Townspeople grow to appreciate convicts

Willa Soncarty
Registrar, Frontier Historical Society and Museum
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

“Glenwood citizens find Pleasure in Carrying Sunshine into Convict Camp on Christmas Day”

” headline, Glenwood Post,

Dec. 30, 1916

A great moral debate erupted in February 1913. With the growing popularity of automobile travel, good roads throughout Garfield County were becoming a necessity. Unfortunately, money and manpower to undertake extensive road improvements were in short supply. The situation dictated the use of all available resources.

The use of convict labor to construct better roads sparked the debate. The Garfield County commissioners, seeing no other way to fund the road improvements, requested the delivery of 30 inmates from the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City. The first convict labor camp would be established two miles west of Glenwood Springs, with the men improving the road from that point to New Castle. Improvements were also planned through Glenwood Canyon.

Howls of protest filled the editorial pages of the Avalanche Echo newspaper. Citing a cost to the county of $1.17 per inmate plus an expense of $1,000 to outfit the camp, the wisdom of convict labor was challenged. The paper reasoned, “There must be hundreds of good, clean men ” men with families to support ” who need the employment which in preference is being given to convicts. It may be the county commissioners are thinking to save money by this method, or maybe they have some other reasons which seem reasonable and which appeal, but we have been in several places where such convict labor was employed and have seen our own good citizens laying around doing nothing.”

No heed was paid by the commissioners. The convicts arrived. By 1915, convict labor was employed to improve the Glenwood Canyon Road. The cost to the county that year equaled $20,000. In 1916, the Garfield County commissioners met with the Colorado Highway Commission, requesting the state bear the costs of the road construction.

Road work continued through 1916. Glenwood Springs residents grew appreciative of the hard and dirty work required to build a tourist boulevard to the town. To show that appreciation, a number of Glenwood Springs residents brought Christmas gifts and cheer to the convict camp, now located at Grizzly Creek.

Fittingly, the town visitors came by automobile. The 33 inmates cheered their arrival and ushered all to the recreation tent. A stage had been installed, where a number of talented inmates put on a vaudeville show. In return, the visiting citizens brought a library of books and reading material, confections and a box of cigars. Perhaps the greatest gift was the presentation to the camp of a Victrola and musical records. This was a gift to the camp made by frequent Glenwood Springs visitor Lola Armour, wife of meat-packing magnate J. Ogden Armour.

For one day, men who worked so hard to create a “splendid boulevard” put aside their cares and responsibilities, and a grateful town had an opportunity to know and to thank those who made better access to Glenwood Springs possible.

“Frontier Diary” is taking a vacation, and will return Jan. 15. It is provided to the Post Independent by the Frontier Historical Society and Museum, 1001 Colorado Ave., Glenwood Springs. Winter hours are 1-4 p.m. Monday and Thursday through Saturday. For more information, call 945-4448.

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