Category Archives: Railroad History

Flagstaff’s Flag Has Flown for 160 Over Years

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Jan recently published her newest book, Good Time Girls of Arizona and New Mexico: A Red-Light History of the American Southwest, which includes a chapter about Flagstaff’s demimonde. It can be purchased at Rowman.com. 

This year marks the 164th anniversary of Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale’s expedition in Arizona. In 1855 the road surveyor camped on a hillside roughly midway between New Mexico and California. Above camp towered what are now known as the San Francisco Peaks. Beale’s men trimmed and scaled a tall Ponderosa Pine, and flew the United States flag from the top. In the years following, the area was landmarked with this “flagstaff”.

Flagstaff remained a stopping point along Beale’s route for some twenty years before anyone thought to actually settle there. This was Thomas F. McMillan, who built a cabin at the base of Mars Hill in about 1876—and some say that this was also when the U.S. flag was really raised for the first time. Be it a flag or McMillan’s settlement, something did the trick, for soon the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad announced it would eventually be cutting through the flat area below the San Francisco Peaks. Enterprising pioneers lost little time in scurrying to accommodate railroad workers.

Soon Old Town, as it was later called, sprang up on the southeast slope of today’s Observatory Hill. The numerous business houses included twenty one saloons along the rough main street. There was also at least one “dance house in which the proprietor has a large platform erected which he has furnished with several pistols and guns. When a valiant gets a little troublesome he picks him off at a single shot and that is the end of the creature.”

Yes, early Flagstaff was as rough and tumble as any other western town. Within a few years, however, positive growth was evidenced by the railroad industry, a post office and the shipping of timber, sheep and cattle. Miners were present too, and by 1886 the town had become the largest city on the A & P Railroad between Albuquerque and California. Anything and everything was available at Flagstaff.

Although historian Sharlot Hall of Prescott once called Flagstaff “a third rate mining camp”, Flagstaff soon shed its mining camp status. Throughout the 1890’s, upwards of 100 trains passed through Flagstaff daily to points in every direction. In 1896 the famed Lowell Observatory was built there, and the Northern Arizona Normal School (today’s Northern Arizona University) was established in 1899. So was the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra, which premiered at Babbitt’s Opera House. The Babbitts and their CO Bar Ranch, as well as their trading companies, department store and numerous other businesses, have been known in the Flagstaff area and beyond for generations.

During the early 1900’s, Arizona continued experiencing business growth, including a good-sized red light district. The district got even larger in 1908 with the mayoral election of  Benjamin Doney, who followed through on his plans to lift the hefty laws imposed on the bawdy houses, saloons and gambling dens. He also expanded the red light district to a ten block area. Business licenses for bordellos were in fact lowered even as respectable businesses were required to pay more. Doney’s actions were appalling to certain citizens, state legislators and reformists, and by 1910 he was out. The red light district closed altogether following the gory and unsolved murder of Madam May Prescott in 1916.

Two years after Route 66 was completed in 1926, Flagstaff was incorporated as a city. Then in 1930, planet Pluto was discovered from Lowell Observatory. The discovery rocked the astronomical world and Flagstaff became famous all over the globe. In 1955 the United States Naval Observatory established a station at Flagstaff, and the Clark Telescope was used to map the moon during the Apollo expeditions of the 1960’s. Today the city even has its own asteroids, 2118 Flagstaff and 6582 Flagsymphony. And in 2001, Flagstaff was named the first ever “International Dark Sky City” by the International Dark Sky Association.

Back on Earth, Flagstaff waned a wee bit for a few decades. But revitalization efforts that began in 1987 have resulted in an artistic blend of old with new. In the downtown area especially, historic preservation efforts still stand out with such historic structures as the Hotel Weatherford and the Hotel Monte Vista, not to mention numerous other shops, taverns, businesses and restaurants. The historic Depot, the Museum Club, San Francisco Street—all reflect on Flagstaff’s colorful and alluring past.

Colorado City, Colorado: Gateway to the Goldfields

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article have appeared in the Colorado Gambler magazine and the Ute Pass Vacation Guide

In 1859, the rough and tumble town of Colorado City debuted as the portal to Ute Pass, next to what would eventully become Colorado Springs, Colorado. The pass was an ancient Indian trail skirting up the north base of Pikes Peak and on to the gold fields on the western side of the state. As  more travelers utilized the pass in their quest for gold, Colorado City grew in the form of stick‑built shacks and log cabins. Later, fine stone and brick structures would mingle with tidy wood bungalows and impressive Victorian homes.

Everything a prospector could want was available in Colorado City, including mining supplies, pack mules, grub and grog. There were also a variety of vices, from drinking and dining to poker and prostitution. Local merchants made a tidy profit on the transient population, which flowed constantly in and out of town.

When Colorado Springs was platted in 1872, liquor was banned within its city limits. Then in 1878, Manitou Springs formed to the west. Colorado City, nestled snugly between the two resort towns, prospered: not only as a “sin city” but as a blue collar town as well. A number of railroad workers were employed by the Colorado Midland Railroad. Local mills, namely the Golden Cycle Mill, processed gold ore shipped by train from teh famed Cripple Creek District on the back side of Pikes Peak, and other area mines. The city became a mesh of church‑going families, would‑be prospectors, wild folk and nomads.

Look down Colorado Avenue today and it is easy to envision a Colorado City of the past. Horse races and shoot outs took place on the dirt streets with alarming frequency. Wagons and horses sent pedestrians scurrying as the street bustled with life. The old buildings sported every business house imaginable, and the shouts of street hawkers mingled with the bawdy music flowing from the saloons.

Upwards of 24 taverns once lined the south side of Colorado Avenue. Many of them connected via underground tunnels to the respectable businesses on the north side of the street. In back of the saloons, madams like Laura Bell McDaniel, Mamie Majors and Nellie White were the reigning pleasure queens. The houses of “ill fame” spanned four blocks on Cucharras St. The lawmen and temperance unions of Colorado City levied their own public war against the shameful nightlife, but it was sometimes a losing battle. When the city outlawed liquor, some of the saloon owners and prostitutes started their own town, Ramona, outside the city limits.

On the north side of town, churches, lodges, meeting halls and more respectable social places mingled among the quaint homes and upstanding citizens of the town. Still, there were some real characters adding much color to Colorado City. Prairie Dog O’Byrne’s taxi wagon held a cage with a pet prairie dog inside and was pulled by two tame elk. Judge Baldwin was an honorary judge who was known for his love of libations. Anthony Bott, a founder of the town, also made a name for himself in the Cripple Creek District. Dusty McCarty was a blinded miner who honed his skills at bartending and was the best source of where to go and what to do in town. Bob Ford, the killer of Jesse James, dealt faro in Colorado City before going off to Creede and getting killed.

In 1917 Colorado City was annexed to Colorado Springs, and Colorado City’s wild days ended. Since that time, the city has evolved into an historic section of the Pikes Peak region with a variety of novelty  shops, boutiques and eateries. Neighborhood tours reveal an outstanding array of unique architectural designs, including a few pre-manufactured homes that were literally purchased from catalogs—in essence, the first modular homes in the state.

The Old Colorado City History Center at 1 South 24th Street houses a museum with photographs and hundreds of artifacts outlining Colorado City’s wild and woolly past. To see historic Colorado City on the way to Cripple Creek, take Highway 24 west at Colorado Springs and turn right at 21st Street. For more information, call the Old Colorado History Center at 719-636-1225 or the Old Colorado City Associates at 719-577-4112.

Pikes Peak, America’s Mountain

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Ute Pass Vacation Guide and The Colorado Gambler magazine.

Significant in history and world-reknowned, Pikes Peak is honored as one of the best-known landmarks in America. For centuries, the mountain looming above Colorado Springs has served as a vantage point from all directions across the state and beyond. The unmistakable landmark first guided the Indians, then the fur trappers, and later the white men who inhabit the areas around it now. In 1802, Pike’s Peak was part of the Louisiana Purchase.

When the famous explorer Zebulon Pike determined to scale the peak in 1806, his efforts were somewhat ridiculous by today’s standards. Naming the mountain Grand Peak, Pike denounced it as unclimbable and reaching a height of 18,581 feet. Had Pike chosen a better time of year (he was there in November), better clothing and a better grasp of the peak’s actual altitude of 14,110 feet, he probably would have made it to the summit. Instead, Pike had to be content with being the first white man to note the mountain on maps.

Between 1806 and 1820, the peak was alternately referred to as Grand Peak and Highest Peak. Many historians credit Major Stephen H. Long as the first white man to climb the mountain in the latter year. However, even Long gave the honor to Dr. Edwin James, himself an historian with the expedition. In reality, James was accompanied by Long and two others on the journey. Apparently, because James was first to actually set foot on the summit, Long named the mountain James Peak.

Over the next twenty years, the name of James Peak was gradually replaced with Pikes Peak. Lt. John C. Fremont sealed the official name in his travel logs. By the 1850’s, everyone seemed Pikes Peak-bound as gold booms began all over Colorado. Clothing and supply stores back east manufactured items bearing the Pike’s Peak label. Guidebooks and maps were in abundance, all describing the best ways to reach Pikes Peak country and what the traveler might find upon arrival.

As Colorado launched into its gold boom era, Julia Archibald Holmes became the first white woman to scale the peak. In 1858, Holmes, her husband John and four others from Kansas included the peak in their sight-seeing tour while prospecting for gold. So wide-spread was the quest for gold that even Denver was included in the “Pikes Peak or Bust” rush of 1859.

As thousands of miners flocked to the rocky mountains to seek their fortunes, their trek was aptly titled the Great Pikes Peak Gold Rush. The spirit of those first pioneers who sacrificed their homes and even their families to find Pikes Peak was an inspiration to others. Because of them, millions of people found the courage to come west and settle in new territory. The sight of Pikes Peak, even hundreds of miles in the distance, gave them hope. Many of those pioneers wound up at Colorado City, a supply town established at the base of the peak near Ute Pass.

When Colorado Springs sprang to life in 1871, a popular pastime was to scale the peak. A U.S. Signal Corps station, constructed from rocks, was used as a weather station. Later abandoned, the building eventually became a tourist hotel. The number of tourists to the summit escalated in 1873 with a mild gold strike on the eastern slopes. The strike turned out to be a hoax, however.

As it was, hoaxes and jokes upon the unsuspecting public seemed to be running rampant through Colorado about this time. Other such mischief included the 1876 “death” of a non-existent baby named Erin O’Keefe. One John O’Keefe claimed his infant daughter had been consumed by mountain rats atop the peak. A realistic photograph showed Erin’s grave surrounded by several mourners. Tourists flocked to the burial site to see the grave and leave trinkets before the hoax was revealed.

For the next several years, Pikes Peak gained even more notoriety. In 1884 a route was established for a railway to the summit, but was abandoned. A few years later, Dr. A.G. Lewis homesteaded 160 acres at the summit. Amazingly, Lewis was able to grow a few crops as required by the 1862 Homestead Act. Lewis’ intent was to build a tourist trap illustrating his crops. A carriage road was built in anticipation for the new business.

Unfortunately for Lewis, railroad pioneer David H. Moffat succeeded in acquiring a 99-year lease on just five acres of the summit. Lewis lost his claim in court, and a cog railway began daily excursions to the top of Pikes Peak beginning in 1891. Viewed as one of the most scenic rides in America, the train ran a distance of 8.9 miles, climbing 7,518 feet (the Pikes Peak Cog Railroad is currently closed for needed renovations, but will be open again next year). A daily guide was given to passengers, listing visitors of the day before and expounding on other interesting sites in the region.

The same year as the premier of the cog railway, the Cripple Creek District on the backside of Pikes Peak experienced the last, and one of the largest, gold booms in Colorado’s history. Numerous trails were established and there was talk of building a road to the top of Pikes Peak from the Cripple Creek side. The closest anyone came, however, was at Seven Lakes, which had opened as a resort quite some years before some seven miles below the summit.

The peak gained further popularity in 1895 when Katharine Lee Bates, a professor at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, published the anthem “America The Beautiful”. The song was based on her visit to the peak two years earlier. More and more travelers made the summit of Pikes Peak a destination spot. In fact, one might say that in the rush to see Pikes Peak, people began turning it into a race of sorts. Excursions of all kinds, from wildflower-picking expeditions to hiking trips to the first wedding in 1905, were the popular mode of the day.

There were tragedies here and there: In August of 1911, Mr. and Mrs. William A. Skinner learned a hard lesson about the perils of hiking unprepared on Pike’s Peak. Ignoring the advice of guides and the editor of the Pike’s Peak Daily News, Mrs. Skinner insisted on setting out for the summit late in the afternoon. Snow clouds looming on the horizon were soon hovering over the couple, who were poorly dressed for the trek and already tuckered out. After a two-foot snowfall during the night, the couple was found frozen to death about two miles below the summit the next day.

The unfortunate fate of the Skinners hardly stopped other hikers, or drivers. In 1916, the Pikes Peak Automobile Company opened the toll road to the summit. An annual hill climb was also established, which steadily gained world fame. The Pikes Peak Auto Hill Climb is now called the Pikes Peak International Hlil Climb and takes place each year. The event draws thousands, not to mention some very famous participants.

Other innovative news about Pikes Peak came in 1918 with the opening of Barr Trail. Built by Fred Barr, the trail took four years to construct and included a camp halfway to the summit which is still in use today. The Barr Trail opening was followed by the establishment of the AdAmAn Club in 1923. Each year, a new member is chosen to join the group, which treks to the summit on New Years’ Eve to set off fire works at midnight. In 1935, this group gained notoriety as they broadcasted greetings from the peak to Admiral Richard C. Byrd in the Antarctic. Just six years earlier, Bill Williams gained fame by pushing a peanut to the top of Pikes Peak with his nose.

It has been nearly 200 years since the first explorers spotted “America’s Mountain”, Pikes Peak, off in the distance. Since that time, untold numbers of men and women around the world have traversed the United States in search of this great landmark. They were looking for opportunity and freedom they had only imagined in their dreams. They found it, too, here in the American west where the untamed land dared the bravest to fight for peace, happiness, and the American way of life.

The Woman Who Dressed as a Man

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Colorado Gamber and the Ute Pass Vacation Guide.

It was a hot, dusty and dry Colorado August day in 1899 as the Colorado Midland Railroad chugged into the one horse town of Florissant. As the train came to a stop at the depot, the restless population looked on as passengers disembarked from the train. In such a sleepy town, the coming of the train was always an event to look forward to. New faces bearing news from Colorado Springs were always welcome, and residents yearned for anything fresh to break up the monotony of everyday life.

One woman in particular seemed to stand out from the crowd on the depot platform. For one thing, she was alone and no one was there to greet her—a most unusual circumstance in those times. Furthermore, the gal hardly seemed lost or lonely. Rather, she bore a determined look on her face as she gazed up and down the street. Upon spying the nearest hotel, the woman gathered her bags up and made for the lodge as if she had a mission in mind.

Once the lone traveler had disappeared within the depths of the hotel, the folks watching the train forgot all about her. The exception may have been a reporter for the Cripple Creek Times, who was in town skulking around for fresh news. Alas, there just plain wasn’t much going on. So when the mysterious femme was next seen leaving the hotel dressed in men’s clothing, she became front page news.

In 1899, cross dressing—as most state and city ordinances referred to it—was most inappropriate, as well as downright illegal. Notorious western corset-busters such as Calamity Jane and Pearl Hart were one thing. But this woman had actually appeared quite refined before her change from a ladies’ dress to men’s pantaloons. To make matters worse, the seeming suffragette refused to even acknowledge the odd looks coming her way as she walked with purpose out of town. According the newspaper she was next seen headed toward Guffey in the Freshwater Mining District, that determined look still sparkling in her eye.

For three days, the Cripple Creek Times continued to speculate on the woman’s activities. The hotel front desk yielded little information, except that the lady was from somewhere back east. She had spoken very little, paid cash, and left her room without checking at the desk. As the girl presumably continued her journey to Guffey, newsmongers scrambled for some clues as to her motives and interviewed witnesses as to her whereabouts.

The mystery was finally solved on the third day, when the Times published the rest of the story. Apparently, the woman’s fiancé had suddenly abandoned her in the east, and subsequent inquiries revealed he had taken up with another woman whose expansive ranch was located nearby. The lone traveler had disguised herself in men’s clothing in order to spy on the two and see just what they were up to.

The couple were not at the ranch when the she-man arrived, but a ranch hand remembered her visit. He said it was mighty curious that the young “man” was willingly greeted by the family dog. Also, he said, he began asking questions and leaning towards the cowpoke for closer look at his face. That was when the strange visitor took “his” leave.

That was the end of the story, at least as far as the Times was concerned, although there was some chatter in the paper about the fiance’s mother, who apparently had disapproved of the mysterious femme. Whether the lady reconciled with her unrequited lover remains unknown. But at the very least, she did make history as the first woman daring enough to walk the streets of Florissant dressed as the opposite sex.

Alpine, Colorado: the Town That Wouldn’t Die

Portions of this article first appeared in Colorado Central magazine.

c 2017 by Jan MacKell Collins

There is much to say about Colorado ghost towns that have found new life in more recent years. While some places have simply vanished, others have been regenerated in one form or another. One such place is Alpine, located about twelve miles from Nathrop on Highway 162.

One hundred and forty years ago, Alpine began as a supply stop on the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railway. Although the first house was supposedly built in 1877 by B.L. Riggins, Alpine’s post office actually opened in October of 1874. A Colonel Chapman, whose first name appears lost to history, was the first mayor.

Alpine chugged along nicely as a whistlestop on the railroad until May of 1880, when the town incorporated. The area was growing as minerals were discovered. In time the Black Crook, the Britenstein, the Livingston, the Mary Murphy and the Tilden would be amongst the many mines around Alpine. Chapman would soon build the Tilden Smelting & Sampling Works, employing roughly 40 men to process up to 30 tons of ore daily. Alpine’s cemetery had already been established with the death of James W. Couch in January.

Most references to Alpine claim there were over 500 people there during 1880. Locals interviewed during the 1940’s put the number at two thousand or more. Their estimates, however, may have included those who lived outside the city limits, for the actual 1880 census shows only 335 people in Alpine proper.

Most of the men in town were employed in mining. Over a dozen stores, including general merchandise and drugstores, were in business. Bakeries and restaurants fed the people. Several hotels were open, including the Arcade and the Badger. There were at least two barbers, four or more blacksmiths, and several attorneys. A lumberyard sold timber. There was even a real estate office and three banks. A stage company took travelers to nearby St. Elmo and beyond.

Some of Alpine’s residents commuted to work elsewhere, for in 1880 construction began on the Alpine Tunnel a few miles away. The purpose of the tunnel, which was largely financed by Colorado Governor John Evans, was to extend the rails of the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad to Gunnison. At over 11,500′ in elevation, Alpine Tunnel was no place for the weak. The railroad ended up offering free transportation to any man who came to work on the tunnel. Over 10,000 men took the job over time, but many subsequently quit due to the altitude.

Workers at the tunnel were housed in six cabins on the west end, and there was also a settlement called Atlantic on the east end. There is little doubt, however, that at least some of the laborers chose the cozier quarters at Alpine, and history has sometimes confused the town with the tunnel, as well as Alpine Station not far from town. But only Alpine had any real entertainment. There were between two and 23 saloons depending on the source. A two story dance hall also provided a place for the only two musicians in town to play.  

The rough environment at Alpine was proven, at least in part, by the shooting of G.W. McIlhany in August. The census does, however, record Police Judge C.R. Fitch and at least three police officers, including a city marshal. Even so, life at Alpine could be quite gritty; in July, Patrick Dempsey had been dead nearly three months when his body was found in nearby Grizzly Gulch, his head crushed by a boulder.

Alpine’s rough reputation was furthered by the lack of many churches in town, although the site of at least one house of worship remains. There was also a Sunday school run by one of the ladies in town. Perhaps a lack of any other proper culture was what inspired the owner of Alpine’s newspaper, the True Fissure, to pick up his printing press and move to St. Elmo.

In 1881 a school was at last provided by George Knox, although the town was yet so wild that it was said Knox declined to bring his own wife and seven children to Alpine. But there were families, as illustrated by the 1880 census, as well as the death of three-year-old Mattie Pitts in 1882. By then, however, St. Elmo was growing so fast that it quickly usurped Alpine as a place of importance.

Folks remained at Alpine longer than most believe. Burials continued at Alpine’s little cemetery, and it was not until 1904 that the post office closed. The Alpine Tunnel collapsed in 1910, killing some men who were overcome by coal smoke. The tunnel was never rebuilt since several area mines, including the Mary Murphy, were shutting down for good. Alpine’s fate as a ghost town was sealed. Or was it?

Over time, some buildings blew over while others were moved. But at least a few homes remained occupied by itinerants well into the 1920’s. Two of them, notably, were Pearline “Princess” Zabriskie and her friend, Napoleon Jones. Zabriskie in particular was interesting because she claimed to be a Polish princess and wrote a paper on the value of molybdenum and uranium in the region.

In reality, according to the 1920 census when both Zabriskie and Jones lived in St. Elmo, “Lady Zabriskie” was born in Nebraska. She also moved around a lot, taking up in empty homes not just at Alpine, but also St. Elmo and other area towns including Romley and Hancock. In 1924 she was found frozen to death and buried in Salida. Likewise for Jones, who lived mostly at St. Elmo from 1900 until he too died in 1928. His obituary claimed he was the last official resident of Alpine.

When historian Muriel Sibell Wolle visited Alpine in 1949, there were still a few buildings standing, and the area was becoming a popular recreation area. People began building summer homes and fixed up some of the remaining buildings. Today it is difficult to discern the old from the new, but some of the original Alpine remains to an extent. The Alpine Cemetery also remains as a testament to the original town, even if the graveyard is located next to a newer home. Of the 39 graves, only a few markers remained as late as 1986 and the grounds may be on private property. Even so, a visit to the area is still worth the trip.