LOCAL HISTORY: Grand Junction’s past retold through early-settler John McKinney’s letters — Part 1 | PostIndependent.com

LOCAL HISTORY: Grand Junction’s past retold through early-settler John McKinney’s letters — Part 1

Garry Brewer
GJ History Columnist
Grand Junction Free Press
Zoomed in version of John G. McKinney by the stagecoach on Main Street.
Museum of W. Colo. |

Sometimes, the things we wish for do come true … but not always in the way we envision.

While researching the life of John G. McKinney, nephew of George A. Crawford, founder of Grand Junction, I discovered how hard John fought for his dream and the way it was ultimately answered.

John Graham McKinney was born Aug. 8, 1867, in Lock Haven, Clinton County, Pa., to Andrew C. McKinney and Elizabeth Crawford, sister of George A. Crawford. He was baptized in the Presbyterian Church on Sept. 5, 1868.

As a boy, John loved the Pennsylvania woods close to his home and the coolness the trees offered during the dog days of summer, and as summer gave way to fall the changing color of the leaves was a delight. He had fond memories of walking through the woods to gather nuts, hunt squirrels and ducks, and especially enjoyed casting a hook behind the boulders in the river near what he called the Old Nolan Mill in hopes of catching a trout or two.

After his school days were over, John, like some young men of the time went West to the town his Uncle George had helped found. In one of his many letters preserved by his family and donated to the Museum of Western Colorado, John wrote that on Decoration Day 1889 (Memorial Day now), he bought a train ticket to Grand Junction, Colo. The ticket agent told John he could not sell him a ticket to Grand Junction because the map only extended to Montrose. He would have to pay local fare from Montrose to Grand Junction, provided there was a railroad.

It had been raining when his train left Lock Haven. It was about 11 p.m. when the train crossed the viaduct at Johnstown, Pa. It was dark and with the hard rain he couldn’t see out the windows. In retrospect it was probably a good thing because a few hours later the passengers on the train were told the dam had broken in Johnstown and now buildings, logs, dead animals and human beings were lodged against the viaduct the train had crossed.

The storm began on Memorial Day and continued through the night. On May 31, rising water in the lake breached the South Fork Dam, sending 20 million tons of water roaring through the valley. The massive wall of water destroyed everything in its path. Houses, railroad cars and other debris all became part of the deadly mix that crashed into Johnstown and literally swept the town away. When it was all over, 2,209 people were dead.

Fortunately for John, fate had intervened as he had almost taken the later train. If he had, he would have been caught in the worst of the flood. When he reached Pittsburgh the next day, he read the paper about the terrible disaster he had just missed.

He wrote that when he reached Montrose, he had to pay a driver with a little old homemade buggy drawn by two western broncos (horses) to get to Grand Junction. He arrived June 3, 1889, and was dropped at his Uncle George Crawford’s hotel at the northwest corner of Fourth and Main known as the Brunswick. While the driver was helping him into the hotel with his luggage, the broncos ran away and demolished the buggy. Such was his introduction to Grand Junction.


Besides his Uncle George, John had quite a bit of family already here when he arrived. There were cousins Charles Rich, Josephine “Jodie” Rich, Tom “Tommy” Crawford, Charlotte “Lottie” and Will Crawford Jr., along with John’s uncle, Will Crawford Sr.

John was taken aback by the difference between his new home, a high-desert western town with no more than 1,000 souls, and Pennsylvania with its deep dark-green forests. John also said he felt somewhat out of place with his narrow-brimmed hat and eastern attire as most of the men and women all had broad-brimmed cowboy hats. Many of the men carried guns (revolvers), especially the cowboys and gamblers. He also noted there were plenty of bachelors and very few young women.

Through his prolific letters, he spoke of the disregard of the law by all the cowboys and how at night they would take delight in shooting out the coal oil lights in town. One Sunday afternoon, a drunken cowboy who really wanted to appear tough rode up and down Main firing his revolvers, and then rode his horse into the local saloon. The sheriff appeared, calmly walked in, took the horse by the bridle and led horse and rider to the old log jail on Fifth and Colorado, where the cowboy was left to sober up.

John also talked about other happenings, such as the cattlemen and sheep men’s early battles, and that 800 head of sheep were driven off the cliffs near Hogback Road on Rapid Creek; the killing of several hundred angora goats near Piñon Mesa; the sheep killed at Plateau Valley; and the unsolved murder of the Swanson brothers. While these things did happen, it must be said that most of the early-day citizens were honest and law-abiding.

There were only a few wooden sidewalks in town and the water was hauled from the Colorado River and sold by the barrels to the townspeople. The water systems and electric lights would come to Grand Junction within the year, along with the irrigation ditches that lined the streets. The shade trees that had been planted were still too small to provide shade and there was one little narrow gage railroad.

There were a lot of claim and town-site jumpers who brought lawsuits against the original town site and his Uncle George. There was talk of setting aside land titles and so much bitterness that “Necktie Parties” were forming because of unclear titles. Thankfully, as titles were cleared, the talk of hanging anyone subsided.

After the death of his Uncle George in 1891, John, since he was living in Grand Junction, became the agent for his mother’s portion of the Crawford estate. Elizabeth Crawford McKinney resided in Pennsylvania. It would take decades to settle and untie George Crawford’s personnel property from his town company assets and John would work diligently and unpaid on his mother’s behalf.

Around the middle of 1891, John wrote his mother in Pennsylvania that he had met a young lady by the name of Florence Bell Robinson. And on Sept. 28, 1891, John wrote his mother that he was finishing up his house and would be done by November, and then asked her if Aunt Pricilla Crawford had said he was to be married and “does Papa know yet? If he does not, you will have to tell him for me. I expect if I were to write to him about it, he would read me ‘Riot Act’ as usual, so I prefer not to say anything and save my own feelings as well as his.”


John and Florence were married on Oct. 26, 1891, in Salt Lake City, Utah, and returned to Grand Junction Nov. 15. Their only child, Ruth Vivian McKinney, was born on Oct. 16, 1892. She had blonde hair and blue eyes and was the apple of their eye.

John’s wife Florence, 21 at the time of marriage, and was born in Visalia, Calif., to Annie S. Boyer and James Johnson. Florence’s mother was born in Ireland and joined the Mormon Church in 1852 in Liverpool, England, and immigrated to Utah, then to California. She later joined the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. She married a man named Robinson and had three children by him, but later married James Johnson and they had Florence. Unfortunately, James died and the family moved back to Salt Lake City. At that time, Florence started using the last name of Robinson like her older half-brother and sisters.

One of John’s many jobs was as the manager of the Brunswick Hotel in Grand Junction. He also worked for the Grand Junction Publishing Company and the Grand Valley Star. His manager was Isaac Newton Bunting, before Bunting started the Daily Sentinel. Later, he worked for the Condit and McKinney Real Estate Company, but the “Panic of 1893” dropped the value of land in the U.S. so much that a full-time paying position was needed.

The 1893 panic was the worst economic depression the U.S. had ever experienced at the time. It was marked by the collapse of railroad overbuilding and shaky railroad financing, resulting in a series of bank failures.

John went to work for his cousin, Tom Crawford, in the Mesa County Treasurer’s Office. Writing to his mother he said he was very busy in the office and there was a big rush on people bringing in hides of lions, bears, wolves and coyotes to collect bounties from Mesa County.

Writing his father in 1895, he said he was making 15 cents an hour and also worked on Sunday to support his family. Florence was not feeling well and she wanted to go to Salt Lake City, and Ruth is doing well.

John then secured a position as night agent for the railroad at $75 a month and train tickets for his family to use. In 1896, the family took a trip to Pennsylvania to visit his parents. His sister, Lillie, came back with them on their return to Grand Junction.

From his letters, we learn in 1896 they all have Christmas together in Grand Junction. They sang songs, talked, cracked walnuts, sang more songs and ate too much. Lillie stated since the Panic of 1893 that Grand Junction was terribly dull and not as pleasant as before. They did note that instead of more men than women in town, there were now approximately 16 girls to one young man.

In 1897, John’s salary was reduced to $70 a month because of hard times. John and Florence thought of moving to a mining town where he could make more money and Florence could open a millinery shop with little Ruth living with Grandma and Grandpa McKinney in Pennsylvania, but nothing came of this plan. To cheer up John, his mother sent a necktie to match her “baby boy’s blue eyes” and he was very touched by her gift.

In early 1898, John wrote his father to ask if he would stake him so he could go to the Klondike to pan for gold together with the other young men of Mesa County. He was worried about rumors the railroad would be downsizing, and one man, Ed Henry from Grand Junction wrote and said he found a claim with 49 pounds of gold dust and would sell maps to show where you could pan next to him. In the end John didn’t go. More than 36 men from Grand Junction went, and one had become ill and died. No one got rich … all they got was an experience mixed with hardship.

By 1899, the railroad merged and cut the staff from 20 crews to 12 and moved them to New Castle and Helper, Utah. John remained employed with the railroad until 1900. Land values in Mesa County nosed down again, and Florence and Ruth moved to John’s parents’ home in Pennsylvania until John could find employment back in Grand Junction. Running the estate for his parents kept him from going to other parts of the country.

Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of John and Florence’s story. Does John make it back to Grand Junction as he hoped?

Garry Brewer is storyteller of the tribe; finder of odd knowledge and uninteresting items; a bore to his grandchildren; a pain to his wife on spelling; but a locator of golden nuggets, truths and pearls of wisdom. Email Garry at brewer62@bresnan.net.

STORY SOURCES & RESEARCH: Museum of Western Colorado, Loyd Files Room; Michael Menard; Annabelle Dorey files; McKinney files; Grand Junction News files; Daily Sentinel files; El Camino Funeral Home’s Ryan Leahy; Melissa VanOtterloo, Photo Research & Permissions Librarian; Stephen H. Hart Library & Research Center; Colorado State Archives, Elana Cline, General Professional 111; Peter Steelquist, Past President, San Diego Genealogical Society; Kate Reeve, Special Collections Librarian, San Diego Public Library.

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