Steamboat Springs was first organized to sell building lots to pioneers

Tom Ross

— On the 115th anniversary of Steamboat Springs’ incorporation Friday, the great-grandson of town founder James Harvey Crawford explained to an audience attending the Tread of Pioneers Brown Bag Lunch how, during Steamboat’s first 17 years as a community, it was essentially a real estate development that bore a particular resemblance to the town of Boulder.

“Steamboat Springs became a vision the day in 1874 when my great-grandfather first set foot in the area,” Jim Crawford said. “He anticipated a town as opposed to living here as a rancher.”

In 1875, Crawford and his wife, Margaret, built their first cabin near present day 12th Street and moved their children to the future site of Steamboat Springs, where they were the only permanent European settlers for five years. Crawford arranged for a survey of the township and finally found four other settlers to join him in taking up 160-acre homesteads.

James Crawford, Perry H. Burgess, William Mellon and William Walton merged their homesteads, and each of the families ended with with a quarter interest in the 800 acres. Nine years later, that 800 acres would be transformed into the Steamboat Town Site Company, and Crawford, with three new partners, would begin marketing lots for sale.

Jim Crawford was just one of three speakers at Friday’s Brown Bag event. Historian and former Steamboat Springs city councilwoman Arianthe Stettner (1996-2003) told the audience of how Routt County once encompassed modern Moffat County and stretched all the way to the Utah border. Not until 1911, with the recognition that doing government business in such a large geographical region was impractical, was the original Routt split in two, she said.

Former city manager Paul Hughes (1998-2005) described how, in 1973, the citizens of Steamboat Springs voted to cease being a statutory city, opting instead, under Colorado law, to create a home rule charter governed by a city council directing a city manager.

“It’s a really good form of government,” Hughes said. “The elected officials decide where we’re going, and the city manager decides how we get there.”

////Developing Steamboat Springs////

The Crawfords sometimes wintered in Boulder during their early years in the Yampa Valley, and it was there James met three influential men: Lewis Cheney, Andrew Macky and James P. Maxwell. All three were government officials and bankers in Boulder at varying times.

Maxwell, who ultimately erected the building at the corner of Ninth and Lincoln in Steamboat that houses Lyon’s Drug today, was the Gilpin County sheriff, mayor of Boulder and president of Cheney’s bank, though not all at the same time.

In 1883, Crawford and the three Boulder men — who had acquired the 800 acres together — formed the Steamboat Springs Town Site Company and issued shares of common stock in their venture. They filed a plat the was virtually identical to the layout of Boulder in terms of the size of the lots and the width of the streets — from Pine Street to the river and all the way to 12th Street to the west — 12 lots to a block with an alley in the middle. The exception was Lincoln Avenue, which was 20 feet wider than any street in Boulder.

“They were a development company selling lots,” Jim Crawford said. “That’s how they were going to make their money. They also ran the bath house (Old Town Hot Springs today).”

Curiously, the developers added a clause to the contracts of every lot they sold providing that, should the owner be found selling liquor, the land would revert to the developers, in essence creating a dry town. One year, they sold 30 lots for $7,000 (total) after incurring $4,900 in expenses, Crawford said. His family just recently uncovered a treasure trove of James Crawford’s early business letters that can be read at his Web page,

The Crawford family prospered sufficiently to build a grand stone house in 1894, which still stands today. Steamboat did not have electricity at the time, but James and Margaret knew that, eventually, he would have to cause an electrical plant to be built for Steamboat Springs to incorporate as a town. So confident were they, that they pre-wired their new house in anticipation of that day.

When the day came that Crawford traveled to Boulder to discuss incorporating the town with his partners, he presented a plan to include 640 acres of their total 800 acres. Omitted were the 160 acres across the Yampa River, where the Brooklyn neighborhood became a haven for illicit activities.

The voters of Steamboat Springs voted 69-14 in favor of incorporation on July 17, 1900, with ballots cast in Library Hall. Crawford was elected mayor on Aug. 21 and presided over his first meeting Aug. 23. The new town moved swiftly to to establish a telephone company and impose five mills of property tax to allow it to hire a policeman.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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