Tom Ross: Rowdy saloons and brothels helped fund early civic improvements in frontier towns like Steamboat Springs
Steamboat Springs — One of the worst insults one person could sling at another in one of Colorado’s late 19th and early 20th century mining towns, like Georgetown, was to call someone’s mother a ceiling inspector. It was a thinly veiled euphemism used to label prostitutes, and nobody in Routt County would have used such crude expressions.
“Up here, they were a lot more prim and proper,” Laurel Watson told a packed house at the Tread of Pioneers Museum on Friday. “They referred to them as soiled doves or maybe inmates of Brooklyn. It goes to show you, Steamboat was just a little bit above.”
Watson is the curator of the Hayden Heritage Center and is working on a book about the local history of rowdy saloons and red-light districts and the role they played in building the communities of Northwest Colorado. The reference to Brooklyn inmates is to a mixed commercial/residential Steamboat neighborhood on Howelsen Parkway across the Yampa River from downtown that once housed the community’s red-light district.
Prostitution is an acknowledged evil that entraps women in hardship and abuse. However, Watson said the fees collected by respectable towns from saloon keepers or madams helped to build civic infrastructure in the frontier American West. And to a degree, that almost certainly included Steamboat Springs.
“They were entrepreneurial people,” Watson told her audience in the Tread’s first Brown Bag Lunch Series talk of the summer. “It was part of how the West got built.”
The genesis of Steamboat’s red-light district had much to do with the arrival of rail lines to the north and south of the Yampa Valley and its location midway between livestock shipping points between Wolcott, to the south, and Rawlins, Wyo., Watson said.
“The cowboys were a pretty rowdy group of boys who were out on the range for weeks and months,” she said. They were known to hold bucking bronco contests in the main street and fired their pistols randomly. At one point, a cowboy randomly firing his pistol accidentally killed a young Steamboat boy.
At the same time, Steamboat’s respectable families were rankling at the behavior of the cowboys, and J. R. Woolery came up with a plan to prosper while relocating the rough people to a new neighborhood across the river where their cattle already were grazing. He began selling narrow building lots for $25 to $50. The neighborhood might have been dubbed Brooklyn by an artist who came west seeking relief from tuberculosis, noticed the number of immigrant families in the new neighborhood and associated it with his home of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Town fathers and temperance-oriented mothers of Steamboat allowed saloons in Brooklyn but charged them a $500 fee up front and required them to post a $2,000 bond.
“They wanted to have it both ways,” Watson said.
Gus Durbin, who maintained a respectable front when he arrived in Steamboat, soon opened a saloon he named Carrie Nation to mock the temperance activist of the same name. He formed a partnership with a well-known madam, Ollie Patterson, and they used a big black wagon to deliver alcohol to people in Steamboat and fetch customers back to the saloon, which fronted a brothel.
Shorty Anderson opened the Mint Saloon and a string of others, all of which seemed to burn down under mysterious circumstances. Anderson’s prostitution operation was so blatant that he was charged with “white slavery.”
Meanwhile, the ceiling inspectors of Brooklyn were known for riding horseback down the street in their, ahem, petticoats.
Watson pointed out that this was a different era in American history when there were few employment options for women with children who lost or were abandoned by a husband. A woman working in a factory in that era might have expected to earn $6 per day while a prostitute in a Colorado mining town might earn $175 to $250 per week, she said. It also was likely that the madam who took care of her would make certain she grew increasingly in debt to her.
The most successful madams sometimes kept their children at private schools in Denver, but many of the prostitutes died miserable, lonely deaths from sexually transmitted diseases, Watson said.
Steamboat’s early saloons — and along with them, its red-light district — faded abruptly Jan. 1, 1916, when Prohibition went into effect. But first, they had a helluva New Year’s Eve party in Brooklyn.
Ultimately, the history of frontier red-light districts cannot be anything but a grim story, but that story also represents a significant chapter in the settlement of the American West that deserves to be told.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com
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