Glenwood Springs’ ‘soiled doves’ fit its Wild West character
Post Independent Correspondent
Imagine it’s early 1885. You are a silver miner who has heard stories about hot waters that bubble near the confluence of the Grand and Roaring Fork rivers. You journey from your camp near Leadville to Defiance, the new tent town where a traveler can soak in the natural springs, do a bit of laundry, or enjoy a libation and a game of poker.
You find yourself on bustling Riverfront Street, along the south bank of the Grand River. Most businesses are housed in large white tents. You see bakeries, a couple of restaurants, Blake & Putman General Merchandise, Mr. Baldwin’s boarding house, and best of all: Pat Carr’s Pioneer Saloon. You step inside.
To your shock and amazement, a nicely groomed young woman is seated behind the tent flap. As a miner, you haven’t seen a real lady in quite some time — and you certainly didn’t expect to see one here. The woman talks with another saloon patron for a few hushed minutes; they stand, exit the tent and disappear into the cold night, walking arm-in-arm toward Palmer Avenue.
The woman is one of Gussie’s girls. Her profession is as old as time, and her business in the little tent town of Defiance is robust.
VICE AND DEBAUCHERY
Long before Glenwood Springs — formerly Defiance — became the family-friendly destination it is today, the town was known far and wide as a rough-and-tumble playground of vice and debauchery where miners, ranchers, drifters and outlaws came to cut loose.
“Glenwood’s history does have a gritty underbelly,” said Willa Kane, local history expert and former Frontier Historical Society archivist who pens the Post Independent’s Frontier Diary column.
“In the early days people came here for the hot springs, of course — but also for gambling and drinking, and the red light district,” Kane said. “Prostitution was here very early on. It was a whole economy on its own, and kind of a de facto tax system for the town.”
Glenwood’s madams and working girls were allowed to practice their business so long as they paid hefty “sporting fines” — fees that amounted to tens of thousands of dollars in revenue for the fledgling municipality. For decades, upstanding citizens of town cried for the houses of ill repute to be shut down, but they sure didn’t mind the steady stream of cash each one funneled to the local government.
Speaking of local government, in 1885 the young Garfield County found itself in a bit of a pickle. Permanent structures were hard to come by, but the county needed a place in which to conduct official business. John Blake, newly appointed sheriff, offered up a property on Riverfront (Seventh Street) near Palmer and Bennett avenues that he owned with his common-law wife Gussie Blake.
Gussie just so happened to be Glenwood’s most infamous madam, and she had been running a house of prostitution in the building before going out of town temporarily. When she returned to find the structure occupied by Garfield County, she did what any smart businesswoman would do: improvise.
An addition was quickly built on the side of the structure so that Gussie’s girls could continue business while county officials continued theirs. By summertime, after a few months of operating alongside a brothel, Garfield County moved its operations to Barlow’s building at Eighth and Grand.
A SECRET HISTORY
“The interesting thing about this profession is that there is no ‘official story’ of prostitution in Glenwood Springs,” Kane noted. “You can’t trace these women, because they don’t leave footprints. It was common for them to change their names. They sometimes appeared in the local publications, but it’s very difficult to know who they were before they settled here and who they became after they stopped appearing in the papers.”
If the houses of ill repute ever kept records, no one knows about them now. Lists of clientele were kept strictly confidential, and were likely destroyed long ago.
“It was in the women’s best interest to keep their visitors’ names a secret. Consequences could be disastrous if word got out,” Kane said. “Customers might range from some upvalley miner or rancher to, you know… your banker.”
Since it was considered beneath polite society to openly discuss the red light district and its workers, we now have little evidence of what life was like for Glenwood’s painted women. Newspaper articles, public records and a few hazy firsthand accounts recorded long ago are all that remain of their stories.
Reports of “soiled doves” often appear in The Avalanche, the primary newspaper in Glenwood Springs around the turn of the century. Some detail tawdry scenes of drunkenness and brutality at “disorderly houses,” while others simply mention ladies’ fines or legal woes.
A 1910 census record on file at the Frontier Historical Society museum offers a mere snapshot of the lives of dozens of workers labeled by the census taker as “unfortunate women”: Ruby Lane at 726 Palmer Ave., Georgia Bennett at 716, Josephine Thorn at 708, Lola Hamilton at 706 and many others.
Ladies of the night lived in the shadows of violence, addiction and cruel demands of all kinds. Still, the mystery of red light districts in Glenwood and elsewhere remain a captivating component of the mythos of the American West.
“Women in the profession suffered constant illness, domestic abuse and financial troubles. It was probably not a glamorous life for most of them,” Kane said. “But their stories are just so interesting. People sometimes smirk at the whole thing, looking at these women as morally corrupt even though many entered this type of work out of sheer circumstance. It’s important not to let the profession overshadow them — think of who they might have been as people.”
“The Row,” as it was once called, thrived in Glenwood Springs for nearly 40 years and included numerous properties in the northeastern corner of town on Cooper, Bennett, Palmer and Minter avenues. By 1920, however, local harlotry had largely disappeared.
“Colorado went dry in 1916, and there was a societal shift in thinking,” Kane said. “Without open availability of alcohol, there was a quick decline in prostitution.”
Curious residents can learn more about the women of this once-thriving subculture at the Frontier Historical Society Museum. A folder in the archives is conveniently labeled “Prostitution: Glenwood Springs.”
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