Frontier Diary: Convict labor built Glenwood Canyon auto road
Frontier Historical Society
Among many things done at the county commissioners meeting this week was an order that Commissioner McLearn proceed to Canon City and arrange with the warden of the penitentiary for 30 convicts to work on the roads of the county and to get them here at once.
— Avalanche Echo, February 20, 1913
As the morning sun warmed the cliffs of Glenwood Canyon, 30 men started their work day. It was a day of back breaking labor. Picks. Shovels. Wheelbarrows. Time. Each man’s labor, necessary to creating an improved road through the canyon, moved eons of dirt, rock and geologic history.
Every man laboring was a convict. In the quietness of the canyon, these men paid their debt to society. No building walls held these men, but these canyon walls represented prison walls just the same.
Just two years before the arrival of these convicts, a great moral debate engulfed Garfield County. Garfield County needed improved roads. Better roads would bring the newest transportation marvel — the automobile — and tourists to Glenwood Springs. However, Garfield County was cash strapped in February 1913. The county budget simply did not allow for the payment of contractors and laborers to build the roads.
The county commissioners turned to a practice allowed by an 1899 Colorado law in which convict labor could be used to build and improve state roads. Still, there would be cost. It would cost the county about $1,000 to create a comfortable and safe tent camp to house the men. Along with that was a cost per inmate for their labor. Security to prevent escapes was also a factor.
Immediately, objections began to surface. The Avalanche Echo newspaper noted that Garfield County, economically, did not compare with other counties employing convict labor. There were objections that county residents needed the jobs and income provided with road work. Convict labor pushed those willing to work to unemployment.
Those arguments did not deter the county commissioners. The convicts came in 1913 and began serving their time toward the betterment of the future. Their first project was to improve the road from Glenwood Springs toward New Castle. The convict road camp was located about two miles west of Glenwood Springs, and the crew worked their way westward. In December 1913 the convicts were pulled from road work and called to assist in the aftermath of the Vulcan Mine explosion. It was convicts who helped recover the last of the victims from that coal mine disaster.
By 1915, convict labor was employed to improve the Glenwood Canyon road. From their camp located at Grizzly Creek, the men began the long task to transform a wagon road into an auto highway. It was in 1915 that one convict, Burdette Blandin, made a convincing pitch that changed the method of the highway construction.
Blandin was about 37 years old when he was sentenced to the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City in December 1914 on a conviction of grand larceny. Sent to work on the Glenwood Canyon road crew, somehow, Blandin got the ear of the Garfield County commissioners. He persuaded them that the purchase of a steam shovel would speed up the Glenwood Canyon road construction. Persuaded, the commissioners made the purchase in July 1915. The steam shovel did create efficiency in the work and was useful in clearing snow slides and debris from the canyon.
The Avalanche Echo newspaper closely examined the expenditures made on road improvements using convict labor. With costs to the county equaling $15,000 in 1915, the county commissioners met with the state highway commission to request the state bear the cost of the Glenwood Canyon Road construction. In March 1916, the state agreed to finance the construction. Convicts would still provide the labor for the work.
Convict labor was not without issue. In 1915 alone, 11 men escaped from the camp never to be captured. One rancher was accused of selling a gun to a convict, aiding the convict’s escape. But some men such as Blandin, and the head of the road camp commissary, Harry Pike, fulfilled their obligations and were paroled after doing their time in Glenwood Canyon.
In the 1920s, the Glenwood Canyon Road and the improved road heading west from Glenwood Springs became part of the Pike’s Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway. Automobile traffic increased to Glenwood Springs and the motor tourist became the town’s new visitor.
The work of convicts set the foundation for the two-lane paved highway that further improved travel through Glenwood Canyon in the late 1930s. It is that foundation made by convicts paying their time that allows us today to easily travel through one of the greatest scenic wonders of the world.
Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Frontier Historical Society and Museum. “Frontier Diary,” which appears the first Tuesday of every month, is provided to the Post Independent by the museum, 1001 Colorado Ave., Glenwood Springs. Fall, winter and spring hours are 1-4 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. For more information, call 945-4448.