What’s in a name? Efforts grow to change controversial ‘Robert E. Lee Lane’ in Steamboat
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A drive through the Fairway Meadows subdivision in Steamboat Springs offers a scenic tour of some of the best sights the city has to offer.
Below the smattering of large-windowed homes are panoramic views of the Yampa Valley. Rising above is Steamboat Resort and the surrounding mountains. The neighborhood wraps around the Rollingstone Ranch Golf Club, a pristine symbol of affluent mountain living.
Given the charm of the area, many are shocked to learn that one of its streets is named after one of the most infamous figures of the Civil War. Robert E. Lee Lane has been a source of recent controversy as the city takes steps to progress racial justice. To the local activists fighting for reform, the street is tangible proof that not even a small, resort community like Steamboat is immune to the issues that have plagued the country since its founding.
So how did a seemingly charming street in Steamboat get named after a Confederate general? Steamboat Pilot & Today staff sought answers to that question in 2017 as part of the “I wonder why…?” installment. Using archives from the newspaper dating back to 1971, when the street got its name, they uncovered some unusual history.
According to those archives, Robert E. Lee Lane was the result of a naming contest organized by LTV-RDI, the owner of Steamboat Resort at the time. A new subdivision had been built in what is now the Rollingstone Ranch Golf Club, and the developers needed five ideas to call the streets.
Jim Hinton, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, got third place in the contest for proposing the streets be named after steamboats that traveled the Mississippi River, supposedly intending it as a playful nod to the city’s name. His entries — Robert E. Lee Lane, Delta Queen Drive, Natches Way (which should have been spelled Natchez), River Queen Lane and Mark Twain Lane — all remain the names of streets in the neighborhood.
The Robert E. Lee steamboat, which indeed was named after the Confederate general, gained notoriety for beating the Natchez in an 1870 steamboat race.
What the archives do not explain is why Hinton’s third-place entry earned his ideas a spot on Steamboat street corners. Dr. William V. Luetke, of Madison, Wisconsin, won first place in the contest with the much less controversial suggestions of Arnold Palmer Parkway, Jack Nicklaus Drive, Lee Trevino Lane, Billy Casper Boulevard and Sam Snead Street. While his ideas did not make the phone books, he got a $50 cash prize plus a weekend at the Steamboat Village Inn.
Renewed renaming effort
The street name has come under scrutiny in years past, but calls for its removal have grown especially strong during the recent nationwide protests over what many see as systemic racism in American society.
Demonstrations have targeted edifices of oppression, such as statues and buildings memorializing polemical figures, in the push for police reform and equality for minorities.
In Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, protesters have toppled multiple statues commemorating Confederate leaders alongside demands to defund the police and establish a civilian review board over police departments. In Boston, San Francisco and Miami, statues of Christopher Columbus also have been vandalized. The Italian explorer has been a growing subject of controversy due to his brutal maltreatment, from enslavement to torture, of the Native Americans whom he contacted on his journeys.
An increasing number of cities, states and universities have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, also known as Native Americans Day.
Some, including President Donald Trump, have defended the Confederate monuments as American heritage, not symbols of racism. Amid efforts in 2017 to remove statues in places like Baltimore and Charlottesville, where just days before a man rammed his car through a group of people peacefully protesting a white supremacist rally, Trump tweeted, “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.” He continued, “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it.”
In another tweet last week, he lambasted administrative efforts to change the titles of military bases named after Confederate generals. This most recent initiative has gained more widespread support than in previous attempts, including some Republican lawmakers, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy.
Bringing the fight home
Like military bases, roads are not named at random. There is a deliberate effort behind the process.
And names have meaning. Many street names denote the culture and geography of their respective areas. In New Mexico, popular street names include Apache, Palo Verde and Mesquite. In Colorado, it’s hard to pass a town without seeing a road called Aspen or Spruce.
It, therefore, comes as an unsettling realization to many Steamboat residents that a city they love would have a street name with such problematic symbolism.
Lauren Jenkins has worked in Steamboat for years and did not know about Robert E. Lee Lane until she started participating in the weekly demonstrations at the Routt County Courthouse sparked by the death of George Floyd. She was shocked at the discovery.
In a letter to Steamboat Springs City Council, she urged action to remove and rename the street name. She questioned why the city would want to memorialize a man who fought for slavery, and she asked council to imagine how a person of color would feel passing such a sign every day.
“We cannot change history, but we can choose who we memorialize and who we condemn,” Jenkins said in the letter. “This is a very small, but very meaningful change we can make.”
Other residents have made similar demands to amend the street name but also to champion greater change. As Jenkins said, the changing of a name is a symbolic gesture that must be accompanied with more meaningful progress.
Two newly formed groups in Steamboat, BLM Citizens Coalition for Justice and Reform and BIPOC Lives Matter in the Yampa Valley (BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous People Of Color), have undertaken numerous initiatives to protect and promote minority rights.
As of Friday, the latter group had more than 400 members on its Facebook page. Katie McNamara started the group as a way to unify various efforts aimed at comprehensive reforms in the area, from fundraising for activist groups to recalling Sheriff Garrett Wiggins for making controversial remarks over the recent police protests.
A Steamboat native, McNamara said she experienced firsthand the lack of quality education about multicultural history and issues. It was not something McNamara realized fully until she looked in hindsight, but it is a problem she now sees in schools across the country.
Better education on race and equality at an early age, she said, is a major component to achieving long-term progress.
“We, as adults, can try to make these changes, but in order to continue the progress, we have to pass on the knowledge to younger people,” McNamara explained.
That is part of the reason she helped to organize the Steamboat Community Chalk Art Festival at the courthouse on Wednesday, urging families to join. Participants illustrated messages of solidarity and support for people of color and indigenous communities on the sidewalks, with “BLACK LIVES MATTER” written in large letters along Lincoln Avenue.
McNamara acknowledged that in such a predominantly white community like Steamboat, issues of racism might not be at the forefront of people’s minds. It does not mean that racism does not exist or that the community is somehow immune to prejudice, she added. In fact, she has spoken with several people of color who said they do not feel comfortable attending the group meetings for fear of facing racist retaliation.
“There is so much more to learn. This is my outlet on educating myself and trying to be a better ally for persons of color and indigenous people,” McNamara said of her activism.
Other events have taken more celebratory tones.
On Friday, in honor of Juneteenth, a day to commemorate the emancipation of American slaves in 1865, the Young Bloods Collective organized a virtual dance party and double-Dutch fundraiser called Jump’IN 4 Justice. The proceeds help to fund resources for people of color and indigenous residents, according to the event’s Facebook page, from health care to business support.
City Council member Lisel Petis agrees that the name Robert E. Lee has no place in Steamboat. After fielding letters and emails calling for its removal, she brought the issue to her fellow council members.
Council has not yet scheduled a time to formally discuss changes to the street name, according to City Council President Jason Lacy. City staff plan to reach out to the homeowners along Robert E. Lee Lane to get their input on the renaming effort before they open the door to public discussion.
Petis also acknowledges that more changes are necessary than just renaming a street. Among her top priorities is holding public officials more accountable through reforming the city’s complaint system. As she explained of the current system, there are no procedures or protocols in place to address complaints alleging wrongdoing or ethics violations.
“Because there is no formal manner to deal with it, (complaints) kind of just sit there,” Petis said.
That makes it hard to both catch wrongdoing when it arises and have a system in place to respond. City Council is scheduled to discuss reforms to its complaint system at its July 14 meeting, Petis said.
Petis also encourages people to reach out to her with suggestions or comments about what City Council can do to better serve the community. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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