Category Archives: Jan MacKell Collins

Busting Through Snowdrifts: the Ghost Train of Marshall Pass, Colorado

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in Colorado Central magazine.

At 10,846’ in elevation, Marshall Pass remains among one of Colorado’s most precarious roads. The pass, located in the Sawatch Range between Salida and Gunnison, was discovered by Lieutenant William Marshall in 1873 as he was making a mad dash in search of a Denver dentist for a bad toothache. But Marshall’s painful trip was nothing compared to the wild ride experienced by Denver & Rio Grande Railroad engineer Nelson Edwards, and engine fireman Charles Whitehead.

The D & RG was built over Marshall Pass during 1880-1881. Shortly after the rails reached Gunnison, however, stories began circulating of a “ghost train” on the pass, the sight of which had caused other engineers to quit out of fright. Nelson and Whitehead had paid no heed to the tales, making several trips over the pass over a two month period without incident. One evening, however, Nelson guided a passenger train towards the pass with a feeling of foreboding. Perhaps it was because of a weakened bridge and a defective rail, both of which lay ahead on this snowy night. Others would later say that Nelson’s heightened sense of danger was due to the hair-raising specter he was about to see.

The train had just passed through a snowshed when the men heard the warning whistle of another train. The signals continued as the unseen train came nearer, and when Nelson heard the conductor’s signal to stop, he brought his train to a stand-still. Next, the conductor appeared, demanding to know why Nelson stopped. “What did you pull the bell cord for?” the engineer responded. “You’re crazy,” the conductor answered, “now pull her wide open, there’s a wild train a-climbing up on us!”

Edwards opened the throttle as the wheels struggled for a purchase on the rails and Whitehead shoveled coal madly into the fire. Over the next several minutes, the men listened in terror as warning blasts came from the approaching runaway. The D & RG cars were now rocking precariously, awakening panicked passengers and breaking through icy snowdrifts as they sped down the tracks. As the runaway came into view, Edwards was horrified to see a “white figure” atop one of the cars, waving wildly. A short distance later, the engineer vainly veered onto a side track as the runaway train came up on his side. Glancing over, Edwards saw “two extremely white figures in the cab. The specter engineer turned a face to him like dough and laughed.”

Alas, Edwards was going so fast that the runaway could not pass. As he guided the train back in front, the “ghostly fireman” in the other engine maniacally sounded the whistle. Now, the D & RG train was approaching the damaged bridge, but miraculously sailed right over it. A minute later, Edwards sighted a dozen or so section workers, toiling over the broken rail ahead. There was no time to slow down; when the man applied the brakes, he felt the wheels stopping even as the train continued gliding along the icy rails. The train ran right through the workers, whose forms parted like wisps of powdery snow. Edwards looked back just in time to see the runaway hit the broken rail, jump the track, and plunge over the embankment.

When their hearts ceased pounding, Edwards and Whitehead puzzled over what they were sure was the phantom train so many had spoken of before. The men’s hearts thudded again, however, when they spotted a cryptic and badly-spelled note etched in the frost of the fireman’s window: “Yeers ago a frate train was recked as yu saw—now that yu saw it, we will never make another run. The enjine was not ounder control and four sexshun men wore killed. If you ever ran on this road again yu will be wrecked.”

To date, no documentation supports the death of four section workers on Marshall Pass, although a wreck in November of 1888 did kill two men on the train, including the fireman. As for Nelson Edwards, the engineer quit his job the minute the train reached Green River, Utah, and went to work for the safer, and ghost-free, Union Pacific Railroad out of Denver.

Pictured: A Denver & Rio Grande Train on Marshall Pass, as captured by William Henry Jackson.

Cleora, Colorado: Victim of a Railroad War

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in Colorado Central magazine.

In the great rush to settle Colorado, it was not unusual to see railroad companies vying for the quickest and most profitable routes across Colorado. The settlement of Cleora was a perfect example of the sacrifices made when one company won and another one lost.

Cleora’s history begins with William Bale, and early-day settler who purchased a ranch on the north side of the Arkansas River near today’s Salida in the early 1870’s. The ranch, located along the Barlow and Sanderson State Road running between Leadville and Cañon City, became known as the South Arkansas stage stop.

Bale, his wife Sarah, and their three daughters became well known at South Arkansas. According to local newspapers, overnight accommodations were provided in the family’s “big, rambling” log house, and “liquid libations” were served to thirsty travelers. By 1875 there also was a cemetery. The first burial is said to have been Charles Harding, a victim of the infamous Lake County War of 1874-1875.

In the summer of 1876, the Colorado Daily Chieftain predicted that South Arkansas was “bound to become a popular resort of pleasure seekers.” In December, Bale duly applied for a post office. The name South Arkansas was already in use at the site of today’s Poncha Springs. Bale decided to name his new mail stop after his youngest daughter, Cleora.

Cleora prospered. An 1877 article in the Saguache Chronicle commented that “no better accommodations can be found on any routes of travel.” The Salida Mail would later recall that “the place fairly hummed with business, the house usually being filled to its capacity and often more people camped outside than there were inside. Many of the leading men of America, and most of the leading men of Colorado in that day, were guests of the Bale house at one time or another.”

When officials of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (AT&SF) railroad purchased some of Bale’s land in the summer of 1878 to layout a town, Cleora’s future seemed set in stone. Lot sales totaled $3,800 on the first day they were offered as 200 people migrated to the new community. By 1879, Bale was “one of the best known and highly respected citizens” in Chaffee County, which was officially formed in February. Early merchants included dry goods dealer John Blake. “Old Uncle Billy Bale’s” hotel, as it was called, underwent renovations. Dr. L. C. McKinney’s Cleora Journal reported the goings-on around town as the population climbed to nearly 600 people. In August, residents gathered at Mayor W.A. Hawkins’ newly opened Grand View Hotel to vote for incorporation of their new town.

At the same time the vote was made, an article in the Rocky Mountain News announced that the Denver & Rio Grande was attempting a takeover and had managed to stop the AT&SF’s progress. “Cleora is doomed for the present to inactivity,” the News warned. Still, Hawkins and the others remained optimistic, appointing a treasurer, marshal, police judge, and corporate attorney that October. Three lumber yards supplied building materials as buildings flew up and businesses opened throughout the winter of 1879-1880. Pioneer Thomas Penrose remembered trying to cash a payroll check for $1,250 at Wilson’s Saloon in February. When the proprietor said he didn’t have enough money on hand, Penrose and his partner rode to Cañon City, cashed the check, and returned to Cleora to drink at Wilson’s. “They told us that the whiskey was in the back room,” Penrose remembered, “and that there was a siphon there and for us to go ahead and take a drink, and pay 25 cents for a drink.”

The railroad war was finally settled in April when the D&RG won the battle against the AT&SF and continued laying tracks along the north bank of the Arkansas. At Cleora, citizens watched eagerly as the D&RG line approached—and then passed them right by! D&RG officials made it painfully clear that they had no use for Cleora. Instead, they platted their own new town just 1 ½ miles away, and named it for the South Arkansas post office. Disheartened citizens of Cleora pondered what to do as the board of trustees met for the last time on May 27.

In the end, D&RG officials were not so heartless. Officials soon announced that anyone owning a lot with a house or business on it in Cleora (the exception being saloonkeepers) would receive a free lot in the new town if they moved their building over to South Arkansas. By June, dozens of structures were being heaved onto rollers and guided over the rough road to South Arkansas. The Cleora Journal hauled its printing equipment over and became the Mountain Mail. Meyer & Dale, E.H. Webb and Peter Mulvaney relocated their mercantile buildings. “The business men of Cleora are all settling with us,” the Mountain Mail announced importantly. “They see that South Arkansas is to be the town and are governing themselves accordingly.”

Not everyone chose to leave Cleora. The June, 1880 census recorded 183 residents, including William, Sarah and Cleora Bale. Still, the Mountain Mail noted in August that “buildings keep coming up here from Cleora. It will not be long until they are all here.” In November, former territorial governor and D&RG official Alexander Hunt purchased the Grand View Hotel and also moved it to the new town. “The Hawkins house has finally succumbed and gone with the rest of Cleora up to South Arkansas,” reported the Rocky Mountain News. “It was the last building to go.”

Cleora’s post office closed in 1882 as South Arkansas adopted a new name, Salida. At last there remained but one asset of value at Cleora which nobody seemed inclined to move: the cemetery. Salida’s town founders showed no interest in establishing a new graveyard. “What would be the use of one?” the Salida Mail quipped in January 1883. “People don’t seem to die here at any alarming extent.”

For a time, Cleora’s cemetery remained the only burial ground in the area—a less than ideal situation to some. “It’s a mockery to call the present burying ground ‘a cemetery’”, declared the Salida Mail in 1887. The article further lectured that Salidans should be “aroused to a sense of their duty toward a fit place to bury our dead.” It was not until 1889 that Salida at last established its own cemetery, Woodlawn (Fairview Cemetery would be established in 1891).

Cleora’s cemetery was not forgotten: Knights of Pythias, the Grand Army of the Republic, and Woodmen of the World continued hosting annual Memorial Day activities there for many years before the graveyard was deeded to Chaffee County in 1921. The last burial took place in 1948. The cemetery eventually fell victim to vandalism and the elements, cared for only by the families of those buried there.

Thankfully, Cleora Cemetery was successfully listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017. Today, Four Seasons RV Park and Rocky Mountain Livestock Sales mark the site of Cleora on the north side of Highway 50. The cemetery is across the highway, an ironic reminder of the days when Cleora was full of life.

Granite Dells, Where Prescott Played

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Daily Courier.

Ask anyone around Prescott Arizona, and they will tell you that Granite Dells is one of the most hauntingly beautiful places in the west. Here, giant rounded boulders and stunning rock formations hover over the crisp blue water of Watson Lake. Nooks and crannies around the perimeter of the lake offer shady trees, wide meadows and a host of trails where almost all of the area can be easily accessed.

The history of the famous Granite Dells Resort begins in the 1882 when Thomas Wing arrived on a prospecting mission. The family lived in Prescott but homesteaded some land at Point of Rocks, a well known landmark just north of town. The ground was quite fertile and included a small pond. Wing exchanged his pick ax for a rake and began growing fruit, which was sold from the family fruit stand.

The Wings fell in love with Point of Rocks and gave it the more romantic name of Granite Dells. The area was highly attractive to locals and visitors. In 1893 the Santa Fe, Prescott & Phoenix Railroad was built, and the stretch of track winding through the Dells became known as the “Peavine.” By 1899 the Wings had roughly 500 fruit trees and thousands of grapevines. An article about them in the Prescott Courier praised the successful farm. “People who visit Prescott should not fail to see Granite Dells,” wrote editor E.A. Rogers. “After seeing it, everyone will say that all other spots are in second place.”

After Thomas Wing died in 1905, his family set about expanding the amenities at Granite Dells. The public was welcome to dip in the “Indian Swimming Pond,” so-named because the Wings believed it to have been built by Native Americans. The high and dry altitude also made the place suitable for a tuberculosis sanitarium, which opened in 1902 under a Dr. Sawyer and Major Lovell. But the biggest attraction of all was the “Granite Dells resort and tent city”, which premiered in 1907.

A grand opening was held on May 5. The fun would include the swimming hole, all of the “well known natural attractions” of the area, and the newly built Dells Diamond baseball field, which featured a game between the Diamond Jo’s and a team from Jerome. The resort was a success, and other homesteaders settled around it as Granite Dells grew in popularity. The area became even better known in 1914, when Granite Creek was dammed to form Watson Lake. By 1920 there were several orchards, a dairy, and a University of Arizona Experimental Station. The population was around 140 people.

In 1922 Wing’s grandsons, Morris and Howell Payne, decided to cement the Indian swimming pond and make a proper pool. Over time, this whimsical project included miniature bridges, various slides and a number of diving boards. At its height, the resort included an A-shaped pool with a diving island, a bathhouse, public dance hall, picnic grounds, a fishing lake and five cabins for rent. Lawn bowling was also available, and even a roller skating rink was built.

The pool was not without the occasional tragedy, such as the accidental drowning of Donald Olverius in 1927. Overall, however, Granite Dells had a good safety reputation with very few mishaps. A second body of water, Willow Lake, was constructed in 1935. Now Granite Dells sat nestled right in between Willow and Watson Lakes, and the entire area became the playground of Prescott with thousands of annual visitors.

By the 1940’s, Granite Dells resort featured beautiful gardens, and the dance hall hosted a meet-and-greet for Prescott High School teachers in 1948. Bands played there too, and celebrities were among the visitors. They included Abbott and Costello, who were said to have practiced their “Who’s on First” routine at Dells Diamond, as well as actors Tex Ritter and Tom Mix. At least three movies were filmed there: Rainbow Over the Range in 1940, Arizona Bound in 1941 and Leave Her to Heaven in 1945. By the 1950’s, Granite Dells was known nationwide. The swimming pool remained immensely popular until 1971, when the elderly Paynes found it too hard to run things. The pool managed to reopen in 1978, closing for good in 1982.

There are still plenty of people with fond memories of the Granite Dells Resort, and many wish it would reopen. For now, Watson and Willow Lakes still provide stellar views, hiking, fishing and boating. Point of Rocks Campground also provides accommodations for both tents and RV’s. Summer, winter, spring or fall, Granite Dells remains a fabulous place to visit.

What’s in a Name? Yavapai County (Arizona) Ghost Towns Vary From Whimsical to Wondrous

C 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

Copperoplis. Fool’s Gulch. Gold Bar. These were just some of the monikers the pioneers of Yavapai County, Arizona assigned to their settlements. More than a few figured these places would blossom into large metropolises one day, while others simply conjured up a quick name to identify where they were. Either way, the pioneers brought high hopes—and sometimes not much more—when they blazed a trail into this region.

As one of the four original counties established in Arizona in 1865, Yavapai was home early on to thousands of soldiers, ranchers, prospectors and capitalists. Although the county’s current boundaries were established in 1891, close to 200 settlements remain within the 8,100 or so acres that comprise Yavapai today. They range from ranches to stations to whistle stops, with a good smattering of incorporated towns and cities in between. Prescott remains the county seat, with other places like Camp Verde, Cottonwood, Dewey and at least part of Sedona holding their own with large populations. Still others, such as Crown King, Cleator and Jerome sport smaller populations while retaining their historic charm. Scattered in between these places are the remains of towns and camps whose usefulness has ceased for living inhabitants.

The earliest settlements were often named after local landmarks. Anvil Rock Station comes to mind, as does Black Canyon City, Fair Oaks, Glen Oaks and Rock Springs. When the military began exploring the area, their forts and camps were often named in honor of their officers and scouts: Camp McPherson (after General James McPherson) and Fort Whipple (after Lieutenant Emil Whipple), for instance.

More pioneers were honored as ranchers began establishing spreads in the region. The ranches of George Banghart, Theodore Boggs, King Woolsey, James Storm and others became known as settlements, often because a post office was established there or sometimes because one could buy supplies, hear the latest news or even spend the night on the way to somewhere else.

Later, as prospectors discovered gold, copper and other precious metals here, the mines they staked often blossomed into towns. Blue Bell was named after a mine, as were Bueno, Catoctin, Columbia, Congress, Constellation, Hillside, McCabe, Richinbar and Senator, just to name a few. Interestingly, the camp of Crown Point and its mine were both named for a mine at Gold Hill, Nevada.

Stage roads eventually popped up between many towns, but the long distances created a need for such rest stops as the American Ranch, Cienega, Cordes, Gilbert, Goddards and many others. Railroads began connecting the towns beginning in the 1870’s. Places like Abra, Botkin, Clearwater, Hawkins and numerous other stations were established along the tracks. Some, such as the whistlestop of Fields, were named for railroad men.

And then there are those names whose origins seem comical or even puzzling. Was Alexandra so named for co-founder T.M. Alexander, or was it named for his wife, whose name would have been Alexandra Alexander? Arizona City almost certainly hoped to bloom into something bigger when it was founded. Big Bug and Bumble Bee were indeed named for local insects. Cornville was meant to be called Cohnville after a local family; there’s no corn there. Fort Misery was jokingly so–named by its builder, Al Francis. Bagdad wasn’t named for the capital of Iraq but because some kid allegedly asked his father to “Hand me the bag, Dad.” And Skull Valley is actually named for a local landmark, not someone’s displaced head as the name implies.

No matter the name, the intrigue remains the same. Yavapai County’s towns remain as interesting to history buffs now as they did to their founders 150 years ago.

Q & A With “Dr. Colorado” Tom Noel

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article first appeared in All About History magazine.

“Doctor Colorado’s” shingle is always out for the Centennial State’s History. Dr. Noel is an award-winning author and Colorado’s official State Historian. He is Professor of History at University of Colorado at Denver, and has authored an amazing 53 books and thousands of articles. In 2018, he was awarded the Colorado Author’s League Lifetime Achievement Award. He appears as “Dr. Colorado” regularly on “Colorado and Company” on Denver’s NBC. In 2018, Dr. Noel took time out of his busy day to talk about what he does.

Q: Being a native of Boston, what is your link to Colorado?

A: Although I was born in Boston, I must point out that I was conceived in Colorado, inside the Moffat Railroad Tunnel [insert laugh track here].

Q. Who gave you your colorful moniker, “Dr. Colorado”?

A. I received it from Colorado’s star marketing man, the late Lew Cady. He proposed that I become “Dr. Colorado” and make appearances. He set up a booth for me with signs at the front—“The Doctor is In” or “The Doctor is Out”—so I could go for a bathroom or a beer break. Then he gave me a lab coat monogrammed “Dr. Colorado.” At the time, I was mowing yards for $1 a yard. I asked if the “Dr. Colorado” gig paid. It was $100 an hour! So I have been “Dr. Colorado” ever since.

Q. Is it true that your Ph.D. dissertation for the University of Colorado Boulder was on the bars of Denver?

A. Yes. I was looking for a topic when my main advisor suggested, “Why don’t you do your dissertation on bars; you are already spending so much time there?” So I undertook to visit every single bar in Denver. I focused on the social, political and economic aspects, how they welcomed ethnic and gay groups, how they worked elections, and how they helped newcomers find a job, a home, a spouse. This was in the 1970’s when the Denver Urban Renewal Authority was demolishing many skid row bars. So I visited those bars first.

Initially my wife, Sumiko, would go with me. She was a visiting nurse who was assigned to make sure that the skid row denizens who had Tuberculosis were taking their medicine. Along with another nurse, she would go to the hotels and flophouses where the patients lived, but found that these guys hit the bars first thing in the morning. The landlords would tell the girls in which bars their patients could be found. The pair, in their nursing uniforms, would find their patients and take them, one at a time, to a back room and order them, “Drop your pants.” Then they would give them a shot of streptomycin in the fanny.

Q. What have you written lately?

Since Colorado: A Historical Atlas came out, I have co-authored with Steve Leonard on A Short History of Denver (2015), and just finished E-470: More Than a Highway: The Story of a Global Tolling Industry Pioneer. And I recently updated my book, Buildings of Colorado. Also, I signed on with Globe Pequot Press to write Boom & Bust Colorado, which focuses on booms and busts in the soaring beer and marijuana business. As the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, Colorado is reaping more than $100 million a year in taxes.

Q. Why is preserving history is important?

I have come to appreciate, promote and practice historic preservation as a way to make history come alive. With 2,000 new residents arriving in Colorado every week, it is vital to preserve the buildings that meant so much to our ancestors and can become anchors for present Coloradans. I served as chair of the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission, which has now designated more than 350 individual landmarks and 56 historic districts.

Landmark designation has transformed the lower downtown from dollar-a-night flophouses to million dollar lofts. It is the most spectacular case of how historic district designation can stabilize and uplift neighborhoods. Preservation is a way to promote a sense of place, of commitment to your neighborhood, your city. I try to build up interest in local landmarks, be they churches or taverns, parks or haunted houses.

Q. I have had the privilege of visiting your wonderful library, which spans the inner walls of your basement. Tell us more about your book collection.

A. In the last few years, my bookshelves have started groaning. I originally aspired to collect every book ever written on Colorado. Now if I acquire another book, I have to make shelf space by giving books to Denver Public Library. I have kept the most precious books, of course, hoping to take them to Heaven with me. I know I am going there, in case you wondered, because the archbishop promised me that when I finished Colorado Catholicism and the Archdiocese of Denver, 1857-1989.

Also I work with grad students and Denver Public Library to list all new Colorado non-fiction books in The Colorado Book Review. We try to list all books and review the more important ones. I have loved teaching at CU Denver full time since 1990. I am proud of many students whom I have helped to publish their own books or articles over the years, as well as those with whom I have co-authored. I do suspect my students have taught me more than I have taught them.

Q. It seems you are always on the run, giving tours for Colorado history buffs and students, History Colorado and the Smithsonian. Does it feel as though you eat, breathe, drink and sleep history?

A. My wife takes wonderful care of me and runs the household, giving me all the time I want for writing. Since I work at home, I take breaks to go out and putter in the garden, pull a few weeds, and pick flowers. I love gardening. Voltaire, the wonderful French wit and historian, concluded his masterpiece, Candide, with his final advice: “Cultive ton jardin” (cultivate your garden). Voltaire also gave us my favorite definition of history as “a trick we play on the dead.”

For more about Jan MacKell Collins, check out her website at JanMacKellCollins.com.

Women’s History Through New Yes

History Through New Eyes

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

“The last I saw of him he was passing the back of his hand slowly up and down his side…I picked myself up from the opposite side of the foyer where he’d sent me, the place all buckling around me like seen through a sheet of water.” ~ Angel Face” by William Irish, circa 1937

As recently as four decades ago, romanticism ran rampant about girls in trouble. History, both fictional and real, tell us that women were often not respected as a whole, that the public felt any woman foolish enough to get herself in trouble deserved what she got. The plights of widows, the infirm, prostitutes or any other lady sans family were hardly taken seriously. And so, while the gentler sex was often regarded as such, the same were expected to make their way in the world without fuss or fight.

A great many single women in turn worked hard to maintain some sort of lifestyle for themselves, as well as their children. But the possibilities of employment were extremely narrow by today’s standards. Cooks, nurses, maids, milliners, laundresses, prostitutes, teachers, wives – all were low paying jobs which offered no advancement and some inherent dangers. The combination of low income with a lack of government services made for a hard and thankless life, especially in an abusive household.

Strength in the female spirit served to alleviate some women and push them to better themselves. The woman’s wall of will constantly found itself up against the barrier of suppression, but somehow it persevered. Nellie Bly, the first female journalist to really make a name for herself, grew up in a broken home. When her twice-widowed mother married a third time to an abusive drunk, Nellie’s young world turned upside down. Ultimately the young girl had to testify at her mother’s divorce trial. Nellie’s testimony was stirring. “I have heard him scold mother often and heard him use profane language towards her often and call her names: a whore and a bitch…The first time I seen [sic] Ford take hold of mother in an angry manner, he attempted to choke her.”

Despite the testimony of Nellie, her brother, and eleven other witnesses, divorce in the 1870’s was neither fashionable nor acceptable no matter what the circumstances. Only by immediately resuming her station as a widow and quickly erasing the memory her third husband did Nellie’s mother escape persecution. Nellie Bly learned to be a caretaker during her mother’s abusive marriage, and she used her experiences to pursue the most sought after profession of journalist.

Another feminist who managed to burst through the wall of suppression around her was English travel-writer Isabella Bird. In 1873, Bird arrived in Colorado to have a look around. What made her trip notable was the fact that Isabella traveled alone and was unarmed – most extraordinary for a woman of her time. Among her companions and hosts were the wealthy and the poor, landlords, desperados and ranchers. The majority of these were men.

After climbing Long’s Peak and traversing the front range, Bird ultimately favored Estes Park. There she succumbed only slightly to the wiles of “Rocky Mountain Jim” Nugent, an emotionally and physically scarred ruffian who balanced his affections for her with drunken fits of rage. Considering the vulnerability of a “woman alone”, Isabella Bird managed to deal with her experiences in a forthright manner, and without falling victim to the perils of her time.

It is unfortunate that the prevailing accomplishments of Nellie Bly and Isabella Bird do not surface more often. Many women were easy prey for greedy landlords, pimps, and other unkind men who saw them as weak and helpless. The man who did not support his family was rarely chastised for it. And in the days before social security, telephones and state identification, non-supporting fathers went unreported.

Emily French was one of many women who suffered at the hands of an unresponsive husband. When she found herself divorced from Marsena French at the age of forty seven in 1890, Emily began relating her experiences in a diary. She described Marsena as “…an awful mean old fellow, I never knew so until now, I used to think even he was good.”

Indeed, two years before the divorce Emily and her sister made new wills, relieving Marsena as beneficiary. Emily later wrote that Marsena had cheated she and her sister out of $1,000 each. Left penniless by the divorce, Emily was forced to do housework in order to support her disabled sister and two children. Sometimes food was scarce. Other times, Emily ached so badly from the cold she could hardly perform her duties. Despite an educated background, Emily could find no other work.

Ultimately, Emily moved to Denver in an effort to better her situation. Using what little money she had left to buy property, Emily attempted to build a house but could not get a job. After seeking employment in the mountains and another brief stay in Denver, Emily returned to the prairie town of Elbert, and eventually remarried. Emily’s marriage voided her rights to her homestead, which fell back into the hands of Marsena French. Despite Marsena’s non-support of his children and many court battles with Emily both during and after their marriage, he was never held responsible for his actions.

In reality of the day, Emily French had it easy in that her husband never beat her. Such were grounds for the few divorces there were in Victorian times. The man who beat his wife was never publicized, although he occasionally might be told to stop by a relative, neighbor or police officer. Because the wealthy worked hard to cover such sensitive issues as spouse abuse, the poor were left to face the brunt of disapproving gossip.

Of course the lowest form of poverty often fell to prostitutes, and their complaints of abuse often fell on deaf ears. A 1901 issue of the Colorado Springs Gazette, for instance, reported on the trial of Joe Huser: “The complaining witness was Cora Wheeler, a colored woman of Myers Avenue [the red light district in Cripple Creek [Colorado], who alleged that Huser struck her in the face with a hatchet.” Beyond this tiny tidbit of information, nothing was ever mentioned of the case again. The fate of Joe Huser is unknown. Perhaps police officials failed to miss the large scar which certainly must have appeared on Cora’s face. More likely, the papers chose to have as little to say as possible about this horrible act. Prostitutes like Cora Wheeler were hardly worth worrying over, since they “chose” their profession and knew of the consequences that accompanied it.

As late as 1952 and even today, the plight of prostitutes as victims is still taken lightly. Long after prostitution was outlawed in the United States, ladies of the night became personified by actresses dressed in frilly clothes with lots of lipstick. The old dance hall days were portrayed by gay songs and silly skits, with little remembrance of what these women really experienced. It was perhaps easier to make a mockery of the profession rather than to point out its ugliness.

The Westerners Brand Book of 1952 makes an interesting account of Cripple Creek Sheriff Henry Von Phul, who pursued prostitute Mexican Jennie for murder. How Von Phul accomplished this is noted as “one of the finest pieces of detective work in the annals of these gold camps.” That this sheriff broke the law and ignored the reality of Jenny’s plight is of little consequence to the author. But Mexican Jennie, prostitute and battered woman, deserves to have her side of the story told.

By 1909, Jennie had married twice and had taken up with Philip Roberts Jr., a blacksmith. When Roberts moved into Jennie’s cabin at Poverty Gulch he became her pimp, drinking constantly and beating her when she didn’t make enough money to suit him. On Christmas night of 1913, Roberts knocked Jennie to the floor for the last time. This time, Jennie answered his abuse with a fatal gunshot. Jennie left for Mexico that night, leaving Roberts’ body in the cabin.

Three days later, Sheriff Von Phul left Cripple Creek in pursuit of Mexican Jennie. Had it not been for a delay in train service to Juarez, Jennie might have escaped. As it was, she had to travel to El Paso and swim across the Rio Grande River into Mexico. The effort took up a lot of needed time. Jennie likely offered her services to men in a group of army camp followers to get to Chihuahua City, 250 miles from El Paso.

Von Phul heard of celebrations going on in Chihuahua City and successfully apprehended Jennie. When he encountered her at the Capital Hotel, Jennie greeted Von Phul cordially. She did not resist when he took her into custody. When legal problems arose concerning taking a prisoner across the border, Jennie volunteered to walk across herself. Von Phul bribed no less than two people, one of them a criminal from his hometown of Cripple Creek, to accomplish his mission.

At no time did Jennie attempt to escape. Rather, she seemed eager to return to Cripple Creek to plead innocent by self defense. Mug shots of Jennie portray a smiling, stout Mexican woman with shiny black hair and modest earrings. At the top of the photograph are the words “Charged with murder.” After spending six years of a life sentence, Jennie was released due to poor health. She returned to Mexico, where she probably resumed her profession. In 1924, she died of tuberculosis.

Mexican Jennie suffered the unkind fate of being born into an unfair world. The public misjudged her and the authorities denied her rights. Like so many of her kind Jennie’s circumstances decided her destiny, but society rule decided her fate.

Here’s to the Ladies of Prescott Who Rode Fast Horses

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article first appeared in the Frontier Gazette.

When it was first recorded in 1884, the term “cowgirl” referred to a female rancher or even a rancher’s daughter. In time, this single word also came to mean a female cowpuncher, and soon also applied to the resolute and hardy women who rode the rodeo circuit. In the Victorian west, a woman riding rodeo must have seemed appalling to some. But those in the game knew that gals coming from ranching backgrounds, where they worked with horses and cattle daily, were tough gals indeed.

In time, rodeo women became celebrities in their own right. They were vindicated heroes to other women, and men found them both pretty and impressive. During the 1880’s, during a surge of determined western estrogen, more and more women entered the arena at fairs, round ups and shows. Seven gals in particular watched as Prescott, Arizona held its first-ever rodeo in 1888. The following year, when promoters decided to add a women’s “contest”, they were elated.

Those first seven female contestants in 1889 were all locals, who had been born and raised on area ranches. They were “Mesdames T. Atto, Celia Book, D.W. Thorne and Misses Mollie Baker, Minnie Bargeman, Mary Boblett and Lizzie Dillon.” The women would perform in a single competition. A beautiful saddle would go to the winner; her runner-up would receive a fine bridle.

The event took place at the “Driving Park” in the afternoon of the rodeo’s last day. It was Friday, and crowds made their way to see this novel attraction. A cowboy tournament was scheduled too, but the “ladies riding” proved far more appealing. “Greater interest was manifested in the latter than in any of the previous days’ sports of the track,” noted the Prescott Journal-Miner, “every available vehicle and animal in the town being pressed into service to carry passengers, business of all kinds being closed for the afternoon.”

No doubt some betting money was exchanged as the cowgirls took their places. Seven judges—George Augustine, Orick Jackson, Frank Kuehne, Juan Leibas, George L. Merritt, James Rourke and Jeff Young—assembled to watch the contest. How it all went was not recorded by local papers, but the crowd was surely amazed and amused all at the same time. Lizzie Dillon won the saddle and Mary Boblett, a cousin to then-budding historian Sharlot Hall, received the bridle.

They say that despite it’s success, no other “ladies riding” contests took place at Prescott until the 1920’s. Lizzie Dillon married Tom Turner in 1891 and settled down. Likewise for Mary Boblett, who married Amos Hall in 1890, and Minnie Bargeman, who married that same year. Notably, lots of women back then competed no more than once, settling into domestic life with a satisfied smirk on their faces. Others, however, pursued rodeo as a career and did quite well.

But it was not forgotten that those seven brazen and talented women had busted right into the rodeo industry, and their courage inspired others. Soon, trick riders—including amazing women who dove horses into water from high in the air—were all the rage. It could be said that trick shooter Annie Oakley was truly one of America’s first sweethearts. And, their gussied up and colorful outfits inspired men to start adding shiny buttons and polished accouterments to their outfits, too.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West performances, circuses and other events featuring equestrian performances were soon featuring women like Mabel Strickland (pictured) and Tad Lucas, dubbed “Rodeo’s First Lady”. During the early 1900’s, heads turned when Fannie Sperry rode “slick”, the same as the men did. Slick riding consisted of tying the stirrups together under the horse’s belly and sticking your feet in for better balance in the saddle. It could also be dangerous, since it was harder for the rider to kick free if the horse went down.

Prescott’s rodeo cowgirls of 1889 may be in the past, but plenty of other ladies have saddled up in the time since. These include such champions as three-time winner Shirley Davis during the 1960’s, rodeo veteran Alexa Allred during the 70’s, Rose Webb in the 80’s, Twila Haller during the 90’s and most recently, Sheri Sinor-Estrada. These and many others have been recipients of cash prizes and shiny buckles, and there will be more.