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  • Peter McGuire

The Railroad: Why Steamboat Springs Blew Up the Steamboat Spring Part 5 of 6

Updated: Dec 28, 2022

The March of Civilization

[Uncle Tow] paused to stare across the river. His happy mood fell away, leaving him old and shrunken. His eyes grew bleak. “Times is changin’,” he muttered. “Ain’t a handful of mountain men left. And now the Injuns is gone, too.”

“Won’t they be back next summer?” asked Logan. “I broke my hunting bow and I wish Yarmonite would make me another.”

“Don’t reckon the government’ll let the Utes hunt and camp in these mountains any more.”

“Won’t we ever see Yarmonite again?” John cried, unbelieving.

“Or Charlie?” added Logan anxiously.

Uncle Tow chewed his pipe. “Tha’s talk of herdin’ all the Utes out of Colorado.”

“It would be a real relief not to have Indians around,” Ma admitted, “though I can’t help feeling sorry for them.”

Lulie guessed Ma was thinking of all the biscuits she had had to bake for them and of the times Colorow and Piah had tried to scare her.

“Don’t seem fair to punish the whole bunch,” Uncle Tow growled. “Shore, they’ve killed white men, but this here trouble wasn’t all their fault. Meeker, he didn’t savvy Injuns.”

Lulie said soberly, “I guess the Utes owned these mountains long before the white men came.”

“Some of ’em was the best friends a man ever had!” Uncle Tow’s lean jaw quivered.

-Lulita Crawford, The Cabin at Medicine Springs

The Ute removal from northwestern Colorado to Utah progressed peacefully after the Meeker Massacre, as it came to be known. For the Crawfords, that meant it would be much easier to attract new settlers to their town.

However, for a decade after Ute removal in 1880, the white population of Steamboat Springs did not rise above a dozen. Ute removal didn’t make it much easier to live a settled life high in the Rockies. Families moved in, including several immigrants from Switzerland with little grasp of the English language, and families moved out, exhausted at the end of winter, desperate to move as soon as the snow allowed.

During this time, John L. Routt took an interest in the county that bore his name. Appointed Governor of the Colorado Territory by President Grant, John Routt had overseen its transition to a state and had been elected the first Governor of the state of Colorado. In 1877, the legislature created Routt county in northwest Colorado. He appointed James Crawford as the county judge and, at Crawford’s request, hired a postmaster. Remember that it took months to drive cattle to market in Leadville and weeks to reach the nearest county seat of Hot Sulphur Springs. Routt went on to win the governorship again in 1890 and his wife became the first woman to register to vote in Colorado, 27 years before it became federally legal.

Here’s Lulita describing early settlers of Steamboat:

Probably in the spring of 1882 S. M. French moved his family from Denver and built a cabin east of Soda Creek down toward the river, where he lived with his wife and three children, Nellie, Mamie, and Bertie. In one room of this cabin he opened the first store in Steamboat Springs with a slab of bacon, some flour and sugar, a little canned goods, and a pail of stick candy. Just why he left an apparently good business and came to the Yampa Valley is not known. Perhaps he foresaw rapid development and prosperity for the region, or he may have sought health in the mineral baths for his small son Bertie, who had fallen out of his high chair and been permanently crippled.

Unfortunately, the Frenches found they could not maintain a living as shopkeepers in such a remote location and found that little Bertie was not improved by the long winders. They moved away a few years later, leaving the store and all their goods behind.

In 1883, Horace Suttle built the first sawmill, which is always a major event in the growth of new towns. Now they could build traditional wooden buildings, not just log cabins. One of the first such buildings was the schoolhouse, where 16-year-old Lulie Crawford taught. Remember that Lulie was the mother of Lulita Crawford. She’d had an interesting life growing up in the Rockies, helping clothe and feed the family, and going out hunting and fishing with her mom, Maggie. Remember that it was her doll that drunken Ute had scalped in one of the early years.

In 1885, the town’s first newspaper, The Steamboat Pilot, began printing. It is the source of most of our knowledge about early Steamboat (that doesn’t come from Lulita). Its reprintings of pioneer journals in the 20s and 30s preserved the early memories of Steamboat Springs for future historians. James Hoyle started the newspaper with the backing of some Boulder businessmen but was not able to afford a full set of type, so x's, z's, q’s, and j’s were avoided for the first few issues. (Lee Powell, Steamboat Springs the First Forty Years)

Lulita notes that her grandfather, James was well-known for selling plots in his new city for well below price and even giving plots away when he felt charitable. On one occasion he gifted a lot to a widow when her husband died so that she could live out her days in Steamboat. His interest had always been primarily in starting a new settlement, and as more farmers, ranchers, and tradesmen moved into the valley, he was able to focus less on survival and more on his civic duties. Inevitably, the town’s reputation was built on its remarkable springs.

To fit the dreams of its founders, Steamboat Springs was platted on a large scale, lots being fifty feet to the front and one hundred and forty feet deep. All streets were eighty feet in width except the main thoroughfare, Lincoln Avenue, which was one hundred feet wide.

James Crawford’s original plan was to build a health resort around the mineral springs that had been put here by the Creator for the use of humanity. The Town Company hired experts at the Colorado School of Mines to make analyses of the most important springs and published their reports, along with findings of the medical profession. One “well-known physician” who had made a special study of mineral springs and had investigated some of the most famous of the country was quoted in an early advertising brochure:

“Mineral springs are magical in their charm for the layman. All people have an abiding faith in Nature and the mysterious workings that are constantly taking place in her unseen laboratories deep down in the formations of the earth, for they feel that she is dispensing chemical combinations far beyond the possibility of man to do. It is this that causes thousands of people to visit resorts each year...

“For we can offer the sick who are suffering from diabetes, gout and kidney afflictions the great sodium sulphur remedy of Carlsbad... the same thermal waters of Hot Springs, Arkansas. For the crippled and afflicted with rheumatism and other uric acid disorders, the same lithium waters of Saratoga, New York. For those having intestinal and stomach troubles the same sodium and magnesium water of Mount Clemens, Michigan and French Lick, Indiana. For those suffering from bladder diseases the same calcium waters of Baden-Baden, Germany.”

Over the next few decades, much was made of the medicinal benefits of the mineral springs. I see in this an interesting parallel with the Ute beliefs that preceded them. The Ute apparently called the area Medicine Springs and considered bathing in the Sulphur Spring to be restorative for the body and spirit. Springs represented one physical manifestation of cosmic and natural health, which was believed to have an intimate connection to a person’s physical health.

Since the late 19th and early 20th centuries were obsessed with science and pseudoscience, the beliefs about the springs introduced by white colonizers were couched in scientific terms. But they were no less mystical than the beliefs they replaced. Virtually all health claims related to mineral water have since been debunked, which is why you’ll no longer see this kind of advertising stated seriously in brochures for hot springs today. Nevertheless, healing claims of mineral water persist in alternative health circles to this day.

Also in 1885, Crawford built a house around one of his favorite finds: a hot spring that produced water at 103°F. He announced free use of the bathhouse in The Steamboat Pilot. It became a popular meeting spot for travelers weary from the road.

In the same issue, it was announced that a beautiful pagoda was built over a bubbling seltzer spring. This spring became another claim to fame. In a time when bottled soda was hard to come by (carbonated water was invented in the late 1700s but required brewing equipment to produce), in Steamboat Springs, it literally came out of the ground. Before long, the Pagoda Spring became famous for the Steamboat Fizz.

Recipe for Steamboat Fizz:

Add two tablespoons of lemon syrup to a cup of soda springs water, stir and hand to a young lady waiting.

The Steamboat Pilot

The water came out cold and fizzy but with a slight sulphuric stinkiness. Apparently, if you let the water sit for a few minutes, the stink would dissipate. That said, the spring was so close to the pervasive stink of the Sulphur Spring, I don’t know how anyone could tell the difference.

In 1888, the fledgling town was transformed by the arrival of a new form of transportation: the stage coach. Before its arrival, there was a sawmill, a combined store-hotel-post office, a newspaper and about a dozen houses and cabins. Over the next two summers, it got a drug store, a hotel, a band, a second newspaper, a public bath house, a town hall, a bridge over the river, an attorney, a doctor, and a minister. Suddenly, you could reach train service to Denver in just a day and a half. We can see the enormity of this change in the food available: now the residents of Steamboat Springs could buy oranges and bananas at the store. All this for the admittedly exorbitant price of six or seven dollars. The line proved popular enough that service increased to six trips a week in 1890. (Lee Powel)

Historian Lee Powell describes the importance of these new amenities to the rural people moving into Routt county:

Hotels had a much more important function in the community life in those days. Before automobiles, a farm family would rarely come to town more than once or twice a month, particularly in winter. During the winter the first place a family would go was the hotel to warm up around the potbellied stove. They would then have lunch in the dining room before everyone fanned out over town to do his business, mom to the grocery store, dad to the bank and so forth.

By 1900, Steamboat Springs was a real mountain town. That year, it incorporated as a town with 900 citizens. It had 4 general stores, 3 banks, 2 barber shops, 2 hotels, 3 blacksmiths, 6 street lights, and about a dozen homes with electricity. By 1902, a phone line connected the town to Rifle and the rest of the country’s phone network. In 1904, they finally installed water and sewage lines.

Over this time, Steamboat Springs remained a dry town, as advertised by the Steamboat Springs Town Company, a corporation James Crawford set up to develop the town.


A fact which is high proof of the moral tone of the town and of the social refinement of the people. The town is modeled after Colorado Springs and Greeley as a temperance town, and a healthful public sentiment is maintaining for it this distinctive character.

One enterprising businessman, W. H. Dunfield saw a gap in the market and built a house on the western edge of the town limits, and an adjoining saloon just outside. This caused quite a stir amongst the inhabitants, some of whom had moved there to escape the temptation to drink. One was Louis Garborino, whose parents operated a saloon in Georgetown and wanted their son to aspire to greater things.

One cold evening, Dr. L. E. Bamber, the town dentist—who also repaired watches, clocks, and jewelry, and sang in the town choir—got drunk and slipped in the wetlands on his way home. When he was found frozen to death the next morning, the town was outraged. The minister, Reverend Gunn, gave a damning sermon that was printed by the newspaper in its entirety. Dunfield, fearing for his life, gave up the saloon and moved into the freight business.

For years, the only whiskey available in Steamboat was dispensed by the drug stores and only with a doctor’s prescription—a common treatment for a wide range of mental illnesses. The ban remained in place until it was challenged in 1939, six years after the passage of the 21st Amendment, ending prohibition.

Over this time, the Crawford house, a Romanesque Revival stone house built in 1894, served as the town center and hospital. When Pony Whitmore, an old-timer, got drunk and laid out on a chip pile all night, he was brought to the Crawford house for care until he soon expired. Despite James’ charity, he managed to accumulate great wealth from building up Steamboat Springs and even could afford a piano to be shipped from Denver at $1.25/lbs (to continue Lulie’s lessons she began in childhood). The house stands on a bluff overlooking the springs and the old town center. James built a large porch later in life, where he could play with his children and then grandchildren while looking out over the town he built.

The Railroad

In 1890, James Crawford wrote an urgent letter to his Boulder investors, saying, “I will be pleased if you will lose no time in posting me on the proposed railway. You can scarcely realize the eagerness with which we look forward to the coming of a road, and the least intimation of it will put life into our people.”

It was the start of an ongoing fascination. Extending a railroad to Steamboat wasn’t a serious possibility until David H. Moffat started building the Denver Northwestern & Pacific Railroad in 1903. For the next six years, barely a week went by without some update on the railroad. The railroad was expected to have the same effect as the stagecoach but tenfold. Most of the many businesses that opened up during that time did so as speculators, expecting the real profits to start when the railroad arrived.

The citizens of Steamboat collected $15,075 and fifteen miles of land rights for the railroad to ensure they would get their connection.

Month after month, prospectors brought in geological experts of various stripes that claimed Steamboat sat upon vast reserves of coal, oil, or more lucrative minerals. But month after month, no one could find the mineral seam they expected to catapult their city to fame.

Meanwhile, some early settlers grumbled about the condition of the springs. An increase in construction and ranching had apparently covered up some of the natural springs and filled in others. Worst of all, some “bad boys” had taken to throwing rocks in the Steamboat Spring to see how high the water would fling them and had apparently clogged it up. The regular geyser blasts had diminished, although it’s not clear by how much.

Meanwhile, Moffat was coming to Steamboat. This was his fourth major railway project in Colorado and his grandest plan. In 1869, the transcontinental railroad was completed far north of Denver, and had transformed Cheyenne, Wyoming into the trade center of the region. Moffat and his investors connected Cheyenne to Denver in 1870, then to Leadville in 1872, and Boulder in the 1890s. Each connection had caused an economic boom.

In the early 1900’s, he decided to create the connection to the Pacific that Denver had been denied in the planning of the transcontinental railroad. In his previous job, while building a railway out to Grand Junction, Moffat had spent so much money surveying a transcontinental route that investors asked him to resign. He used those surveys to start his new Denver, Northwestern and Pacific Railway. He built a line from Denver over Rollin’s Pass (near Winter Park) and by 1906, was snaking up the Yampa Valley.

Getting an acceptable grade for turn-of-the-century trains in winding mountain valleys and canyons was an enormously expensive chore. As construction neared Oak Creek, it became apparent that the railroad could save ten miles of hard rock blasting if they turned left to connect in Hayden instead of making a tight bend around the mountain to connect with Steamboat Springs. If it did pass through Steamboat, it would need to pass right through the epicenter of the natural springs, because that was where the town center was situated. They would need to cut deeply into the mountain to make the connection work. In response, the citizens of Steamboat collected $15,075 and fifteen miles of land rights which they gave to the railroad company to ensure they would get their connection.

The Steamboat Springs curve

And this, finally, is why Steamboat Springs blew up the Steamboat Spring. Because they needed a railroad for their plans of becoming fabulously wealthy to pan out. The town was built on speculation and, without a railroad or nearby precious metals, all this feverish investment would disappear as quickly as it had come.

From all appearances one of the most unique and far-famed features of this wonderful group of springs has been ruined by the railroad grade. If so it is only another evidence that any natural objects must give way to progress. But it is a matter of regret that the “chug,” “chug” fo the Steamboat spring, which gave the town its name… is no longer a miniature geyser….

This series on Steamboat grew a lot in the telling, but I hope it was worth it. I have taken you through all this geology and history so you can appreciate this moment. For who knows how long, potentially tens of thousands of years, this geyser did its thing: filling up with subterranean water and spouting it out like a teapot. For thousands of years, humans lived with these springs, bathing in them, relaxing near them, and letting their children play in the waters. And then, in a matter of decades, it’s claimed, possessed, and destroyed. Western civilization was like a meteor coming across the world to destroy it. I can find no thought in the written record given to how blasting next to the springs might affect them. It doesn’t appear to have been a consideration at the time.

It’s unclear to me whether the railroad literally blasted through the geyser or if the geyser was situated slightly further down the hill where the current bubbling pool is. I asked Candice Bannister from the museum in Steamboat, who initially told me it was unknown but, after the release of the first episode, changed her perspective. More on that later. Either way, the railroad disturbed the rock enough that water comes up through the tracks and the Steamboat Spring ceased to be a geyser.

The town of Steamboat Springs blew up the Steamboat Springs—paid for it to happen—so they could become the major city between Denver and Salt Lake. There were a few changes the railroad brought, but that was not one of them.

In anticipation, the town of Steamboat built a 100-room hotel across from the train station, the Moffat Depot. The bathhouse around the hot spring was considerably expanded, as were the sidewalks, to invite visitors to promenade in the evenings. This is also when the original rock work was created around the springs to turn them into pools, so they could be enjoyed separately from the mud they created.

Cabin Hotel (now the site of the town library)

The warm, wet soil coupled with a very late growing season made a hill above Steamboat ideal for growing strawberries. Fresh strawberries so late in the year were an expensive delicacy. Over three years of good harvests, land prices in Strawberry Park jumped from $15 to $1500 an acre. The next three years had early frosts and the bubble burst, returning land prices to their former value.

Next came the lumber boom. A large sawmill was built on the Yampa River, but operators found the river too unstable to operate through much of the year. When the river was low, logs got caught and piled up dangerously. When it was high, logs sailed right by the mill.

Then came coal mining, gold mining, and marble quarrying in turn. Either the seams were too small, it was too difficult to get the ore to the railroad, or the mining wasn’t profitable enough to support a large-scale industry. Cattle remained the main export of the region, which was lucrative, but not lucrative enough. In the end, the only way for the town to justify their railroad investment was in tourist trade, which relied on the Moffat Line becoming a major train route.

David Moffat, who suffered underhanded tricks from larger, east-coast railroads his whole life, found his company completely out of investment by the time the railroad reached Steamboat. He struggled for two years to find funding to connect to the town of Craig before dying at age 73, widely considered to have wasted fourteen million dollars on his impossible goal of reaching the Pacific from Denver.

His tunnel under Rollin’s Pass wasn’t completed for 15 years and trains never ran reliably over the pass, especially in winter, when trains had to push snow off the tracks as they chugged up the pass. His company passed through several hands and received significant investment from the state before the Moffat tunnel was completed in 1928 (not in 1927, as the enormous numbers on the tunnel entrance state). For two decades, the line ended on the Colorado-Utah border at Craig until, finally, in 1934, Utah investors helped finish the 40-mile connection needed to reach the line to Salt Lake. Unfortunately for Steamboat Springs, the connection was made far south in Dotsero, and their town remained a long detour off the main line. To this day, the California Zephyr route runs through Winter Park, Glenwood Springs, and Grand Junction, but not Steamboat Springs, as Moffat planned.

Route to Craig, north, and route to Utah, south

At the same time, the U.S. Highway system was slowly developing like a slime mold reaching out to every corner of the country. Just two years after the Moffat Line connected to Salt Lake, US Highway 6 connected to the Pacific coast. The roads through the mountains west from Denver were always tricky and the route was not commonly used. People followed the older train connections and either drove north to Cheyanne or south to Pueblo before continuing west. Then, in the 1950s, Colorado leaders convinced Utah to join in lobbying for an interstate highway connecting the two states directly. The first portions of I-70 opened in 1961, following (more or less) the train route. Between the railroad and the interstate, Steamboat Springs remains decidedly “off the beaten path.”

The town’s last remaining hope lay in being a tourist attraction in its own right. In this, they were saved by yet another immigrant, a Norwegian Skiier.

Next episode out 8/29

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