate as she pleased. Lillian preferred running a crib to working in a confining parlor house. It was said she kept her place neat with clean linens and towels, frilly curtains and other comforts.

Lil’s landlady was a French woman named Leola Ahrens, better known around town as Leo the Lion. Leo drank a lot and threw violent temper tantrums. In her early days in Cripple Creek, the madam had run her own sporting house and invested her profits in the cribs. When Lillian worked for her, Leo had lost the house and was reduced to working out of one of her own cribs.

Because Lil’s place was so neat and clean, and because she was always willing to lend a sympathetic ear to her customers, Lil she made friends with many of her regulars. She also served beer as part of her services. Within a month she was making good money, and it was said that some of Lil’s customers came to visit her more for her friendship than sex.

Leo ultimately got jealous over losing her customers to Lil. One day, in a drunken rage, Leo began pounding on Lillian’s door, gun in hand. “You double-crossing bitch, you get out, and I mean get out!” she screamed. “You get out of this crib and out of town. Or I’ll kill you!” Lil fled out the back door to the telephone office and called Laura Evens, asking for a job. Then she hired a local boy to help her pack, a process which took all night.

For some reason, Lil took the earliest train to Colorado Springs first, before going on to Salida. At Laura Evens’s, another young woman answered the door and reported to Laura the new girl looked “dirty and old.” It was probably true, given that Lil had fled in the dead of night and endured a lengthy train ride to Salida without much sleep. Laura rented a crib to Lil anyway. The following day after a good bath, Lil dressed up and paid Laura a visit, giving her rent in advance. The two became good friends and Lillian eventually managed the cribs for Laura in return for a percentage of the profits. By then, Lil was alternately known as Fay Weston, and the cribs became known as Weston Terrace.

In about 1911 Lillian moved to Florence, just east of Canon City and opened her own place. Founded in 1873, Florence flourished in coal mining, cattle, oil and agriculture. At least one of the girls from Salida followed Lil and may have gone to work for her. Laura Evens came to visit her there, and Lil made occasional visits to Salida as well. In 1915 when Laura bought more property in Salida, Lillian paid the Deed of Trust.

“Lil’s Place” in Florence afforded many amenities, including two or three girls, a beer garden with a dance floor, and a high wall around the backyard for privacy. She spent $30,000 on her house, which featured a ballroom with a player piano. It was also said she had a huge collection of fine cut glass and diamonds, including a diamond cross that was once given to Denver madam Mattie Silks by prostitute Lizzie Preston. Lil slept downstairs and her boarders upstairs. Roy Pray, who was born in Victor in 1910 and grew up in Florence, recalled visiting Lil’s house while he was in college during the 1930’s. One of the girls kept sitting on the lap of Roy’s friend. Unable to stand it any longer, the shy and embarrassed boy finally admonished the girl with a “There now, tut tut!”

From time to time over the years, Lil was shut down, but always managed to reopen for business. Eventually she hired a couple to cook and maintain the house. By the 1940’s, Lil could afford to employ 10 girls and was no longer a working madam. Eventually, however, she was closed down for good and simply retired, passing away at a local nursing home in 1960.

After Lillian’s death, Colorado historian and author Caroline Bancroft attempted to contact Arthur Mink, a friend of Lil for some thirty years. In a letter to Ms. Bancroft, Mink confirmed a promise he had made to Lil not to reveal anything about her past. There is little doubt that Lil died with many secrets, even as she continues to intrigue fans of prostitution history.

You can read more about Lil Powers, Laura Evens and other Colorado madams in my upcoming book, Good Time Girls of Colorado: A Red-Light History of the Centennial State (Globe Pequot Press, September 2019).