Category Archives: Teller County Colorado

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 4

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

The following is excerpted from Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado 1860-1930 (University of New Mexico Press, 2003). Click here to order: https://www.unmpress.com/books/brothels-bordellos-and-bad-girls/9780826333438

Chapter Four: How Colorado City Came to Be

All About Rahab

Of Jerico’s Rahab, we’ve read the report

That she made her living with amorous sport,

She concealed on her roof both of Joshua’s spies—

(Is it possible they became clientele guys?)

Down a rope of red drapes, they fled from her shack;

Then to their camp, they sneaked their way back.

To Joshua they said: “We got some good dope;

But we cut a deal that you’ll honor, we hop.

You see, there’s this bimbo who hid us at night;

Please keep her household safe from the fight.

She’ll hang a red curtain right on her wall;

Our boys must not mess with that whorelady’s hall!”

So her signal was honored—fortuitous drape!

And Joshua’s rowdies went elsewhere to rape.

Now that is the reason, to this very day

Crimson curtains are hung where hookers do play.

~ Charles F. Anderson

The Pikes Peak Gold Rush of 1859 created a stir not just in Denver, but in other parts of the state as well. Hundreds of prospectors and merchants were making their way to the gold fields on the western slope of Colorado, often encountering angry Native Americans in their quests. The trails south of Denver included Ute Pass, an ancient Indian trail that skirted the base of Pikes Peak near today’s Colorado Springs. Prospectors J.B. Kennedy, Dr. J.L. Shank and D. M. Slaughter, the first men to stake claims in South Park, were later killed by Indians near Kenosha Pass. Even as late as 1869, Major James B. Thompson noted 200 Utes who had a winter hunting camp near today’s Cripple Creek. Throughout the winter of 1874-75, Ute leader Ouray camped near Florissant with 600 other Utes.

Despite a few skirmishes with Indians, however, white settlers continued migrating into the Pikes Peak Region. The trail from Colorado City actually began at the opening to several canyons comprising Ute Pass, and it wasn’t long before a town formed to furnish supplies for travelers heading West via the pass. When it was first established in 1859, Colorado City was every bit a notoriously rough western town. Long before Colorado Springs came along with its anti-liquor laws and elite citizenship, Colorado City sprouted as a thriving supply town. The place was a virtual melting pot for easterners who swarmed the state in search of gold. All the required elements were present: ramshackle houses, churches, a school, hotels and saloons. The first tavern was opened in 1860 by John George. Accordingly, Colorado City’s population grew to include enterprising merchants, faithful families, hopeful miners—and prostitutes. There is no doubt that the soiled doves who flocked to Colorado City saw golden opportunities. Trains and freighters stopped daily on their way to the gold fields, initially bringing lots of single and lonely men. In those early days, the business was hardly regulated and these women had the freedom to work and live where they chose.

In 1861 Colorado City was made the capitol of Colorado Territory. A series of courthouses were built in an effort to turn Colorado City from a blue collar, transient town to a first class city. The most notable of these was a courthouse located inside of what was known as Doc Garvin’s cabin. The tiny, one-story log cabin was originally located at 2608 West Colorado Avenue, but has been moved several times in the last century. Colorado City aspired to become the state capitol, but its efforts were in vain. Visiting politicians were less than impressed with the rough and wild city. The capitol was moved to Denver, and in 1873 the new, elite, and ostentatious city of Colorado Springs managed to win the county seat. Founded by Quaker William Jackson Palmer, Colorado Springs sought to be the “Saratoga of the West” with fancy homes, nice hotels and a variety of tuberculosis sanitariums that were all the rage among suffering easterners. Furthermore, Palmer’s wife, Queen, talked her husband into outlawing liquor houses within in the city limits. It stood to reason, then, that Colorado City should excel where Colorado Springs did not. A variety of activities, from prize fighting to prostitution to drinking to dancing, went on at all hours around what is now the 2500 block of Colorado Avenue.

In fact, much of Colorado City’s new commerce was generated by Colorado Springs. Although residents and authorities in Colorado Springs frowned on Colorado City, many of the former’s residents were regular patrons of “Old Town”, whose saloons and sporting houses were quickly growing in number. Do-gooders in Colorado Springs tried to blame the Colorado Midland Railroad for bringing in undesirables and encouraging the saloons, parlor houses and Chinese opium dens in Colorado City. But the fact was, Colorado City already had these elements long before the railroad came through in the 1880’s. Plus, the town was sandwiched between Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs, so passage through Colorado City was absolutely necessary in order to access Ute Pass.

In an effort to mask the activities of Colorado Springs and Colorado City’s more prominent citizens, tunnels were built from the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad tracks south of Washington (now Cucharras Street) which led to the gambling houses and brothels of Colorado City. Later, tunnels were also built from the north side of Colorado Avenue to the south side, so visitors to the casinos and bordellos could avoid being seen. From south side gambling houses like Jacob Schmidt’s at 2611 W. Colorado, the Argyle Block and Geising & Perbula’s Saloon, patrons like “Eat ‘Em Up Jake” could slip out the back way and through a tunnel or a discreet hallway to the bordellos across the alley.

Oddly, the first 25 years of Colorado City’s growth are rather obscure. The 1879 city directory shows a mere 99 entries, perhaps due to the transient population. By 1880 Colorado Springs was fairly booming, but Colorado City was still not much more than a village with a few streets and no visible red-light district. That’s not to say that some women did not ply their trade in the city limits, especially in 1884 when the population surged to 400 souls. That year, there were four known saloons operated by Henry Coby, Al Green, John Keller and Charlie Roberts.

By 1886, saloon owners included N. Byron Hames with his Hoffman House, Alfred Green, Dave Rees of the Windsor Café, John Keller whose Ash Saloon also served as a general store, Charles Roberts, John Rohman, Jack Wade and Larry Watts. In all, there were twelve to sixteen saloons. There were also two justice’s of the peace who were apparently trying to gain some sort of order in rowdy little Old Town. One of the earliest attempts to close down gambling was noted in the November 26, 1887 issue of the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph, which unaccountably reported, “The gambling houses of Colorado City have re-opened and are now running full blast.”

Apparently, city authorities had already attempted unsuccessfully to shut gambling down. With all those saloons, more than a few prostitutes were surely present as well. One of the first prostitutes on record at Colorado City was probably Mrs. Isabelle Semple, who resided on Washington Avenue in 1886. Isabelle died in 1901. A more famous early madam was Minnie Smith, a.k.a. Lou Eaton, a sometime gambler and madam who was well known throughout Colorado including Buena Vista, Creede and Denver’s Market Street, where she was known as both Lou Eaton and Dirty Alice. In Colorado City Minnie purchased a large old two story house on the south side of Colorado Avenue. She was in her mid-thirties at the time and described as “a slender little woman, not good looking and a vixen when aroused.” Vixen was right; Minnie was well-known for her terrible temper and was in trouble a lot during her short stay in Colorado City. Once she was brought in on charges of nearly beating a lawyer to death with the butt of a gun, and early magazines sported engravings of her horsewhipping a man she caught cheating at cards.

By 1888, the number of saloons in Colorado City had grown to twenty-three, and included those run by such notable operators as T.R. Lorimer, Henry Coby, Byron Hames and Alfred Green. A glassworks factory at Wheeler and 25th Street manufactured local liquor bottles. The population had swelled to fifteen hundred, mostly due to industry growth as the Colorado Midland Railroad took root and a number of factories appeared. Nearly thirty years after Colorado City’s inception, the city fathers finally decided it was time to create such necessities as a police department and appointed city positions. Police Magistrate Renssolear Smith oversaw the first of two city halls, which was built at 2902 West Colorado Avenue. By then shootouts, drunken brawls and “good ol’ boy” fights had become common sights, and horse racing up and down Colorado Avenue was a popular pastime.

In the midst of this uproar, a number of single women were living on Colorado Avenue. Many of their occupations are unclear but for that of Mrs. Bell McDaniel, better known as Laura Bell McDaniel. Within a year of her arrival, the enterprising woman had access to twenty-four saloons and only a handful of competitors. Laura Bell’s sisters of the underworld included Miss Belle Barlow, Miss Daisy Bell, Miss Fernie Brooks, Mamie Maddern, Emma Wilson and Hazy Maizie, a laudanum addict. In those early days of rampant prostitution at Colorado City, most of the women seem to have plied their trade along Colorado Avenue. When the Argyle block at 2603-2607 West Colorado was built in 1889, the downstairs was used as a saloon with gaming rooms and retail establishments. Mr. Connell, the original owner, later sold the building and the upstairs was divided into apartments and used by prostitutes.

As late as 1890, women such as Minnie Smith were still conducting business on Colorado Avenue. A number of single women such as Miss Lizzie Thompson, Miss Kate Herzog, Miss Edna Ingraham, Mary Dean, Fannie E. Eubanks, M.J. Duffield, J. Erlinger, Miss M.H. Richards and Daisy Johnson however, began appearing on Washington Avenue one block south of Colorado as well. The 1890 Sanborn Maps do not show any “female boarding” on either Washington or the main drag, Colorado Avenue. A number of saloons on Colorado, however, are depicted as having rooms above them or behind them which might have served as brothels. Most conveniently, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad had by then laid its tracks down Washington Avenue, providing much opportunity for prostitutes to do business with male travelers passing through town.

In addition, Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for 1892 show “female boarding”—the early term for female-occupied brothels—in two buildings each on the north and south sides of Washington Avenue between 1st and 2nd Streets. Two other notable women on Washington, a physician named Mrs. N. Albrecht and a “colored” woman named Mrs. Conrad Alesatha, are worth mentioning because they too may have had something to do with the red-light district. Other girls, such as Miss Fernie Brooks, were living yet another block south on Grand Avenue.

The new Police Magistrate, J.J. Guth, was by now hearing a series of complaints from citizens about the growing red-light population. In late January 1890, the Colorado City Iris commented on saloon owner Byron Hames, who made a speech on behalf of prostitutes at a mass meeting. In the wake of Hames’ speech, police responded by conducting raids in May. One arrestee was Mamie Maddern, who was operating out of a shack. Police arrested Mamie and several men. One of the men, Fred Thornton, later returned and, according to the newspaper, began to “frolic with Mamie.” Customer Henry Pettis objected to this and shot at Thornton three times, hitting him twice.

In 1891 there were finally enough established brothels in Colorado City to merit a listing in the city directory. The six bordellos were discreetly listed as boarding houses, and the directory also listed 21 saloons. One of the taverns was the Palace at 25th Street and Colorado Avenue which listed Frank James, brother of Jessie James, as a card dealer. Frank was no stranger to the red-light districts of Colorado, having been written up in the Boulder County Herald in 1882 for brandishing a revolver in a Boulder bordello and making threats. After frightening several working girls, James was arrested and hauled to the cooler to rethink his actions. Other notable places in Colorado City included Byron Hames’ Hoffman House at 2508 Colorado Avenue, the Nickel Plate at 2528 Colorado Avenue, the Bucket of Blood located along Fountain Creek at 25th Street, and the Silver State at 2602 Colorado Avenue. Nearly every saloon in Colorado City stayed open twenty-four hours a day and usually had gambling upstairs.

The city authorities were no doubt up in arms over so many saloons and the disgraceful lack of decorum they displayed. Both the saloons and the brothels were quickly escalating out of control. In January of 1891 a girl named Clara who worked for Laura Bell McDaniel attempted suicide by taking eight grams of morphine. The newspaper predicted she would die, although she was being attended to by a physician. Little else was revealed about Clara, except that she had recently migrated from Denver and wore eye glasses.

Later that month, Minnie Smith made a trip to Denver under her pseudonym, Dirty Alice. She was arrested on the 24th for intoxication and released on the condition she would come right back and pay her fine. Instead Minnie disappeared and was thought to have gone to Creede, where she used her money from Colorado City to open a well-known sporting house. Then in May banjo player William Clark of the Crystal Palace went on a drinking spree. When he couldn’t sleep, Clark took some morphine and overdosed. The physician called to his side misdiagnosed his malady as a “brain infection” and administered even more morphine. Clark died at the tender age of thirty.

The Crystal Palace was no doubt a rough place. The dance hall and brothel probably opened in about 1889 when Bob Ford, the killer of Jessie James, was dealing faro there. If the stories of both Bob Ford and Jesse James’s brother Frank James working there at different times are true, they are mighty ironic stories indeed. By May of 1890 it was also known as the Crystal Palace Theater. Later, it was also referred to as simply The Palace. On April 20, 1892, the Colorado City Iris reported on one Ed Andress, proprietor of the Crystal Palace. Andress was arrested for being drunk and disorderly and fined $10 and costs. Unable to pay the entire fine in cash, Andress threw in his watch. He was arrested again the next day for running a disorderly house. This time the fine was $58.05 and Andress lost his license.

Later that year city authorities decided to exercise more control over the red-light district by building a new city hall at 119 South 26th Street, literally around the corner from the district. By then the sporting houses on Washington were so active that the original courthouse, four blocks away, was too far for the frequent police trips. Colorado City authorities realized that the city could make more money from fining brothels each month than it could by closing them. Accordingly, the city assessed fines for a variety of violations regarding prostitution, and began reeling the money in with a vengeance.

Still, arresting sinners proved a difficult job for Colorado City authorities. Many of the early town trustees and officers were saloon owners themselves. To make matters worse, most prostitutes had no problem paying a little ol’ fine if it meant they could stay in business. The surge in prostitution at Colorado City during the 1890’s alarmed city officials, as well as the media. The Colorado Springs Gazette pounced on every chance to report on the goings-on in the district. When Bell Barker died of a morphine overdose in 1893, the paper reported that her Colorado City friends buried her “in good style”, but that Billie Huffman, “the tin horn who was living with her” left the country.

Similar sentiments were expressed about Minnie Smith. After Colorado City, Minnie had gone to Creede and then Cripple Creek. There, she allegedly ran a rooming house that was actually a parlor house over a saloon on Bennett Avenue. Unfortunately, forty-five-year-old Minnie was not distinguished enough for Cripple Creek, and the competition proved too tough for her. When Minnie committed suicide with morphine in Cripple Creek in 1893 or 1894, her body was brought back to Colorado City for burial. Minnie was actually buried in Evergreen Cemetery beside her first husband, Royster Smith. Allegedly Minnie’s grave mate on her other side was Bruce Younger of the Younger Gang. When Bruce sickened and died “an ugly death” in1890, the under world of Colorado City paid for his funeral and gave him the plot next to the Smiths. No records of these burials appear to exist. Minnie also left a considerable estate, but what became of it is unknown.

Drug overdoses, both intentional and accidental, were not at all unusual. In November another Crystal Palace employee, Oscar Bills, died from smoking opium. A Chinaman known as Kim Yonk was arrested in connection with the death because Bills had recently visited his opium den. Around the same time Miss Remee, a “variety artist” at the Crystal Palace, took morphine in a suicide attempt. She was saved, but threatened to do it again. Finally, in January of 1894, a dance hall girl from the Crystal Palace was arrested for robbery and thrown in jail. Authorities had had enough and ordered the place closed, and proprietor C.N. Hamlin was fined $55 for keeping a disorderly house. Hamlin married one of his girls, Mrs. Hazel Levitt, just a few months later.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, better known as the WCTU, was waiting for chances such as the closing of the Crystal Palace. In 1894, the WCTU submitted a petition to impose hours of operation on all saloons, bowling alleys, halls and “other resorts”. Only one-hundred-fifty-two people signed the petition, but city authorities had just begun. A widely publicized raid in 1896 was followed by a series of new ordinances: “Keepers of disorderly houses shall not refuse to admit officers. Officers may break doors and arrest with or without warrant.” Getting caught in the act of prostitution was a $300 fine, with additional punishments for frequenting opium joints, houses of prostitution, or dance halls. Furthermore, music was not even permitted at houses of ill fame or saloons.

The new ordinances went into effect almost immediately, but a raid in February netted only two girls and their visitors. In April of 1896, another police raid netted thirty-three arrests, plus two vagrants who stole a pair of clippers from a local barbershop. But still the girls came, and many stayed. Both Ida Anderson and Mary Franklin moved to Colorado City in 1896, staying as late as 1900 and 1906, respectively. Colorado City reacted to the influx of newcomers by passing even more new ordinances as misdemeanor offenses. They included laws against impersonating an officer, concealing weapons, nudity, indecent dress, cross-dressing, selling lewd or indecent books or pictures, public or private drunkenness, keno tables, faro banks, shuffle boards, playing bagatelle or cards, gambling, possessing gambling devices, and disorderly houses.

Also within the new ordinances houses of ill fame were banned within three miles of the city limits. Houses of prostitution who violated the ordinance were fined $300. Prostitutes were fined $10-50. Dance halls were assessed a $25-$100 fine. A new curfew was also imposed: 9 p.m. from March 1 to August 31 and 8 p.m. from September 1 to February 28 for anyone under the age of fifteen. Saloons, which were also still forbidden to play music, were not allowed to admit minors. Finally, saloons, tippling houses and dram shops were to be closed from midnight to 6 a.m., and all day on Sundays. For a few years the new ordinances seemed to work, although Sanborn Maps indicate the presence of more brothels on Washington Avenue and twenty-two saloons along Colorado Avenue.

Chief of Police George G. Birdsall, who was appointed in 1900, vowed that things would change. One of Birdsall’s first moves was to prohibit gambling in 1901. But by then, the shady ladies of Colorado City were running amuck, aided by such prominent establishments in the district as the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association at the southwest corner of 6th Street and Washington . Throughout the year, more and more girls showed up to ply their trade. Some left, some didn’t. Business flourished as even more saloons and gambling halls opened. Even girls like Georgia Hayden, who had been in Cripple Creek since 1893 and was a favorite of mining millionaire Jimmy Burns, came to try their luck. Among the new girls were veterans like Laura Bell and Mamie Majors. By 1902 there were still twenty-seven saloons and more than thirty combined saloons and gambling halls. In addition, a large number of “dressmakers” and other single women were occupying either side of the red-light district on Washington Avenue. The brothels along Washington included the Union Hotel at 708 Washington, the Central Hotel at the northwest corner of Washington & 6th Street, and eight houses in the 600 block. Prostitution was going strong in Colorado City.

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.

Ed Harless and His Renegade Wife

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article first appeared in the Colorado Gambler magazine and Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado 1860-1930.

Pictured: Notorious Blair Street at 12th Street, Silverton, Colorado.

It was no easy trick, being married in the Victorian era. Given the harshness of the times—no electricity, back-breaking chores, a plethora of vices and procreational rather than recreational sex, it is no wonder many marriages ended in divorce. The misery doubled with the death of a child, or if either spouse was given to drinking or beating one another.

In 1899 alone, the newspapers in the booming Cripple Creek District of Colorado were rife with news of unhappy unions. That June, three women applied for divorce. In July, Joe Anderson was arrested for shooting Hense Johnson in Cripple Creek’s Poverty Gulch after the former found the latter with his wife. And in October, Victor’s postmaster reported on a letter from C.M. Jones of Butte Montana, asking for assistance. Jones had just returned from the Klondike and couldn’t find his wife.

Indeed, residents of the district were no strangers to such goings on. So when Ed Harless’ wife turned up missing in Victor, it was no real surprise to anyone except maybe Ed.

The Harless’ first appeared in Victor in 1902. Ed was a miner at the Portland Mine, residing with his bride at 321 South 4th Street. But he apparently balanced his time between Victor and Denver, where he had another home. It was probably during one of his absences that Mrs. Harless unexpectedly packed her bags and caught the next train out of town. What became of her was anyone’s guess.

Ed went looking for his wife, much as any husband might do. He found her in the western slope mining town of Silverton, and the November 29 issue of the Silverton Standard reported what happened next. Harless had arrived from Victor the day before. According to the newspaper, he had been consulting a spirit medium in Denver regarding his wife’s whereabouts. The clairvoyant informed Harless that he had to look no further than Silverton to find her.

Harless beat a path to Marshal Leonard’s door in Silverton. After a short investigation, the good marshal led Harless to a bordello on Silverton’s notorious Blair Street. Like so many before her, the price of Mrs. Harless’ freedom was to land in a strange town with no support. Prostitution was a viable way to get some cash, and the girls on the row had beckoned her in.

Leonard and Harless entered the room occupied by Mrs. Harless. As the marshal stepped to the window to let in some light, the woman let out a scream. The marshal turned in time to see the husband “drawing an ugly looking revolver”. Leonard wrestled the gun away from the angry man and promptly deposited him in the city pokey. Harless was fined $50 and costs.

A few weeks later, the Standard followed up on the story with the comment that Harless had returned to Denver to further consult the psychic. This time, Harless claimed, he would find “the Telluride assassin”. Whether his boast that he could find a western slope criminal by such means was hooey, nobody will ever know. Harless did eventually return to his home in Victor, residing there as late as 1905. As for Mrs. Harless, her name in the city directory is conspicuously absent.

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).

The Tale of Mexican Jennie

c 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article first appeared in the Colorado Gambler magazine, June 1995

            In its heyday, Cripple Creek, Colorado supported up to 350 working prostitutes.  Considered to be among the lowest of the district denizens, these fallen women came in a variety of categories.  The highest ranking were talented, beautiful young women with fancy dresses, working in the most prestigious of “parlor houses.”  Their level of class cascaded downward from there, from lower-class brothels to dance halls to independent cribs “on the row.”

            No matter what their status in the underworld, prostitutes were regarded as bad news.  In the public’s eye, they lived in sin, used drugs and alcohol, corrupted the young and innocent, and cared little for their future or for anything else but having fun.  “Soiled doves” were not allowed on the streets during certain hours by law.  Decent folk turned their heads when approaching a red-light area to avoid tainting their innocent minds and pure hearts.  Newspapers pounced on the girls’ misfortunes, exploited their actions, and displayed mild mock sympathy upon their demise.  No matter how hard a working girl might try to leave her sordid life for a better one, her reputation preceded her.

            In spite of the public’s intentions to degrade Cripple Creek’s poorest class of women, prostitutes worked hard to change their lot in life.  Most of them, unfortunately, were doomed to live lives marked with misery, depression and poverty until an overdose or some other untimely incident removed them from this world.  A few, however, were able to marry and move to places they were unknown.  Others chose to move on and set up shop in another town. Sometimes the move was brought on by want of better things, but often unfortunate events were involved which required relocation.  The story of Jennie Benton is a case in point.

            In Cripple Creek, she was known as Mexican Jennie.  She came from Walsenburg in Pueblo County, leaving a long trail of aliases and mystery behind her.  Like many of her co-workers, Jennie lacked the sophistication and stability to seek employment in a fancy parlor house.  Instead, she worked as a barmaid and dance-hall girl in Cripple Creek’s Poverty Gulch, a low-end neighborhood just beyond the city limits.  Jennie’s home consisted of a one-room cabin in the poorer section of the gulch. 

            By 1909, Jennie had established herself, and her reputation, in Poverty Gulch.  Probably hoping to better her life, she had married one of her customers, Ed Keif.  For some time, Jennie was known as Juanita Keif.  The relationship did not last, and eventually Jennie married again, to Ray Wenner.  Whether she divorced Keif or Wenner is unknown, but when the latter left her, she retained his name and became known as Jennie Wenner.

Philip Roberts Jr., a blacksmith at the El Paso Mine, was the next patron-turned-lover.  His visits to Jennie’s cabin became more and more frequent.  Finally, Roberts moved into Jennie’s cabin on a permanent basis. The two began a four year stormy relationship.  Jennie testified later that Roberts became her pimp, drinking constantly and beating her when she didn’t make enough money.  Even over the din and bustle of Poverty Gulch, neighbors could hear the two arguing often. 

On Christmas night, 1913, Roberts knocked Mexican Jennie to the floor one last time.  The hapless woman pulled a revolver from her trunk, shot Philip Roberts, quickly gathered her things, and headed due south.

            The process of events after Jennie’s departure took some time.  Roberts’ frozen body was not found for five days.  By that time, Jennie had a good head start towards her destination. Sheriff Henry Von Phul was dispatched from Cripple Creek to persue her.  He left for Walsenburg on January 3, but changed his travel plans in Pueblo when he learned that one Juanita Keif had purchased a coach ticket to El Paso, Texas. 

            Had it not been for a delay in train service to Juarez, Mexico, Jennie might have never been found by the law.  As it was, however, the delay required her to travel to El Paso, swim the Rio Grande River into Mexico, and join a group of army camp followers heading to Chihuahua City.  Within this group, she could ply her trade as a means of reaching her destination.  Two hundred and fifty miles later, Jennie arrived in Chihuahua City. Once there, Jennie had no choice but to continue in her profession in the Capital Hotel.  Although Jennie’s lack of domestic skills forced her back into prostitution, she had at least two points in her favor.  Her unusual route of travel helped her elude authorities, and she was now beyond the long arm of United States Law.

            What Mexican Jennie did not figure on, however, was the determination of Sheriff Von Phul.  After poking around in El Paso and Juarez, Von Phul learned of several celebrations going on in Chihuahua City.  Perhaps the sheriff of Teller County had nothing better to do.  Perhaps the murder of an alcoholic ne’er-do-well was a priority in Cripple Creek.  Perhaps Von Phul wanted to see Mexico.  Whatever the reason, the sheriff determinedly took a train to Chihuahua and successfully tracked Jennie down at the Capital Hotel.  She was taken to a nearby military lockup to await extradition. 

            Jennie was a willing prisoner.  She did not resist arrest when Sheriff Von Phul took her into custody, greeting him cordially when he appeared before her.  When legal debate arose over how to get her over the border, Jennie volunteered to walk across herself.  In fact, the “murderess” offered no resistance at all and seemed anxious to return to Cripple Creek. Unfortunately there was no expedient way to accomplish the task. 

            Upon reaching Juarez, Von Phul had to bribe the magistrate there into releasing Jennie into his custody. Even after she was solely in the hands of the sheriff, Jennie made no attempt at escape.  Von Phul was not a trusting man, however, nor was he one to be trusted.  In Juarez he had run across Billy Dingman, former Clerk of the District Court in Cripple Creek.  Sometime back Dingman had embezzled from the court and escaped with the money.  Von Phul agreed to “lose” Dingman’s file in exchange for his assistance in escorting Mexican Jennie across the border. Ah, priorities.

            Jennie Wenner was returned to Cripple Creek to stand trial.  She pleaded innocence by self-defense, but was found guilty of first-degree murder.  After spending six years of a life sentence in the penitentiary, she was released due to poor health.  Did she return to her former profession?  No one knows for sure, but it is likely.  Jennie’s circumstances decided her destiny, and the law decided her fate.