Tag Archives: Colorado

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.

John Nixon and the Terrible Thanksgiving Turkey

Turkey and boyc 2015 by Jan MacKell Collins

For those who have occasionally suffered through a quite memorable yet hardly endearing Thanksgiving holiday, take heart. Even historic and quaint Cripple Creek, Colorado is not safe from the perils of a good dinner gone bad. Take for instance, John Nixon’s own Thanksgiving in 1912.

What a lovely memory, the Cripple Creek Thanksgivings of old. Gazing nostalgically down Bennett Avenue, especially in the weather of late, it is easy to paint a vintage picture. Imagine watching one horse sleighs pulling passengers bundled in warm furs and frilly coats. The delighted faces of loved ones as they greet long-absent family members. The loving preparation of a giant turkey feast, with recipes passed from generation to generation. Is it possible, revelling in retrospect, to imagine a more grand picture?

Such wonderful pictures were no doubt travelling through John Nixon’s mind as he made his way down Bennett Avenue the day before Thanksgiving. A cozy room, permeated with the smell of delicious food, was an attractive alternative to crowded and cold downtown Cripple Creek. As the wind bit through his wool coat, John gathered his scarf and lowered his hat. Quite possibly he wished he had collected his Thanksgiving turkey earlier, when the day was still sunny. Now here he was, tired and chilled, scampering to purchase that which was most important to tomorrow’s dinner.

This Thanksgiving promised to be the best in many years, for this time, Mrs. Nixon asked for a live turkey to obtain the freshest meat. Ever anxious to please his wife, John Nixon had agreed to butcher the bird at home. Now, as hurried down Bennett, John hoped his wife’s prediction was true. He hated to think the task before him was actually for naught. He wasn’t much for working harder than he had to, and his resourcefulness at easing the work day was something commented on by the Missus.

John smiled at these thoughts as he paid the butcher for his bird and produced a large flour sack from his pocket. In the interest of convenience, the sack would serve as ample transportation for the turkey’s trip home. John deposited the turkey, head first, into his flour sack and bid the butcher a happy Thanksgiving.

Sadly, it was not long before man and bird had a misunderstanding. The turkey, who did not necessarily find his position comfortable, began giving forth a terrible squawk. Within a matter of seconds, the bird was making such a racket that people on the sidewalk were staring. Being a respectful sort with regard to unnecessary noise and courtesy to those around him, John Nixon made a split-second decision. In one swift move, his fingers groped the outside of the bag until they located the turkey’s neck. Grasping said neck firmly, Nixon succeeded in squeezing it until the bird was quiet.

It seemed the logical and polite thing to do, and John complimented his decision silently as he proceeded down the road. But if John Nixon thought his actions were justified, a nearby Humane Officer did not. Almost immediately, the officer appeared at Nixon’s side and demanded, “What are you doing to that bird? Are you choking that turkey?”

Now John Nixon, already weary of his burden, began to rethink his actions. That bird was making a fuss! Something had to be done! Deciding once more he was in the right, Nixon replied defiantly, “I am not choking the turkey, but I will if he doesn’t shut his chop!”

Apparently Nixon’s answer was less than satisfactory to the officer, who next wanted to see the turkey. The unhappy creature was obligingly brought from the flour sack. Upon examination, the officer assessed the turkey’s neck was “dislocated” and arrested John Nixon for none other than animal abuse.

The sight of the Humane Officer with John Nixon in one hand and a flour sack full of disgruntled turkey in the other must have been startling. A small crowd began to follow the trio, uttering hurried whispers and pointing fingers. The unusual spectacle was accompanied by even louder squawks as the turkey made his position clear.

So loud did the gobbles and squabbles become that even the Humane Officer began having trouble concentrating. In fact, so terrible was the noise that upon reaching a hardware store, the officer instructed Nixon to wait while he went inside. The officer returned with a borrowed axe as more people gathered to await his next move. They didn’t have to wait long. According to the Cripple Creek Times, “the crowd was treated to a real interesting execution right on Bennett Avenue.”

If the crowd was surprised, they must also have been relieved at the sudden quiet which followed the turkey’s demise. While they were exchanging glances and looking from the officer to Nixon and back, a lone yellow dog appeared at the front of the group. Without so much as a look of guilt, the mutt took up the turkey’s head and headed for a nice, quiet spot. It was an exclamation point at the end of a long, confused statement.

When he finally managed to avert his eyes from the departing dog, the officer gazed uncertainly at the crowd. The accusing and bemused looks he received in return made him weigh his next step carefully. Since the object of his concern was no longer among the living, there was no longer a legitimate crime in progress. And since it was, after all, Thanksgiving Eve, what harm would come from letting Nixon go home to his family? Before the amused crowd, the Humane Officer released Nixon from custody. The thankful man gathered his expired turkey into his flour sack and once again made for home.

If there is a moral to this story, the reader must come to his own conclusion. Perhaps it has something to do with a bird in hand and letting feasting dogs lie. Were John Nixon here today to relate the tale himself, he likely might say that nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

Frozen Together in Time on Pikes Peak

c 2015 by Jan MacKell Collins

Frozen Skinners

It was the height of tourist season that August day in 1911, when Mr. and Mrs. William A. Skinner learned a hard lesson about the perils of hiking unprepared on Pike’s Peak in Colorado.

The couple were first spotted at the printing office of the Pike’s Peak Daily News, a tourist paper with advertisements and lists of people hiking the peak that day. Eighteen year old Alex Gress, a guide who led burro parties to the summit, was walking over to the printing office when he noticed Skinner and his wife. The editor of the newspaper, a Mr. Wilson, was trying to talk them out of continuing on their quest to reach the summit. It was already late in the afternoon, and the couple were without a proper guide.

Later, Gress remembered the woman’s argument against postponing the hike. “I came all the way from Texas to climb Pike’s Peak,” she said, “and that’s just what I’m going to do. Nothing’s going to stop me.”

When the Skinners first set out to conquer Pike’s Peak earlier that day, the weather was pleasant and sunny. By the time they reached the News office, however, snow clouds were looming on the horizon and Mr. Skinner looked rather peaked from the already strenuous hike. Both husband and wife were 50 years old, and neither had dressed adequately for the sudden storms which overtake Pike’s Peak year round.

Mrs. Skinner was certainly determined. She not only refused offers of a rental coat, but also Mr. Wilson’s invitation to spend the night at his cabin. Resisting her husband’s pleas to give up the hike, Mrs. Skinner pushed doggedly on with her devoted husband trailing behind her. The last anyone saw of them was at Windy Point, about two miles below the summit, around 4 p.m. Mrs. Skinner was hiking several yards in front of her husband, who appeared on the point of collapse even then.

Over two feet of snow fell during the night. Even after Alex Gress safely guided his group to the summit, the party had to wait several hours after sunrise before the visibility allowed them to trek back down. Little did the group know as they descended the trail that they were walking right by the Skinners. By then the couple was nearly buried under a foot of snow and well beyond help anyone could provide.

When the bodies were spotted the next day, it was 6 p.m. before they could be retrieved. Mrs. Skinner, lying face down, had crossed her hands over her face. Close by was Mr. Skinner, his face upturned to the skies. The couple were taken back down to Manitou, where their bodies were shipped back to Texas for burial.

Of the personal belongings found with the Skinners, two items in particular were worthy of note. One was a set of accident insurance policies, each with a clause prohibiting payment if death came due to overexertion in Colorado. The other was a letter from a friend back in Texas, whose jovial warning rang true in the most chilling fashion: “I hope you are having the time of your life in Colorado, and that you will not freeze to death on Pike’s Peak.”

My Love Affair with Lida, Explained

One of the reasons I so enjoy researching and writing about prostitutes of the past is the ladies themselves. When I write articles and books about them, I am often lambasted by scholars and other historians for not including deep analyses of the statistics I find. Such fodder doesn’t interest me. Rather, I like getting to know these women personally. By finding out where they were from, learning about their families and gleaning information from the cryptic notes and photographs they left behind, I can keep their memories alive a bit longer. It is important to me to let their spirits know that not everyone thinks that what they did was particularly shameful or up for ridicule. So many of them deserve a better memory of their lives. In short, I love these women. They feel like sisters, aunts and grandmas I never had, even if they were “bad girls.”

To date, I have researched literally thousands of shady ladies throughout Arizona, California, Alaska, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, Kansas, Nebraska, even as far away as Washington D.C. and New York. When my first book about prostitution history, Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado 1860-1930, came out in 2003 I was proud to say I knew of each and every woman in the book. I was a fountain of trivia. One could name any lady in that tome, and I would instantly recall everything I knew about her. In the time since, however, the overstuffed filing cabinet in my brain is overrun with names, dates, places and events. Even so, hundreds of ladies still haunt me, especially the ones with whom I feel an unexplained kinship. Lida is one of these.

I first ran across Lida when I was researching my second book about prostitution, Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains. That book transpired during a most wild time in my life; while trying to research and write the thing, I had broken out of a long term relationship, was taken a major new job responsibility, lost an old friend, sat by my mother and best friend as she died holding my hand, and experienced the utter joy of finding the true love of my life. In between were these crazy, rather blurry road trips all over the west. I had just one year in which to visit seven states, research all I could, and make some sense out of what I found. The end result was a giant volume that makes a great door stop, or even a small coffee table.

Throughout these gonzo research trips, certain women reached out through the piles of paperwork, pictures, documents and books to embed themselves in my memory. One of them was Lida, whom I discovered in Prescott, Arizona. She was memorable because someone had given her ample space in a research paper as one of the most prominent madams in town. When I moved to Arizona I found out a little more. Chief among the few facts about Lida was that one time, when forced by the state to establish an official red light district to keep the ladies in line, city authorities made an exception for Lida’s place. They had to, because it sat mostly in the middle of a busy intersection.

But Lida was clever, masquerading under several names, skillfully avoiding arrest and census takers, moving around a lot and never really revealing her true self in any existing documents. Because she seemed such a revered woman in red, and because she has been quietly tugging at my sleeve for over five years now, I have of course yearned to know more about her. I have been as true to Lida as I would to any living friend, diligently searching for clues about her life. Often I feel like her spirit is hovering over me while I work, gently prodding me to find out the rest of her story.

Yesterday I experienced a rare treat when I was invited to view the estate of another prominent prostitute. I looked forward to this visit for weeks, and my gracious hosts did not disappoint. Here were pictures, personal belongings, letters, newspaper articles and more, a pleasing variety of information that filled in a lot gaps about this woman. Tucked into one binder, we found a lone article about someone this woman had known. This lady had saved clippings about her friends and fellow working girls, and my heart jumped a bit when I saw that this particular piece was about Lida.

When I got home, I put all other research aside in favor of Lida’s article. Some of the mystery about her was cleared up, but as I read about her the tiny voice in the back of my head continued to puzzle over why she intrigues me so. The end of the article answered my question. Lida came to Arizona from Victor, Colorado, my former hometown which remains very close to my heart. In fact, my home there sits in the heart of the original red light district. For the twenty or so years I lived near or in that town, I researched the prostitutes there probably more than anywhere else. To find out Lida came from there makes me smile, a really big smile. Because it explains why this lady loves to haunt me, and why I in turn love to haunt her.

DSC01503

Third Street is part of the former red light district in Victor, Colorado, where my beloved Lida might have once lived.

A match made in luxury: Cripple Creek’s Winfield Scott Stratton and Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel

c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins

According to one legend, Winfield Scott Stratton, the first and most famous millionaire of the Cripple Creek District, traveled to Denver during a particularly nasty storm in the spring of 1900. Upon stumbling into the prestigious Brown Palace Hotel, Stratton was ordered by an imperious employee to remove himself and his muddy boots from the lobby. The temperamental tycoon retaliated by purchasing the hotel outright so he could fire the employee.

A more scathing story was that Brown Palace manager Maxey Tabor, son of former silver king H.A.W. Tabor, disapproved of a young vaudeville actress Stratton was courting while both were guests at the hotel. In fact, Tabor went so far as to suggest to the lady that she should leave the hotel, never to return. For that reason and no other, according to the Telluride Daily Journal, Stratton purchased the Brown to exact revenge, “and now they do say that Manager Tabor will be out of a job just as soon as the new owner moves into the second floor front suite.”

The third, more genteel story, is most likely a combination of the Tabor story and the truth: Stratton was in fact saving the Brown from foreclosure when he purchased the mortgage in 1900. The grand hotel had opened some years before, specifically built to cater to the rich, political and powerful men and women of the time. Carpenter and architect Henry C. Brown financed the project, naming the hotel for himself. As early as October 1, 1891, the Leadville Herald Democrat noted the hotel was under construction, but was already receiving guests on a limited basis.

The Brown Palace officially opened in 1892 and immediately became a prominent meeting spot for political conventions and important organizations of the time. Denver’s most elite hotel was constructed of Colorado red granite and Arizona sandstone outside, with decorative iron and Mexican onyx inside to create a sturdy structure that could stand for decades. Nine floors offered luxurious suites, ballrooms, meeting and banquet rooms, private clubrooms, restaurants and an expansive lobby that was visible via a wrap-around balcony extending to the eighth floor. High above, a 2,800 square-foot stained glass ceiling provided natural lighting.

There is little doubt that Stratton favored staying at the Brown for a number of reasons. Being a former carpenter himself, the mining magnate likely appreciated Henry Brown’s humble beginnings and admired architect Frank Edbrooke’s Italian Renaissance design of the hotel. Here, Stratton could easily find and meet with politicians, mine owners and other influential figures to discuss the state of affairs regarding gold mining and the future of America.

The Brown Palace also offered a safe retreat from the money-grubbing men and women of the Cripple Creek District and Colorado Springs who constantly vied for Stratton’s money and attentions. Upon staking the Independence gold mine at Cripple Creek on July 4, 1891, Stratton had literally become a millionaire overnight. Almost immediately a gaggle of newfound “friends”, gold-digging harlots and illegitimate heirs came forth, all wanting a piece of Stratton and his new fat wallet. Whether killing him with kindness or clamoring for his cash, Stratton’s fan club only served to embitter the man further and drove him to drink.

Stratton is known to have taken refuge at the Brown as early as 1896, when he joined others at a meeting to fight against silver coinage. W.H. Bush, manager of the hotel at the time, was also a mining investor and favored such meetings. Here, Stratton found colleagues whose best interests lay with the future of mining, not his own pocketbook. From his upstairs suite, he could relax in privacy, imbibe freely in his alcohol and recover from his hangovers via the hotel’s wonderfully refreshing artesian well, located some 750 feet underground. Fountains from the well once graced every floor.

Most unfortunately, running a place as swell as the Brown Palace came at a cost. The hotel happened to open just before the Silver Panic of 1893, which sent the nation into a devastating depression. By 1900 Henry Brown was struggling to make ends meet. Stratton, who had already earned kudos for extending money to friends, supplying Cripple Creek with needed goods following two devastating fires in 1896, and even assisting former millionaire widow Baby Doe Tabor with her Matchless Mine at Leadville, came to the rescue. In April of 1900, newspapers announced that Stratton had purchased the Brown Palace Hotel for a cool $1.5 million, regarded as an extremely good price even for the time.

Alas, Stratton may have saved the Brown Palace Hotel, but he could not save himself. On September 14, 1902, he died at his home in Colorado Springs. At the young age of 54, Cripple Creek’s favorite millionaire quite literally drank himself to death. The Brown Palace remained under Stratton’s estate for the next twenty years. It was then purchased by another key player in Cripple Creek history, the same Horace Bennett who platted the city, made a million dollars from lot sales, and for whom Bennett Avenue is named.

Bennett’s partner in 1922 was hardware magnate and philanthropist Charles Boettcher. The latter was already a part time resident of the hotel, which remained in the family until 1980. During the time in between those years, the Brown Palace has played host to no less than three presidents plus several dignitaries, governors, celebrities and others who have contributed to its enduring and endearing history. A favorite story: the time Zsa Zsa Gabor’s pampered puppy got lost in the heating ducts. The Queen of Slap was forced by other engagements to move on while hotel workers toiled to extract the dog and personally flew him to be reunited with Gabor.

Today, a stay at the Brown Palace Hotel continues to reflect everything Brown, Stratton, Boettcher and subsequent owners expected in a five-star, four-diamond hotel. Care of the 120 year-old structure is a great undertaking, but visitors can still relax with such amenities as Victorian rooms with modern comforts, historic décor including artifacts dating as far back as 1763, a polite and friendly staff, moderately-priced to upscale fine dining, and of course that excellent artesian water that now flows from every faucet. The four o’clock tea is an especial favorite among the ladies. For looky-lou’s, beware: the prestigious Brown does not allow anyone above the second floor to ensure the privacy of their guests.Brown Palace lobby

Count Pourtales Takes A Swim

The Green Mountain Falls and the town's charming lake are pictured here, circa 1889.

The Green Mountain Falls and the town’s charming lake are pictured here, circa 1889.

c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins

The year was 1884 when Count James M. Pourtales first arrived in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Of European royalty, Pourtales was on the lookout for investments to save his interests in Germany and Prussia. He was also looking to spend more time with his beautiful cousin, Countess Berthe de Pourtales, whom he later married. Perhaps as a means of staying nearer to Berthe, Pourtales invested in the failing Broadmoor Dairy Farm, located on the southwest end of town, in about 1885.

Pourtales balanced his time in Colorado Springs with frequent visits to his homeland in Prussia. He soon discovered, however, that his departures generally resulted in doom for his investments. Pourtales soon learned to bloom where he was planted. Upon reviving the dairy farm, he next began purchasing more land. In the spring of 1889 he purchased a few hundred acres in what is now the five star Broadmoor neighborhood for development as a resort and casino.

In his free time, Pourtales courted his beloved Berthe and took short excursions around the growing Pike’s Peak region. One of his trips included a visit to Green Mountain Falls in May of 1889. As one of many resort towns of Ute Pass, Green Mountain Falls offered expansive picnic areas, a pretty little lake and namesake falls which cascaded gently down a local rock formation. Whether by accident or design, the Count happened to be present for the grand opening of the Green Mountain Falls Hotel. The new hotel was one of a number of pleasure resorts along Ute Pass designed to attract travelers from the east.

The hotel was a grand three story structure, built by W.G. Riddock very near the picturesque lake. Locals predicted the place would soon rival the Ramona Hotel in Cascade, located just down the road. The Green Mountain Falls Hotel offered 70 spacious guest rooms and comforting surroundings. Like the Ramona, the Green Mountain Falls Hotel also sported scenic gable rooms on each side and verandas running the length of each floor.

The grand opening was an event to be remembered, with hundreds of people attending the festivities around the hotel. Count Pourtales was amongst them, and at one point took a stroll down to the lake. There, he watched as Mr. F. E. Dow, president of Green Mountain Falls Town & Improvement Company, paddled leisurely on the water with his wife, their child and one Mrs. Clark. Suddenly the boat capsized, sending the occupants splashing into the water. As Mr. Dow attempted to save his family and Mrs. Clark, a man swam to their rescue. The hero was none other than Count Pourtales. Some say the lake is no more than a few feet deep in the middle, but the Count no doubt enjoyed his notoriety for saving the day.

Count Pourtales’ fame did not end with swimming to the rescue of Mr. Dow and his family. In 1891 the Count visited the Cripple Creek District, located just over Pikes Peak from Green Mountain Falls. The Count quickly made friends with such influential people as Sam Strong, Emma Carr, Bob Womack and Winfield Scott Stratton, all of whom contributed to the success of the District’s gold mining. When Pourtales and his partner invested $80,000 in the Buena Vista claim, their purchase made the papers and enhanced the gold rush to Cripple Creek.

In spite of his fame and notoriety, Pourtales’ investments continued to falter on occasion. In 1893 he defaulted on a $250,000 loan and lost his investment in the Broadmoor, destined to become a top star, classy destination for the millionaires of the future. Ironically, the loan company later sold the land to the estate of Winfield Scott Stratton, the Cripple Creek District’s first millionaire who averaged $12,000 a day in mining profits and died in 1902. The land was used for the Myron Stratton Home, Stratton’s own orphanage and home for the aged that is still in operation today. By the time the Myron Stratton Home was built, Pourtales had returned to his native land, where he died in 1908. His departure from the Pikes Peak region was surely final, but a good many people remembered him for years to come.

 

A Quick Look at Colorado’s Central Mining Belt

c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins

Gold! Silver! Lead! Quartz! Copper! Zinc! Colorado’s newly arriving prospectors could shout any one of these symbolic words of fortune in 1858 and mean nearly the same place.

The Colorado Gold Rush is actually attributed to three Native Americans who passed through the territory on their way to the California goldfields. After failing to find fortune on their own two Cherokee men, Lewis Ralston and John Beck, had joined a gold party coming through Colorado. Somewhere in the vicinity of today’s Interstate 70 the men, along with a Delaware Indian named Fall Leaf, collected some gold dust. For some reason, however, the men chose not to stay in the area and the exact site of their discovery remains a mystery.

Before long, white men made the discovery of gold official. Their names were William Green Russell and John H. Gregory, the latter of which created the rush to Central City and the surrounding region. As the first official gold rush in Colorado, the area now traversed by Interstate 70 just 20 miles west of Denver boomed into one gigantic mining region in just a short time. With the formation of Boulder, Clear Creek and Gilpin Counties in November of 1861, a bucket full of towns sprang up all along the I-70 corridor. Their economies were based on any number of minerals while serving as supply towns, rest and railroad stops. By 1886, would-be prospectors could expect to visit a number of promising cities. There was gold at Alice, American City, Arrow, Central City, Gilson Gulch, Mountain City, Nevadaville and Yankee Hill.

More gold, but silver also, could be found in and around places like Brownsville, Empire and Idaho Springs, which also offered such modern day amenities of the time as eating houses, hotels and supplies. Other silver meccas included Caribou, Fall River, Freeland, Silver Creek, Silver Dale and Silver Plume. Silver Plume also contained lead deposits, as did the sinful city of Cardinal with its many saloons and brothels. Other minerals, including zinc and copper, could be found at Cardinal as well as the town of Hessie. And there were even more towns to choose from, such as the trading center of Apex, Baltimore, the milltown of Blackhawk, Georgetown, Gilpin, Lawson, Nederland, Ninety Four, Nugget and Rollinsville.

Despite being located in such close proximity and within about a 40 mile radius, these early towns that shaped Colorado were rough and tumble, varying in economy, services, morals and values. Their residents were a hardy bunch who risked everything to make their dreams come true in the Rocky Mountains. The number of stories to drift out of “them thar hills” are equal to or greater than the amount of mineral produced. And the history they left behind is more fascinating than anything one could imagine.

Today, most of the towns along the mineral belt are ghosts, but their importance has not been overshadowed. The picturesque towns and cities of Idaho Springs, Georgetown and Silver Plume, with off-shoots to Central City, Blackhawk, Rollinsville and Nederland, survive today as a tribute to Colorado=s heritage, as well as the gold and minerals that made it all possible.

The Gregory Diggings in 1859, as portrayed in Crofutt's Gripsack Guide to Colorado

The Gregory Diggings in 1859, as portrayed in Crofutt’s Gripsack Guide to Colorado

Bob Ford Thrown Out of Cripple Creek!

c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins

It is certain that, in its prime, the Cripple Creek District in Colorado had its share of criminals. From the local Crumley and General Jack Smith Gangs to such notorious notables as Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, the district saw more than just a few outlaws pass through. More often than not, the more wicked of the District’s transient population often went unnoticed until some unfortunate incident brought their identities to light. In the interim, the good citizens of the District did their best to keep the scourge of society out. Such was the case with Bob Ford, killer of the notorious outlaw Jesse James.

Bob Ford was only nineteen years old when he made his place in history by killing James. At the time of his death, 34-year-old Jesse Woodson James had murdered upwards of sixteen men and taken $250,000 in cash, gold and jewelry from banks and stages across the Midwest. There was a $10,000 price on his head, but legend has it that Jesse was trying to go straight under the alias of Thomas Howard when death came. Ford was a guest of Jesse’s at his home in Missouri at the time. He was also allegedly Jesse’s first cousin, recruited to assist in Jesse’s last robbery before he turned from his life of crime.

The story goes that on April 3 of 1882, Jesse noticed a crooked picture on the wall and stepped upon a chair to straighten it. Bob Ford, the gleam of a $10,000 reward in his eye, took advantage of Jesse’s unguarded move. A single shot through the back of Jesse’s head did him in. Next Ford surrendered to local authorities, was tried, convicted, and pardoned immediately by Missouri Governor Thomas Crittenden.

Even now, certain historians and would-be relatives of James claim Jesse didn’t die at Bob Ford’s hands. But at the time, America believed him dead. And, no matter how bad the outlaw, the wild West’s code against shooting a man in the back prevailed. Besides, Jesse James had been respected and admired despite his outlaw status. Ford received less than a heroes’ welcome, especially when he began touring and giving lectures on the incident. He was often booed from the stage and nearly lynched more than once.

For several years following the killing, Bob Ford roamed the country. History is scarce as to exactly where he went and what he did. No doubt, Ford had trouble shaking his reputation as a yellow coward. Eventually he landed in Colorado City, that wild and woolly place just west of Colorado Springs. In 1889, Bob was dealing Faro at the Crystal Palace. He also worked for Colorado City’s notorious madam, Laura Bell McDaniel, and at the Nickel Plate Saloon.

The unwelcome reception Ford had received in other places eventually echoed in Colorado City. In December of 1891, he was arrested for gambling. It was likely this incident that inspired him to seek greener pastures once more. This time, he decided to try his luck in Cripple Creek. The District was just starting to roll with one of the nation’s last—and most productive—gold booms.

What Ford didn’t know was that Cripple Creek authorities were very aware of his presence in Colorado City. Someone must have tipped them off about his plans to invade Cripple Creek, for when Ford reached the fair city he was met by Sheriff Hi Wilson. Exactly what Wilson said to him is lost to history, but the conversation was enough to convince Ford that Cripple Creek wasn’t his kind of place.

On February 3 of 1892, the Colorado City Iris announced Ford had gone to try his luck in Creede. Success came easier there, and Ford soon found himself officiating prize fights and even running a dance hall and brothel out of a tent. Ironically enough, Ford’s newfound happiness was deterred briefly by a rumor that he had been killed in Creede shortly after he departed Colorado City. The killer was thought to be Billy Meyer, with whom Ford had quarreled before leaving town.

That fateful rumor would soon ring truer than anyone realized. By April Ford had managed to make several more enemies in Creede. The newspaper there reported him dealing Faro but staying “out of the range of any window…” Furthermore, the paper stated, Ford “keeps a restless eye on the crowd about him, while ever near him lies the gun with which he brought down by a shot from behind, the much-feared Missouri Outlaw.”

Before long, Ford was run out of Creede and returned to Colorado City once more. But he wasn’t any more welcome there than before, and soon departed for Creede again. By June he was back at his dance hall tent in Creede. Ed O’Kelley was waiting for him. A former deputy sheriff from Pueblo, O’Kelley was one of hundreds who didn’t like Ford. Their relationship was especially strained after some incident in Pueblo, perhaps a gambling debt. On June 8, according to most accounts, Kelley walked into Ford’s, said “Hello, Bob!” and fired off two sawed off shotguns a mere five feet from Ford’s throat.

Accounts vary as to whether O’Kelley actually shot Ford in the back. But other facts are certain: O’Kelley received a life sentence, was paroled in 1902, only to be killed in a scuffle with Oklahoma City police in 1904.

That was the end of the Bob Ford saga. The bar behind which he was shot was sold to a saloon keeper in the Colorado town of Spar City, now a long gone ghost town. Later, Ford’s body was said to have been moved from Creede to the family plot in Richmond, Missouri. Creede went on to claim its own fame as the death place of Bob Ford, and the answer to what would have happened if Sheriff Wilson had let Bob into Cripple Creek will never be known.

"The dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard", Bob Ford,

“The dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard”, Bob Ford.

Woman’s Work: A Look at Victorian Professions

c 2014 By Jan MacKell Collins

“One night I saw something that put a little sense in me…I was sitting at a little table eating when a woman came in…I looked up at her and thought she was the prettiest woman I ever saw in the Creek…As she got up to leave, I looked up at her and almost fell out of my chair with shock. The side of her face towards me, from her forehead on down to the neck, had been slashed three or four times with a knife. Her neck was slashed all on one side. It was terrible.”

~ Lizzie Beaudrie
Cripple Creek dance hall girl
circa 1898

Historically, romanticism has run rampant about women’s roles in the American West. Documentation such as Lizzie Beaudrie’s, however, tells us that women were not respected as a whole and were often victims of violence. And so, while the gentler sex was often regarded as such, the same were expected to make their way in a harsh world without fuss or fight.

A great many single women in turn worked hard to maintain some sort of lifestyle for themselves. The possibilities of employment were extremely narrow by today’s standards. Cooks, clerks, stenographers, nurses, dressmakers, maids, milliners, laundresses, prostitutes, teachers, wives—all were low paying jobs which offered no advancement and some inherent dangers. The combination of low income and a lack of services made for a hard and thankless life.

But although the woman’s wall of will constantly found itself up against the barrier of suppression, it somehow persevered. One feminist who proved this point was English travel-writer Isabella Bird. In 1873, Bird arrived in Colorado to have a look around. Amazingly she traveled alone much of the time and was unarmed, most extraordinary for a woman of her time. Her companions and hosts included the wealthy and the poor, desperados and ranchers. Most of these were men.

Isabella Bird’s determination to make it in a barren and primitive region would later serve as an inspiration to women like Emily French. Emily, initially a ranch wife on the Colorado prairie, was one of many women who suffered from an unresponsive husband. When she found herself divorced from Marsena French at the age of forty seven in 1890, 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. Emily did have the luxury of a set of false teeth made of wood, and managed to even secure a date now and then. For the most part, however, Emily spent many lonely days as a woman in a man’s world.

In fact, Emily French had it good compared to the lowest form of poverty. This included thousands of prostitutes, whose complaints often fell on deaf ears. A 1901 issue of the Colorado Springs Gazette reported on the trial of Joe Huser in Cripple Creek: “The complaining witness was Cora Wheeler, a colored woman of Myers Avenue, who alleged that Huser struck her in the face with a hatchet.”

Violence and hardship aside, a number of women did strive to make a career for themselves. Many were successful; witness the number of female boarding house proprietors in the Cripple Creek District in Colorado at the turn of the century. There is no doubt that Mrs. Mollie Kathleen Gortner set precedence when she staked one of the first mining claims in the District in September of 1891. By 1893, the Women’s Gold Mining Company had also incorporated in Cripple Creek under the laws of Colorado. An ambitious undertaking, the Women’s Gold Mining Company included officers Miss A. Grimes, President, Mrs. A. Reynolds, Vice President, Miss Mary E. Gover, Treasurer, plus officers Mrs. Lucy G. Pierce of Peabody Massachusetts and Mrs. Joan Hanford of San Bernadino, California. The capitol stock of 800,000 was divided into single shares at ten cents each. It is no surprise that the principal mine of the company was known as the “She”.

More obscure professions fell to women like Mrs. N.H. Chapman, a writer who lived in Victor, Colorado in 1900. Anna Blair and Belle Miles were both artists who resided in Cripple Creek in 1902. Miss Fay Barnes was a “china decorator”. Mae Connor worked as a florist. Mrs. Julia O’Neill worked as a matron at the County Jail. Miss Mayme McAfee was among the musicians in Cripple Creek. Mrs. Kathryn Bates was a voice culture teacher.

As women toiled their way through the Victorian era, a light at the end of the tunnel appeared with the celebrated fame of Annie Oakley. Born in 1860, Annie overcame an abusive childhood to become one of the greatest sharpshooters in the west. During her career she literally made millions performing in exhibitions and traveling with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. Annie’s modesty was overshadowed by her contemporary appearance: short skirts and a refusal to tie up her dark curls. Despite her outward appearance, Oakley made no secret of her conservative lifestyle and her devotion to husband Frank Butler.

By the time Annie passed away in 1926, the celebrated markswoman had amassed a lengthy resume and fortune. Surely as women around the world read the obituary of Annie Oakley, they somehow found hope and encouragement to continue taking charge of their lives.

Julia Skolas cropped

Julia Skolas was one of a number of women who found a way to make a living in a man’s world. During the 1890’s and early 1900, Skolas was a most prominent photographer in Cripple Creek, Colorado.

Blanche Burton, Queen Madam of Colorado City and Cripple Creek

c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article are excerpted from Jan MacKell’s book, “Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado, 1860-1930” (University of New Mexico Press, http://www.unmpress.com).

If prostitution is the oldest profession, who was the oldest prostitute in Cripple Creek? The answer would be Blanche Burton, the very first soiled dove to haul her petticoats to town.

Blanche appears to have got her start in Colorado City, now the west side of Colorado Springs. According to census records, she was born in Ireland in November of 1865 and came to the United States in 1881.She was once married to a prominent Kansas man who later moved back east. The couple had a son and a daughter. The boy died in an explosion, and the girl was placed in a convent.

Blanche first appears on record in Colorado in 1889, at the seasoned age of thirty. That year, court records show she was accused of running a house of ill fame in Colorado City. The loophole Blanche dove through to gain her release was quite clever, as her defense successfully argued that she couldn’t possibly run a “house” of ill fame because she actually lived in a tent.

But such harassment was common in Colorado City, and so when word came of a gold boom in Cripple Creek, Blanche took the opportunity to move up there. She and her tent arrived in 1891, where an immediate friendship was struck up with Bob Womack, founder of the gold boom itself. The charming cowboy took Blanche under his wing and encouraged her to pitch her tent and set up business near his cabin in Poverty Gulch.

Almost right away, Blanche discovered the value of being street-wise in Cripple Creek. One of her customers, aptly named Tim Hussey, had been paying for Blanche’s services by giving her interests in his mining claims. An investigation by Womack revealed that the 27 one-eighth interests were all from the same claim. Despite this and other gold camp schemes, Blanche appears to have done well during her first two years in Cripple Creek. She had a limited education, but she could read and write. For several months, she held the title of the first and only madam in town.

By 1893, Blanche was operating a parlor house over a saloon on Bennett Avenue, one of two main business drags. One time Womack rode his horse up the front steps of her parlor house. Whenever Bob fell ill, Blanche would send her girls to his cabin to take care of him. In the meantime, Cripple Creek had turned into a rough and tumble boomtown. Younger girls, some in their teens, came and set up business too. It is not unlikely that Blanche may have felt lost or even left out as newcomers literally poured into the city limits and “old-timers” like herself were forgotten. When Marshal Hi Wilson demanded that all ladies of the evening remove themselves from Bennett Avenue to more discreet quarters on Myers Avenue, Blanche had enough. Upon departing from Cripple Creek in 1894, she considered herself officially retired.

Or did she?

Back in Colorado City, Blanche next took up residence at 812 Colorado Avenue, just around the corner from the northernmost part of the red-light district. But word of Blanche’s reputation spread through town. Three years away, especially in an immensely popular town like Cripple Creek, did little to quell any rumors about her profession. With time, Blanche became a noted recluse with no visible means of income. In 1902 she moved one house over to 816 West Colorado. Also living at the house in 1902 was Miss Blanche Bell, and it is entirely possible that Ms. Burton may have been in business after all with her own small parlor house.

Either way, Blanche continued to contribute to her community and live quietly. All around her, Colorado City seemed in a constant ruckus what with the railroad, progress, and authorities trying to close down the red light district where she herself had once worked. In January of 1909, three mysterious fires wiped out the red light district almost completely, but it was quickly rebuilt. The fires may or may not have had something to do with Blanche’s ultimate fate.

On December 20, 1909, Police Chief McDowell and Patrolman Morse were on an evening stroll when they noted a person who appeared to be on fire running into the middle of Colorado Avenue. The men immediately grabbed the victim and used their overcoats and snow to extinguish the flames. Most of the clothing was burned off, and closer examination revealed it was Blanche Burton laying in their arms. Upon carrying her into the house the men discovered a hanging curtain, called a portiere, also in flames. Surprisingly, the fire was small and extinguished quickly. A broken oil lamp lay nearby, providing the last clue to the mystery.

Two physicians, Dr. G.S. Vinyard and Dr. G.B. Gilmore, were called to the Burton home but there was little to be done. Blanche lived long enough to tell everyone that just a year and a half earlier her barn had burned. Her horse and two dogs had been killed, and in trying to rescue them she almost died herself. The men tried to get her to reveal her true name if there was one, as well as the address of the daughter she allegedly had. Supposedly, Blanche said that her daughter lived in Illinois but nothing more. She died just after 5 a.m. the next morning before she could give any other information.

No doubt the men may have wondered why Blanche chose to mention her burning barn, but they also wondered why a man was seen running west on Colorado Avenue shortly before Blanche’s accident. The man was never identified, nor was there any cash in the house. Furthermore, authorities failed to find any bank accounts in Blanche’s name.

Blanche Burton may have been buried a pauper if it weren’t for fellow madam Mamie Majors. The bold Miss Majors paid for Blanche’s funeral, which was conducted from Beyle Undertaking Rooms on Christmas Eve. Surely it was a sad and grief-stricken party who accompanied Blanche to her grave in Fairview Cemetery. Even the public and the press felt sympathy for the reclusive harlot. The presiding minister praised Blanche’s good heart, explaining that the day before her death she had purchased a ton of coal for needy families in time for Christmas. Her obituary in the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph was headlined, “Did Much Good.” The article stated that Blanche was a good nurse and always ready to respond to those in need.

In the years following, Blanche and her counterparts were all but forgotten until Bill Henderson came along. Henderson, formerly the mayor of Colorado Springs, took a special liking to the naughty (but deceased) ladies of Colorado City. Members of the Garden of the Gods Rotary Club were so moved by a speech Henderson gave, they decided Blanche should have a proper gravestone. Accordingly Richard Wilhelm of Wilhelm Monument Company donated the stone, which was erected in 1983 on the anniversary of Blanche’s unfortunate death. It remains today, bearing an appropriately wise inscription based on a poem by Frank Waugh:

Pioneer Madam
Blanche
BURTON
1859-1909
The sins of the living
are not of the dead

An unidentified harlot from Colorado's past.

An unidentified harlot from Colorado’s past.