Black market booze, gangsters in Glenwood’s ‘20s
The Post Independent this year is celebrating local institutions’ anniversaries — including our own — with a special feature many Sundays through the year. The PI traces its roots back 127 years, but 125 as a daily, while the White River National Forest looks back on 125 years and Colorado Mountain College marks 50 years, as does Sunlight Mountain.
Today we offer the fourth installment of Post Independent history and the events it chronicled locally in the 1920s.
Prohibition in full force was a defining feature of the 1920s in Glenwood Springs. And though conservative forces were trying to clean up the town’s act and civilize Glenwood, clearing out the saloons and brothels, the town’s rough-and-tumble nature held on stubbornly, opening the path for black market liquor and even attracting a few Chicago gangsters.
The decade opened in 1920 with one of Garfield County’s rare successful bank robberies, on this occasion of the Grand Valley National Bank. The robbers having escaped uncaught, residents were for years on the lookout for the loot, which was rumored to be stashed away, according to Lena Urquart, who’s written several history books on Garfield County.
The Glenwood Post’s editor often wrote editorials supporting Prohibition. But, clearly, not everyone was sold on the idea.
Busts of bootleggers, moonshiners and rum runners made the front page of nearly every issue of the Post, which was a weekly at the time.
“The reputation of the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee could not top that of Garfield County,” wrote Urquhart in her book “Roll Call: The Violent and Lawless.”
“Flat Tops now gave shelter to the bootlegger, and it was not uncommon to come across quite elaborate structures of vats and copper tubing. Many of the lower valleys hid stills and supplies.
“To read the newspapers of that day, one comes to the conclusion that (the sheriff) made raids and arrests almost daily. Colorado’s booze traffic went far.”
In the meantime plenty of progress was being made. A transcontinental highway from New York to Los Angeles was being completed, requiring 400 prisoners from Cañon City to work on a pivotal section in Glenwood Canyon. The Grand River was officially renamed the Colorado River in 1924. Glenwood Springs bought Hanging Lake plus 700 acres of surrounding forest the same year.
“The first wireless radio broadcast went over the phone lines from Glenwood Springs to Denver” in 1925, according to the Glenwood Springs Historical Society. Grand Avenue became Glenwood’s first paved road, starting in 1929. And the Garfield County courthouse was completed just before the end of the decade.
Some Colorado bootleggers supplied Chicago with its liquor, and the daughter of one Front Range bootlegger would eventually marry the Chicago gangster Leland Varain, better known by his alias Diamond Jack Alterie.
Though he hadn’t been convicted in Chicago, his police record included charges of burglary, hijacking, homicide, kidnapping and more.
Associated first with the O’Bannion gang and later with Al Capone, he’s also known for having created new execution techniques, such as the “one-way ride” and the “rented ambush,” in which hit men rent an apartment next door to their victim and wait for him or her to come into firing range.
When Diamond Jack would later try to get away from the increasing gangland violence of Chicago, he would move to his wife’s home state, eventually buying a ranch at Sweetwater Lake, on the eastern edge of Garfield County.
Diamond Jack was considered Colorado’s resident gangster, as his presence in the state was well known.
However, he told the Denver Post that he was simply looking for a quiet ranching life. Before coming to the Western Slope, he bought a 4,000-acre ranch on the Front Range and held rodeos in Denver, himself riding bucking broncos and bulldogging steers.
Diamond Jack used the property at Sweetwater as a dude ranch in the summer, while also raising cattle and some crops. He had some ranching skills, but he also liked to dress flashy, studded in diamonds that gave him his alias, including a gold, diamond studded belt buckle. He looked more like a Hollywood cowboy than a ranch hand.
In many surviving photographs he wears a huge 10-gallon cowboy hat — not unlike the getup that the actor Tom Mix wore in the silent Westerns that made him the highest paid actor in Hollywood at the time.
At the same time that Garfield County was attracting the Chicago mobster’s attention for a real Western experience, Hollywood was bringing Mix to Glenwood Canyon to star in “The Great K&A Train Robbery,” a major film for the time that played heavily on the canyon’s majestic cliffs. The filming in Glenwood Canyon was big news for the area in 1926. The crew held several events to thank the community, including a free rodeo at a Glenwood park, Mix and the cast showing off with horseback riding, roping and shooting stunts and competitions with local cowboys, according to Glenwood Post reports.
But at Sweetwater Lake, Diamond Jack Alterie had turned his ranch into something of a fortress, according to Urquhart. The place was complete with bodyguards, rumors swirled of a stockpile of firearms on hand and concealed machine guns trained on anyone approaching the property.
Some accounts list high-profile gangsters at the ranch, including Capone, as well as businessmen, bankers and judges.
Members of his own gang in Chicago would visit each fall for the opening of deer hunting season.
He would frequently visit Glenwood Springs, and people took notice of his flashy clothes, his Lincoln convertible affixed with steer horns on the front and the amount of money he spent in town.
Diamond Jack also guarded Sweetwater Lake closely. He barred private boaters form fishing the lake, and in one incident he pistol whipped some fishermen and shot into their boat when they refused to leave. In that case he was charged with assault with intent to kill, but he was found not guilty.
In another incident at the ranch, in a drunken quarrel over a horse race, his brother, Bert Varain, shot Diamond Jack with 146 pellets of birdshot, but Diamond Jack refused to name his brother in the assault.
The last straw for the community, however, came years later when Diamond Jack, trying to take revenge in a drunken rampage after being beaten up at the Hotel Denver, shot two innocent bystanders.
He was found guilty of assault with intent to commit mayhem. The judge gave him the choice between five years in prison, or he could leave Colorado.
He chose the later. Nine months later one of the men he shot died of medical complications, and the shooting was thought to have contributed.
Jack Diamond, having lost his dream of living the Western life, eventually moved back to Chicago, where he was gunned down in a mob-related killing in 1935.
Editor’s note: research for this story was facilitated by the Glenwood Springs Historical Society.