Steamboat author releases 1st book
Book signing events
Friday: 6 to 8 p.m. at Hi-Way Cafe & Bar in Hayden
Monday: 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. at Routt County Council on Aging meeting at the Steamboat Springs Community Center
March 8: 1 to 3 p.m. at Walgreens
March 15: 1 to 3 p.m. at Downtown Books in Craig
April 5: 1 to 3 p.m. at the Museum of Northwest Colorado in Craig
Through the lens of the saloons and brothels, Laurel Watson tells the story of the settling of Northwest Colorado in her first book, “The Yampa Valley Sin Circuit: Historic Red-Light Districts of Routt and Moffat Counties.”
Broken down by short chapters and intriguingly infamous characters, Watson tells of love affairs, suicides, shoot-outs in Hayden, bootlegging from Baggs, Wyo., all-night orgies in Oak Creek, outlaw cowboys and frequent fires that colored the valley in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Watson, who is the curator at the Hayden Heritage Center Museum, said she’s “always been a history nerd.” Watson also serves as a board member of Historic Routt County and as historical consultant of West Routt County for Northwest Colorado Heritage tourism.
Growing up in a New Jersey town that was seeped in the history of the American Revolution, Watson found a passion for genealogy and traced her own family’s roots back to the 1600s.
Watson moved to the Yampa Valley in 1990, and since then has raised a family and attained her master’s degree in American history from Regis University in Denver.
It was for her master’s thesis that she narrowed in on the region’s seedier side of life, wanting to take an approach that “hasn’t been done and overdone a million times.”
West compared to East, Watson said she found the history not always as visible, but once she started digging, “there’s a lot out there you don’t know, and there’s a lot that happened here,” she said. With its “newer” history, Watson found much to be explored.
In the book, she tells about the time when Steamboat Springs was dry and anything deemed “sinful” was relegated across the river to the neighborhood known as Brooklyn.
Now known as a scenic resort town, Watson reveals that Steamboat was founded by “very temperance-minded individuals” and “few realize that it was once a dry community complete with its own notorious red-light district.”
Not allowed in town, gambling, drinking and prostitutes all were available just across the bridge, in the area that now is tucked behind the ice rink and rodeo grounds.
It was while tending bar at Johnny B. Good’s Diner as a graduate student and single mother that Watson was first tipped off to the sordid stories of the Brooklyn neighborhood.
A regular, the late Mel Hitchens lived in Brooklyn and “started telling me stories about its sordid past, and I was hooked. A mystery and history all wrapped up in one — just the sort of thing that captured my attention. This started my journey of delving into local history that continues today.”
The name of “Brooklyn” is credited to “an alcoholic and consumptive artist originally from New York City.”
Some of Watson’s research came through other oral histories, while the bulk of it was dug out of newspaper articles, books and magazines, census data and maps.
One story led to another, she said, and she reached a point at which she had collected enough for a book.
The 11 years she spent bartending gave her a unique insight into Steamboat and surrounding areas, Watson said, “You get to know a lot of people, but are also invisible in a way — seeing the inner-workings, hearing the gossip.”
Watson currently resides in Steamboat but also has lived in Hayden and Craig.
At present, her role as curator is “a history junkie’s dream job,” Watson said.
In the 127-page book, Watson gives a glimpse into an era during which coal mines and mineral discoveries were booming, and the promise of a railroad gave huge momentum to development.
“The history of many red-light districts of Western towns has typically been omitted from original references due to the fact that they were considered of an objectionable nature by the dominant Victorian cultural social mores and strict sexual conventions of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” Watson writes.
It wasn’t an easy life or time, as Watson writes: “Hard conditions of the frontier — such as the long and difficult journey westward; constant threats of Indian hostility; primitive, substandard living conditions; and few economic opportunities — attracted very few women and families to the West.”
The male-dominated population was largely due to a rapid influx of men arriving to work in the mines, drive cattle and build the railroad.
And for them, the saloon became the “lifeblood of the western town,” a place of “solace and entertainment.”
The saloons and businesses considered “immoral” also provided revenue essential for building infrastructure in the fledgling towns and counties.
For the women who were prostitutes, many were doing what they had to survive, Watson described, in a time where independence and economic opportunity for women was very limited.
While peeling back layers to reveal a darker side of Yampa Valley history, the book also has fascinating tidbits and humorous anecdotes.
There were the three “working girls” who were brought up to the sheep camps so their “entrepreneurial saloonkeeper” could make a quick buck, but they caused such distraction (aided by whiskey) that 11 herds of sheep got mixed up, deeply angering the Routt National Forest ranger.
Or of the chicken in Brooklyn that, when butchered for a Saturday dinner, was found to have eaten a sizable gold nugget.
Then there was the group who, though involved in prostitution, had their worst run in with the authorities for violating game and fish laws after dynamiting fish in Luna Lake.
The range of names used for prostitutes is in itself an interesting thread throughout the book, and Watson describes one “creative” census worker who listed the occupations of the women as “ceiling inspector,” “mattress demonstrator” and “horizontal worker.”
From mine strikes and charges of white slavery to baseball games, beloved saloon operators and bold women, Watson’s book gives life to the people who came from all across the world to pursue their version of the American dream in the untamed Yampa Valley.
The book was published by History Press, out of Charleston, S.C.
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