Breckenridge History Blog

Louis Ford penitentiary photo

Louis Ford celebrated his 31st birthday in the Missouri State Penitentiary. By the time he was 40 years old, Louis Ford spent half of his adult life behind bars. For the son of Barney L. Ford, a man whose shining example of rising from adversity should have been a beacon for his son, Louis’ life as a criminal was a heartbreaking fall from grace. In this third of three parts, Breckenridge History examines the final years of Louis N. Ford.

The Breckenridge Bulletin remarked on this fall from grace when it wrote in June 1902, “Money certainly seems to have been the root of considerable evil in the Ford family.”

Obituary, Barney L. Ford, Denver Rocky Mountain News 12-17-1902

What was happening in June 1902 that would cause the Breckenridge newspapers to comment on “considerable evil in the Ford family”? In June 1902, there was no way the local Summit County newspapers could know that Barney Ford would die only a few months later. Upon Ford’s death in December 1902, the Summit County Journal published an obituary mentioning his many friends in Breckenridge. Another obituary talked about what a fine man he was. The evil clearly wasn’t Barney Ford himself.

What salaciousness was going on that would spur the Bulletin to make such a quip? Son Louis was on his way to prison yet again.

Louis Ford was brought up in the Wild West towns of Denver and Cheyenne where lawlessness prevailed. Common street scenes allowed him to witness shootings, theft, prostitution, drinking, gambling and the wild ways on the frontier. To an impressionable youth, vice was normalized.

And Louis Ford fell into vice and crime from a young age. At 17 he was accused of stealing cash from a guest at his father’s Inter-Ocean Hotel in Cheyenne. Ten dollars doesn’t seem like a lot of money to us, but in 1878 it was equivalent to about $275 today.

Louis escaped prosecution that time, but his criminal ways would catch up with him. In his twenties, he was imprisoned in Colorado for burglarizing a jewelry store in Salida. Shortly after his release from prison, he found himself seriously injured in a fight with a fellow gambler after being accused of cheating. And not long after that, a charge of robbery in the first degree would land him in the Missouri State Penitentiary to serve a ten-year sentence. Learn more about Louis’ earlier years in Part 1 and Part 2.

Louis Ford’s reference to his father’s death clipping

Louis Ford was afforded every opportunity to succeed in life. His parents made education a priority. His personal letters show a command of spelling, grammar and penmanship from years in school. Barney Ford hired Louis to work in his hotels and restaurants, providing valuable experience. Yet Louis chose a different path, looking for excitement and easy money in gambling and taking from others.

In 1899, Louis was a free man again. His mother had died in May 1898 and he expected a cut of her estate. He made his way to St. Louis, Missouri, for reasons unknown today.

There he took a place in Clara Isom’s boarding house under the promise that he would pay her $25 a month for room, board and washing as soon as he got his money from his parents’ estate. He even showed her papers that he would be receiving money.

Clara was wise to be skeptical. She hired attorney Eli Taylor to investigate Louis’ Denver properties. Apparently satisfied, she agreed to the arrangement.

But a month stretched to months and then to years without payment. Not long after Louis arrived at Clara’s he fell from a wagon, requiring treatment from a doctor. Clara paid the bill, furthering Louis’ indebtedness to her.

Upon meeting with a friend one day, the friend asked how Louis paid for the sharp set of new clothes he was wearing. Clara covered it, Louis replied, and he’d pay her back, every cent, as soon as he got his parents’ estate.

In early June 1902, Louis Ford was arrested in St. Louis for attempted burglary. On June 5, Clara hired an attorney, at her expense, to help Louis.

Louis must have been the talk of the town, Denver and Breckenridge that is. The Breckenridge Bulletin’s observation was printed on June 7, 1902. The “evil” wasn’t just Louis’ latest arrest, however. In the summer of 1902, Barney Ford was writing his will, protecting his assets and estate from a son who clearly had little regard for the law or property of others.

Barney Ford placed the Denver commercial property at 1313 15th Street, which he had received from wife Julia’s estate, in trust for his two surviving adult children, Sarah Wormley and Louis Ford.

In early July 1902, Louis was sentenced to two years in the Missouri State Penitentiary. While he was there, six months later, Barney Ford died in Denver. When Mr. Ford last saw his son is unknown, though it could have been years.

Two prison terms teach a man at least one thing: how to navigate life in prison. By the time of his third sentence, Louis was a prison pro. Louis Ford’s letters to Clara Isom talk about mail service, meeting with the warden, working in the prison shop, and gambling. Lots of gambling.

Louis also requested Clara to send him food. Copious amounts of food. There is no way one man could keep fresh and eat pork tenderloin, pig tails, chicken, two dozen eggs, a dozen lemons, a half-dozen oranges, a big cake and a large bag of nuts, all from one express delivery. Most likely he was selling or trading the food to his fellow inmates.

Louis Ford admission of gambling for a living

Throughout his prison term, Louis never gave up hope for a better life for himself on the outside. And that life was based on receiving a considerable estate from his father, Barney L. Ford. He promised Clara that he would set her up in a “first class” house. He planned for the day the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair would bring throngs of tourists to the city.

Perhaps he knew that the debt he owed Clara kept her on the hook. He felt that he had suasion over her, even from 113 hundred miles away in prison. In one letter, he admonished her for being late sending him money because it meant he had that much less to gamble with. “I would of (sic) won five times as much,” he lamented.

When his father died, Louis’ dreams and schemes amplified. He wrote of investing in real estate, opening a saloon with “fine furnished rooms,” and starting a factory to manufacture a new invention created by one of his fellow inmates, a combined mop and wringer.

Louis expected to inherit thousands of dollars. He sent to Clara a clip of an obituary of “Father’s death,” likely the same one on display in the Barney Ford Museum. The obituary stated that Ford “leaves $16,000 worth of property for his son and daughter in charge of H.P. Ellis,” worth about a half a million dollars today.

Louis knew exactly when he would be released from prison under the three-fourths law. He encouraged Clara to save up money so he could purchase a train ticket to Denver, a round trip ticket. “…Do this for me just as I tell you to do it,” he ordered.

On January 8, 1904, Louis Ford was released from the Missouri State Prison in Jefferson City. He spent just one day with Clara in St. Louis, then departed for Denver on January 9. He sent her a postcard from Denver on January 11. That was the last Clara heard of him.

Among the items that Barney Ford bequeathed his son was a trunk of personal effects including two suits of clothes, an overcoat, shaving mug, blanket and pillow. Louis signed a receipt for them on January 20.

Barney Ford, Colorado State Capitol stained glass

Ford’s will also left his gold-headed cane, diamond stud, and watch to Louis, attributes which appear in Ford’s stained glass portrait at the Colorado State Capitol. But attorney Ellis claimed no knowledge of their whereabouts and Louis does not mention the items in his own will. The final disposition of Barney Ford’s most valued personal possessions remains a mystery.

On March 5, 1904, Louis and Sarah sold the property at 1313 15th Street. But all was not well with the newly freed and well-to-do Louis. He needed surgery to amputate his leg, a surgery “from which he did not expect to survive.”

Louis Ford’s Will on St. Joseph Hospital stationery

Louis made out his will on stationery from St. Joseph’s Hospital on March 7, the day scheduled for his amputation. In it he left money to a long list of friends and acquaintances. But he stiffed his sister Sarah, leaving her only $1, despite borrowing about $100 from her over the years. The trend of his legacies was to pay back people to whom he owed money. He left $50 to a saloon keeper, $300 to attorneys, and $100 to Clara Isom, though he owed her considerably more for her generous support over the years. One curious legatee was Alex Royal, a fellow inmate who was serving fifteen years for murder. Louis willed him $100, perhaps for gambling debts. One hundred dollars in 1904 is worth about $3,400 today.

In a romantic twist, Louis left the residue of his estate to a Mrs. Belle Pruess, his “intended fiancé.” In one appeal of Louis Ford’s estate, we learn that Belle Pruess is Isabella Sanderlin Pruess, the daughter of long time Barney Ford friend and fellow barber, Ed Sanderlin. Belle died a few weeks after Louis.

The reason for Louis’ amputation is unknown. Clara expressed concern about his health. In some of his letters to her, Louis responded to that inquiry, stating he was fine and “I hope you are as well as I feel.” Louis died from complications of the surgery on March 10, 1904, at age 43.

The execution of Louis Ford’s estate was long and convoluted, taking years to make its way through the Denver courts. Because claimants perceived the estate to be sizeable, a lot of people wanted a piece of Barney Ford’s wealth. Attorney Henry P. Ellis – who executed the wills for Julia, Barney and Louis – avidly defended the estate against claims.

In the end, the value of Louis’ estate was considerably less than he originally expected. The Denver Post reported that Louis spent a large sum “carousing.” Lawyers and other expenses depleted the fund. Most people were eventually paid a portion of what they were owed by Louis, and the court awarded the residual to Clara Isom, whom they identified as Louis’ common-law wife. Clara’s receipt of the funds, about $750 less attorney fees, remains unknown. It appears that her lawyers tried to swindle her too.

Despite his sweet-talk cons and criminal behavior, Louis seemed to have a good heart. He tried to pay back the people he owed and make good on his promises. People stood by him and helped him, even in his darkest hours. He is buried next to his parents in Riverside Cemetery in Denver.

To learn more about Breckenridge History, click on the website, take a tour, visit a museum, and check out our blog articles.

Written by Leigh Girvin

Date posted: April 26, 2022 | Author: | Comments Off on Louis Ford: Part 3 – The Final Years

Categories: Our Collective History Prominent People

Louis Ford’s tendencies toward criminality became evident in his teens when he was accused of theft by a client at the Cheyenne hotel owned by his father, Barney L. Ford. The senior Ford rose to great respect and prominence in Colorado and Wyoming by the 1870s, after escaping from an early life enslaved. His son fell far from the family tree, likely a cause of considerable sadness for the Ford family. In this second of three parts on the life of Louis N. Ford, Breckenridge History examines Louis’ adult years.

Louis Ford spent his impressionable youth in Denver and Cheyenne, towns of the Wild West, where he was able to witness shootings, stabbings, prostitution and vice on a regular basis. Learn more about Louis’ young years, including the Cheyenne theft charge, in this article.

At age 20, in 1880, Louis Ford was living with his parents, now at their new home in Breckenridge, where he helped his father at Ford’s Chop Stand. Knowing his life’s arc toward criminality, historians wonder if he ran into trouble with the law while in Breckenridge. Yet no newspaper articles of the time mention his name in association with crimes. According to the 1885 census, Louis had left Breckenridge.

In September 1887, The Buena Vista Democrat reported that Louis Ford was indicted for burglary. In December of that year, the newspaper praised the sheriff by publishing a list of criminals who were “locked up or awaiting trial” in his jail. Included in the list was Louis Ford, with the now elevated charge of grand larceny. It is worth noting that Louis remained jailed for those four months and was not bailed out.

Colorado State Pen from Colorado Encyclopedia

In January 1888, the court convicted Louis Ford of burglary and sent him to the Colorado State Prison in Canon City, where he was received on January 22nd of that year, to serve an eight-year sentence.
Many years later the Denver Post would publish a partially-incorrect article about Louis’ criminal past which stated he had robbed a jewelry store in Salida and spent time in Colorado prison. This is the only available information with details about that crime.

Louis Ford penitentiary photo

Colorado prison life at the time of Louis’ first incarceration did not include attempts at rehabilitation. Overcrowding and idleness led to dissipation and recidivism. Drastic punishment was the norm. Traditional images of prison life held true: men in stripes under heavy guard, ball and chain, rock piles, bread and water diets, and solitary confinement were common at the Colorado State Penitentiary.

At that time, inmates were not required to work while in prison, though some were employed in the garden or in the construction and repair of walls and buildings. One potential source of income for the prison and its inmates was shoe-cobbling. Later in his life, on the intake form for his third prison term, Louis listed his occupation as “shoemaker.”

In early 1890, while Louis was in prison, Barney and Julia Ford left Breckenridge and moved to Denver. Father Barney must have intervened on behalf of his son and used his political connections, because two years after entering the penitentiary, Louis was pardoned by Colorado Governor Job Cooper, a Republican (B.L. Ford was active in the Republican party in Colorado). Louis was released from the Colorado State Penitentiary on June 25, 1890.

Louis Ford penitentiary record citing B.L. and Julia Ford as parents including a pardon from Governor Job Cooper

Just a few months later, Louis appears in the newspaper record in Aspen. According to the Aspen Daily Chronicle on December 5, 1890: “Two colored men got into a shooting scrape yesterday evening and one came very near being killed. The two men are Howard Washington and Louis Ford… The men had been drinking together and just before 6 o’clock went into the Empire saloon to shake dice.” Ford was a porter at the Empire. Washington lost and paid for the drinks. Then they “got to shooting craps.” Washington accused Ford of cheating. They quarreled and “Ford slapped the other fellow.” Claiming he would “get him,” Washington left and soon returned with a revolver, only to find that Ford was gone. Washington was “very drunk.” A few minutes later, Officer Bean heard three shots on Durant Avenue, and arrived on the scene to find Ford bleeding “profusely from a wound in the face.” Washington’s case was considered quickly, and on December 24, 1890, he was discharged. The grand jury found “no true bill against the accused.” The newspaper wrote: “It may be…that they concluded that Washington was not to blame.”

Years later, Louis would write about that episode in his life, saying: “…I use (sic) to follow gambling for a living at one time and done well until I commenced to drink so hard and could not protect myself.”

Missouri State Pen from tours website

After the Aspen incident, Louis moved to Missouri where he worked as a railroad porter. In June 1891, Louis was sentenced to ten years in the Missouri State Penitentiary on the charge of robbery in the first degree. The crime occurred in Jackson County, which includes the cities of Independence and Kansas City. In this prison record, his name is spelled “Lewis.” No other details of the crime are discoverable. Robbery in the first degree indicates that the defendant forcibly stole property and in the course of committing the crime, caused serious physical injury, or was armed with a deadly weapon, or displayed or threatened the use of a dangerous or deadly weapon. This was the most serious of Louis’ known crimes.

Louis was a sturdy man, weighing between 161 and 165 pounds throughout his adult life. Prison records indicate his height at about 5’7.” As a black man, he faced historically-known discrimination in his life and prison experience. Even today, Missouri incarcerates a higher percentage of its black population than any democracy on earth. In Louis’ time, black men were imprisoned for even the slightest offense. According to one expert: “In the late 19th-century South, an extensive prison system was developed in the interest of maintaining the racial and economic relationship of slavery.”

Discharged under Missouri’s three-fourths law, Louis left the Missouri prison in Jefferson City on December 5, 1898. Five months later, in May of 1899, his mother Julia died in Denver. Louis signed a waiver of service of the will a few days later, two days after his sister and father signed their waivers, indicating he was not with them at the time. Julia’s will bequeathed her estate to Barney Ford, not to her surviving children. Correspondence from later in Louis’ life indicated that he expected to receive support from her estate but that he “could not get it.”

What does the future hold for a black man with a criminal record in the late 19th century? Louis’ prospects were dim indeed. Learn more about the final years of the life of Louis N. Ford in Part 3 of this series.

To learn more about Breckenridge History, click on the website, take a tour, visit a museum, and check out our blog articles.

Written by Leigh Girvin

Date posted: April 15, 2022 | Author: | Comments Off on Louis Ford: Part 2 – Falls far from the Family Tree

Categories: Our Collective History Prominent People

“Money certainly seems to have been the root of considerable evil in the Ford family,” wrote the Breckenridge Bulletin on June 7, 1902. This cryptic statement has puzzled historians for decades. What was going on in the Ford family in summer 1902? Barney Ford and his wife Julia moved from Breckenridge a dozen years earlier. Julia passed away in May 1899. Barney, then a widower, was living in Denver. Who was at the root of the evil?

In the first of two articles on Louis N. Ford, Breckenridge History looks at his youth in Denver, Cheyenne and Breckenridge in the days of the Wild West. In part 2, we’ll learn about his first prison sentence and his young life drinking and gambling. In part 3, we’ll follow Louis to St. Louis, Missouri, where hand-written correspondence in his final years reveals details of his personality and family dynamics.

Little was known of Julia and Barney Ford’s children until recently when new primary source documents came to the attention of Breckenridge History. Now a thorough examination of the record shines a light on the Fords’ younger offspring. Breckenridge History recently shared the story of middle child Sarah Ford Wormley. Eldest daughter Frances remains largely a mystery, after she died in California, aged 46 in 1897.

Louis N. Ford, the youngest of the Ford children, was born on July 2, 1860 in Chicago, Illinois. The United States was deeply divided at the time over slavery and states’ rights. People remained enslaved in the South, while the North including Illinois wavered between ambivalence and radical abolitionism. Stephen Douglas, elected to the U.S. Senate by the people of Illinois, was a staunch supporter of the American system of slavery. He argued in 1857 that enslaved people were not citizens, which brought a strong rebuff from Barney Ford and other African-American men in the state. Also in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln was in the running for President of the United States, a seat he would win later in 1860.

When Louis was born, his father, Barney L. Ford, was in the Rocky Mountains, having arrived to Denver City in May of 1860 to seek his fortune as a gold miner. The journey to the Pikes Peak gold region wasn’t the first time that Barney Ford was away from his family for an extended period of time. In the 1850s, Mr. Ford spent many years in Nicaragua after attempting to reach the California gold fields. At that time, Julia stayed in Chicago with their infant daughter Frances.

Mr. Ford likely met his only son in 1861 when he returned to Chicago for a brief period to attend to his restaurant there. Ford’s practice of being absent after the birth of his children for long periods, even for years, may have impacted their early development. Eldest daughter Frances married by age 18. Only his daughter Sarah, who enjoyed her father’s presence as a child, maintained a close relationship with Barney Ford throughout her life.

Historical records show that Barney Ford was primarily in the Denver area from 1860 through 1865. No documentation exists for the time that Julia and the children came west. The journey from Chicago to Denver for an African-American family would have been especially dangerous and difficult in the early 1860s. The Fugitive Slave Act was in effect, potentially endangering Julia and the children even though they were “free.” The travel was rough, combining journey by train with overland stagecoaches through Native American territory.

B.L Ford advertisement in The Cheyenne Leader, October 10, 1967

It is possible that Julia and the children came west while Barney Ford was in Denver in the early 1860s. Maybe Mr. Ford brought the family back to Denver with him when he returned after a brief stay in Chicago in 1865, or maybe he asked them to wait until they could take the train from Chicago to Cheyenne where he opened a restaurant in October 1867, coinciding with the arrival of the transcontinental railroad.

At some point in the late 1860s, the family were all together in the new city of Cheyenne, Dakota Territory. The 1870 census shows the Ford family there, including daughter Frances, husband John Jones and baby William.

Cheyenne was a wild town in the 1860s, the wildest of the Wild West. In the city where Louis was raised, shootings, stabbings and thefts were common, and dance halls and saloons proliferated. Police shot through the streets at fleeing suspects. Livestock raced through the city. Louis was able to observe inebriated prostitutes “tumble themselves stupidly into a vehicle and go tearing through town,” flaunting themselves with their flying plumage. The city fathers decried the “bad impression on the minds of the moral men and women who visit our city.”

The 1870 census reveals that Louis was then 9 years old, going to school and that he could read and write. As both Barney and Julia were educated, they made education a priority for their children as well. The Ford family returned to Denver by 1871 after a devastating fire. They moved back to Cheyenne with the opening of the grand Inter-Ocean Hotel there in 1875.

By age 17, Louis was in trouble with the law. According to the Cheyenne Daily Sun on May 18, 1878, “Louis Ford…was arrested.” A Mr. James Burns, client of the Inter Ocean Hotel, entered the hotel at 1:00 a.m. “considerably intoxicated.” Louis Ford was the night clerk on duty. Burns entrusted Louis with $30 cash to keep for him until morning. When Burns called for the money the next day, Burns collected only $20 from the young man. Louis stated that he received $20 from Burns and showed an envelope fragment, torn open, which had been sealed by him in front of Burns. On the envelope was the inscription: ‘James Burns $20.’ Upon receipt of the money, Burns “tore the envelope in two and threw it into a spittoon, and…had Ford arrested.” The prosecuting attorney dismissed the charge “before the evidence was all in.”

The same edition of the Cheyenne Daily Sun, in fact the very same column, shared another story about the Ford family: “Mr. B.L. Ford will leave here Sunday for San Francisco… He has not fully decided what he will do… The best wishes of the people of Cheyenne will attend him.” Three days later, the Daily Sun wrote that Ford departed for the Pacific Coast because of “an indebtedness on the building, which he was unable to lift…” Perhaps the family faced woes in addition to financial concerns.

If the alleged theft from Mr. Burns were the only incident in Louis’ life, it would be easily dismissed as a drunk man’s accusation. Knowing the arc toward criminality that Louis would follow, the guest’s loss of funds probably indicated that a lack of respect for property and laws was becoming evident with the young man.

Louis, still a teen, likely went to San Francisco with the family. Barney Ford quickly learned that San Francisco was not for him. Ford famously wrote: “For a man without much means, San Francisco is about the hardest place in the world.”

Photo Shop – Ford building 300 S Main

In 1879, the Ford family returned to Breckenridge to start over. Barney Ford opened the Ford Chop Stand on Main Street and Louis helped him in the restaurant. At the time of the 1880 census, Louis and his sister Sarah, now adults, were living with their parents in Breckenridge. Soon the family would occupy the building we know today as The Photo Shop.

Ford’s home in Breckenridge, illustration from Hall’s History of Colorado. Courtesy BHA

With his rebounding success in Breckenridge, in 1882 Barney Ford commissioned the construction of a new home for himself and Julia, today the Barney Ford House Museum. Tellingly, the house has two bedrooms. Whether Louis was welcome to stay is not known, though there were other outbuildings on the property, and at least one identified as a dwelling, where a young man could live. In 1883, Sarah returned from Denver following an assault and resided in the house with her parents.

In 1885, another census was taken that revealed both Louis and Sarah were off on their own. It wouldn’t be long before Louis would find himself in trouble with the law again.

Part 2 in the life of Louis N. Ford continues at this link.

To learn more about Breckenridge history or to take a tour, visit a museum, or read our blog articles, visit our website.

Written by Leigh Girvin

Date posted: April 15, 2022 | Author: | Comments Off on Louis Ford: Part 1 – Early Years in the Wild West

Categories: Our Collective History Prominent People

Pioneering women of Breckenridge’s early days, who survived and thrived in the unforgiving mountain environment of Colorado’s mining communities, shaped Breckenridge history. While many women came and went from Breckenridge, few exhibited the willpower to stay the course and create community from wilderness. And many women barely hung on in the rough mining town. Meet three women of willpower and a fourth fragile flower, all examples of the women who made Breckenridge.

Agnes Ralston Silverthorn, M. E. Gilliland’s book, Summit: A Gold Rush History

Hearty community builders Agnes Ralston Silverthorn, Catherine Sisler Nolan, and Minnie Roby had at least one thing in common: resilience. Their ability to adapt to difficult circumstances, improvise solutions, and rise above their standing as Victorian women, set them apart from their eastern counterparts. Western society granted women greater opportunity than was available “back East,” and they took advantage of it.

In contrast, Anna Sadler Hamilton spent her years in Breckenridge worrying about family back home, lamenting the harsh conditions, and distancing herself from other women in town. The diaries of her time in Breckenridge paint a life of unhappiness.

Women in the Victorian period are rarely identified by their own name. Once married, newspapers referred to them by their husband’s name, as in Mrs. Marshall Silverthorn. Because women were inextricably linked to their men, our stories of these stalwart women start with their husbands.

Breckenridge’s first family, the Silverthorns, lived in town at a time before newspapers, yet their lives were well chronicled by the many traveling writers who passed through in the 1860s and 1870s. In addition to those tales, granddaughter Agnes Finding Miner captured much of the family’s history in two manuscripts available in the breckhistoryarchives.

Marshall Silverthorn, M.E. Gilliland’s book, Summit: A Gold Rush History

Marshall Silverthorn arrived in Denver City in 1859 with the first wave of gold prospectors to regain his health. Taken with the climate and opportunity in the Pikes Peak gold region, he returned to Pennsylvania the next year to gather his wife and family for a permanent move.

The Silverthorn family moved to Breckenridge in spring 1861 and set up a hotel. Like a momma bear, Mrs. Silverthorn fiercely loved and protected her family, both immediate and extended.

She was so beloved by the miners of Breckenridge, they sledded her down from Boreas Pass each spring upon her return to town (after retreating to lower elevations in the spring), yelling “hooray” on the way. Described as a “broad, buxom Matron,” she played the role of mother to the community, tending to the sick, feeding the miners, and caring for her guests. Saturdays were spent baking, using the entirety of a 100-pound sack of flour to make pies, bread, and cakes for the miners. Saturday was mail day and men streamed from their workings to the Silverthorn’s hotel for a taste of home.

Silverthorn Hotel and Judge Silverthorn from M. Fiester’s book, Blasted Beloved Breckenridge

Mrs. Silverthorn ensured that civilization was present in early Breckenridge. On Sundays, the hotel became a place of worship, with sermons read and hymns sung. Each winter she returned to Denver so her daughters could go to school (their son drowned in the Blue River in 1863).

When the county clerk tried to remove county records to rival town Parkville, Mrs. Silverthorn hid the burlap sack and “saved the county seat for Breckenridge.”
For twenty years, the Silverthorn family kept the community together, serving as good Samaritans and offering charity for the rough gold town built on greed. When Mrs. Silverthorn died in 1883, so too did the family business. By then, her daughters, “black eyed beauties,” were married and on their own. Marshall Silverthorn passed four years later.

Agnes Ralston Silverthorn’s success in Breckenridge was due to her motherly nature, just the kind of nurturing that early Breckenridge needed to mature into a community.

For more information about Agnes Silverthorn and the family, see Mary Ellen Gilliland’s book Summit: A Gold Rush History and Mark Fiester’s Blasted, Beloved, Breckenridge.

Catherine Rhodes Sisler Nolan’s husband, twenty-four years her senior, first came to Breckenridge around 1859 and claimed one of the richest patches of placer gold in the area: the west end of French Gulch where ancient glaciers deposited a mountain’s worth of free gold in its moraine.

Returning to Pennsylvania a wealthy man, he married Catherine Rhodes in 1865 and immediately set out again for Breckenridge. She raised their children while he mined, until his death in 1883. As the now-owner of the enterprises, Catherine Sisler took over management of the mines, partnering with John Nolan, an employee of Mr. Sisler’s.

Closer in age and with mining in common, the pair married in 1885. Yet John Nolan didn’t last long. On his death bed, just three years later, savvy Catherine Nolan made sure he signed over his property to her. From then on, she was in charge. Raised on hard work and understanding the value of a dollar, Mrs. Nolan was praised in the local newspaper: “to the credit of her good, business methods, no placer mine in camp is more admirably managed.”

Catherine Nolan amassed quite a fortune, branching out from mining interests to retail, ranching and landholding in Summit and El Paso Counties. According to her obituary, “to know her was to respect her.” Catherine is buried in Breckenridge’s Valley Brook Cemetery.

Catherine Sisler Nolan Headstone in Valley Brook

Catherine Sisler Nolan’s story illustrates a common theme in the West: women who were afforded the ability to succeed on their own had the opportunity to do very well, and led the way for future businesswomen.

To learn more about Catherine Sisler Nolan, see Bill Fountain’s book: Chasing the Dream: The Search for Gold in French Gulch.

John D. Roby arrived in Colorado in the early days of the gold rush, setting up in Breckenridge driving teams of mules by 1864. In 1866, he opened his first store and began his ascent in the community ranks, later serving as postmaster, County Treasurer, board member of the telegraph company, and Free Mason, in addition to selling his merchandise and mining. By the time Minnie arrived in town in 1875, he was a successful businessman.

Minnie Remine came from a family of resilient women. Raised in the mining community of Central City, her father died when she was young, and her mother raised three daughters on her own. Seeking greater opportunity, Mrs. Remine moved to Breckenridge in 1875 to open a boarding house, meeting with great success. Hospitality ran in the family. Minnie would become known for her many parties.

Once she was Mrs. John D. Roby, Minnie thrived in her role as mother and housewife, enjoying a lifestyle of wealth and privilege in booming Breckenridge. Card playing was her passion and she initiated the Ladies Card Club, excelling in whist, euchre and high-five. Lavish gifts were bestowed upon the winners of the competitive games. The prizes given sound like a queen’s ransom: sterling silver spoons, lacquered fruit dish, candle sticks, a silver toothpick holder, jardinieres, and a silver and gold-lined cream spoon.

In addition to card parties, Mrs. Roby threw elegant balls, and parties for birthdays, weddings, and graduations, where her skills as a “culinary artist” would shine.

Mrs. Roby found time to serve as an election judge, school board member, and librarian, sold war bonds and raised money for the Red Cross, encouraged charity as a member of the Sisters Mustard Seeds, supported her church, and was active in both the Women of Woodcraft and Eastern Star. Her published histories of Breckenridge provide considerable information for historians. She also gave birth to ten children, six of whom survived.

Breckenridge was a lively and fun place thanks to the generosity and hospitality of women like Minnie Remine Roby.

In contrast, sad Anna Sadler Hamilton chafed nearly every minute of her time in Breckenridge. Arriving in 1885 as the young bride of Robert Hamilton, a popular and cheerful meat market owner, Anna’s diary is filled with lament. Perhaps opposites do attract, as Anna was neither popular nor cheerful. Newspaper accounts of the domestic dealings of Robert omit any mention of Anna. Though she tried to make friends, she confided to her diary that one woman in town made her “sick,” another had “a tongue that runs like a sawmill” and her daughter was “silly and insipid,” and yet another woman was “horrid.” The men were no better. To one group loafing on a corner, she wanted to “make a face at them.”

Self-isolating in her petulance, Anna Hamilton spent time worrying about family back home, wondering why they didn’t write. She hated housekeeping, sewing and cooking, all jobs expected of her in her role as wife. She loathed snow and wind. By 1887, she mustered the courage to tell Rob that she didn’t want to live in Breckenridge any longer. Further pushing away her husband, he turned to drink. Anna felt neglected and she was. Her birthdays weren’t celebrated and Rob gave her no Christmas gifts in 1887.

In fall of 1887, Rob sold the meat market and engaged in the sawmill business. Not long after, Anna got her way. The family moved to Nebraska where Rob finally found significant financial success as a stockman.

Yet Rob Hamilton was not done with Breckenridge. He returned in 1909 to visit, bringing Anna and the children with him. By 1911, the family was back in Denver and Rob invested in a 700-acre ranch on the Lower Blue River north of Breckenridge. He continued to own mining interests in the area.

The end of life of Anna Hamilton is not known. Jen Baldwin, genealogist and family historian in Colorado tried to research Anna’s life and came up empty. All we have of her sad life is recorded in her diary. Baldwin believes that Anna died sometime around 1914.

Not all women who came to Breckenridge contributed to the community in lasting ways. A lot of women were like Anna Sadler Hamilton, misplaced and miserable in the high mountain mining camp. Were it not for her diary, she would have disappeared entirely from Breckenridge history.

To learn more about Anna Sadler Hamilton and the women of the frontier, see Sandra Mather’s book: They Weren’t All Prostitutes and Gamblers.

History recognizes the influencers, the people who made the community and gave of their unique talents to create a durable Breckenridge. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we seek to remember the influencers, capture diverse female voices, and share the stories of the stalwarts, the Agnes Silverthorns, Minnie Robys and Catherine Sislers, women as tall as our mountains. To learn more about Breckenridge’s history, visit a museum, take a tour, or read our blog articles.

Written by Leigh Girvin

Date posted: March 29, 2022 | Author: | Comments Off on Women of Willpower: Breckenridge Pioneers

Categories: Our Collective History Prominent People

The mining and agricultural economies of Summit County required cheap, efficient transportation.  From the spring of 1859, when prospectors first found gold, adequate and reliable transportation meant the difference between economic advantage and stagnation.  Without it, ore, hay, timber, sheep and cattle could not reach local or distant markets; food, clothing and mining and agricultural equipment and supplies would not be available for those who needed them.

Although pack trains and wagons carried a staggering tonnage of merchandise and ore to and from the county, some pieces of mining equipment proved too heavy and bulky.  Merchants and mines required something that could carry larger loads faster and at less expense–and that something was the railroad.

The Denver, South Park & Pacific (DSP&P), created by Governor John Evans in 1872, served Breckenridge and the surrounding area.  Feeling that the county’s mineral resources would prove profitable for the railroad, the company decided to begin working on a main line that would offer passenger and freight service to the residents.  The newspaper editor wrote that “Breckenridge would have distribution facilities almost equal to Denver.”

The South Park began laying track from Como in 1881, reaching Boreas Pass by the end of the year; Breckenridge by September, 1882; and Dillon by December, 1882.   Como became the place for servicing and staffing the trains.  Those employed by the railroad endured long hours, delays sometimes hours and even days long, the uncertainly of assignments, and the lack of a daily routine.  Women kept the families going.  They adjusted to the assignments and delays, sometimes preparing meals in the middle of the night.  Cooking, cleaning, and baking were daily chores often done in cold houses surrounded by freezing temperatures, swirling winds, and blowing snow during the long winter months at 9,796 feet above sea level.

Workers built a large six-bay roundhouse in 1881.  The need for more room to repair the engines resulted in the addition of thirteen wooden bays in the 1890s.  The original stone portion of the roundhouse held a well-equipped machine shop.  Even though fire consumed the wooden portion on March 25, 1935, the wooden portion continued serving the locomotives.

The railroad chose to enter Summit County over Boreas Pass.  It must be remembered that Summit County was not the primary destination–the rich mines of Leadville were.  The railroad established the town of Boreas in 1882 to house workers during and after construction.  Named for the wind constantly blowing at 11,481 feet, the town became the highest rail station in the United States. It included a depot, a few log houses, a storehouse with dirt roof, a telegraph house, a section house east of the tracks and a huge stone engine house with turntable, coal bin and water tank fed by springs.  A snow shed covered 600 feet of track.  When the snow shed burned in 1899, crews rebuilt it and added 397 feet.  Another snow shed protected a wye and 1,566 feet of side track.

The mountain railroads of Colorado laid their tracks three feet apart. Narrow-gauge offered advantages:  sharper turns, shorter ties, smaller, lighter engines and rolling stock.   To save the expense of building and grading a new road, the company bought the old toll road over Boreas Pass.  Crews spiked the rails to untreated ties of spruce and yellow pine spaced 18 inches apart.  Ashes from the firebox, dumped along the tracks, became the ballast.  Tracks bent and sagged; cars swayed and lurched.  Maximum speeds for passenger trains reached less than 22 miles per hour and less than 12 miles per hour for freight trains over Boreas Pass.

After reaching Breckenridge in August, 1882, the DSP&P continued on to Dillon and Keystone but the main line turned to Frisco at Dickey and served the mines of the Ten Mile Canyon before crossing the Fremont Pass at Climax.  Because the tracks crossed the Continental Divide twice as it entered and exited the county, the railroad became known as the High Line.

Dickey became the switching point between the Dillon line and the Frisco line.  The railroad constructed a coaling station depot, 47,500-gallon water tank, 12-pocket coal chute in 1902 and side tracks for 188 cars.  Workers built a wye and a roundhouse (1902) with two stalls to hold four helper engines needed for the trip over Boreas and Fremont passes.

Nature worked against the railroads.  Bitter cold, howling wind, blowing snow, raging floods, landslides and avalanches often caused by rumbling engines and shrill whistles increased operating costs and endangered workers, riders and equipment.  Keeping the tracks clear of snow, ice and rock could be almost as difficult as laying the tracks in the first place.  Snow presented the biggest problem.  Huge wedge or bucking plows, so large they hid the engine pushing them, cleared the tracks.  For the largest of the drifts, a rotary plow, looking like a fan on the front of a boxcar, blew the snow off the track.  A coal-fired boiler powered the plow but the car itself had to be pushed by as many as four to six engines.  The last might be facing backward to pull the rotary out if it should become stuck.  Flangers being the front wheels scraped ice of the tracks.  The railroad hired shovelers, who lived in a converted box car at the end of the plow train, to help the rotary attack the drifts.

The winter of 1899 presented particular difficulties for the people of the county.  On February 6 the last train crossed Boreas Pass. By February 29, shovelers opened a sleigh road over the pass because the railroad could not get through, even with wedge and rotary plows.  Food for humans and animals became scarce.  Hundreds of pounds of mail could not be delivered.  After several attempts, men on April 24 finally reached the rotary plow stuck on Barney Ford Hill.  The blockade had lasted for 78 days.

Financial problems dictated corporate changes.  The Denver, South Park & Pacific became the Denver, Leadville & Gunnison in 1889.  Colorado & Southern purchased the struggling company in 1898 only to sell it to the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy in 1908.  Despite new owners, people still referred to the company as the Colorado & Southern.  The owners had no interest in maintaining the line because of high operating expenses.  Little high-grade ore filled the cars.  New concentration methods resulted in less ore to carry.  Electricity, available in Breckenridge in 1898, reduced the need for coal, a big part of the tonnage carried on incoming trains.  Cars, trucks, and buses replaced the railroad as the primary carrier of people and freight.

Beginning around the turn of the century, Colorado & Southern tried to curtail service to the county.  The railroad raised rates and cut schedules; it continued to use inefficient and old engines and rolling stock.  The company appealed to numerous courts and governmental agencies but the county won reprieve after reprieve.  Everyone knew the victories would not continue.

The impact of the railroads cannot be understated. It determined the location of towns such as Dillon and the businesses in them.  In Breckenridge, warehouses and depots lined the tracks west of the Blue River.  It tied residents to the services of Denver and Leadville.  Diets changed when the railroad brought fresh fruits and produce from the Mormon settlements in Utah.  Because of the need to maintain their schedules, railroad brought standard time to towns along the tracks.  Ore could reach smelters and mills more quickly; low grade ore brought higher profits because of lower transportation costs.  Excursion rates and hotels built to accommodate tourists fostered tourism.

Even so, businessmen and miners suffered because of high rates, poorly maintained equipment and limited schedules.  When rail service died, so did much of the economy of Summit County.  Many blamed the economic slowdown of the early 1900s on the reduced rail service.  As jobs evaporated in the mines, population moved away and businesses suffered.

Colorado & Southern finally abandoned its line in 1937.  Engine 9 carried the last passengers and freight from Como to Leadville and back on April 9-10, 1937.  Crews removed rails and tracks the following year.  The High Line from Boreas Pass to Fremont Pass became just a memory.

written by Sandra F. Mather, PhD

Date posted: March 24, 2022 | Author: | Comments Off on Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad

Categories: Breckenridge History

For centuries, numerous passes over the Continental Divide allowed people to enter or leave what is now Summit County:  Ute Pass in the Williams Fork Range, Loveland Pass, Argentine Pass -formerly known as Sanderson’s Pass and Snake River Pass, Grizzley Pass, Webster Pass – formerly known as Hand Cart Pass, Georgia Pass – formerly called Swan River Pass, French Pass, Hoosier Pass – formerly called Ute Pass, Fremont Pass, Shrine Pass, Vail Pass—–and Breckenridge Pass.  Breckenridge Pass?  Where was Breckenridge Pass?  Was it originally Hamilton Pass as some have said?  Or is it a separate pass with an unknown location?  Could it be the original name of Boreas Pass?

Historians have debated the location of Breckenridge Pass for decades.  Many have searched maps looking for a clue.  Maps through the 1870s show Breckenridge Pass, but after the early 1880s, Breckenridge Pass disappears and Boreas Pass appears.  Newspapers and other publications tell the story.

The December 19, 1874, edition of the Colorado Miner, a weekly publication, specified Breckenridge Pass as the route wagons followed to carry rich lead ore to Hamilton (in South Park) and on to Denver.  But, where exactly was the pass?

The Fairplay Flume on November 10, 1881, gave the location while reporting a “brutal and unprovoked shooting.”  Three discharged laborers, James Simmons, Wm. Cunningham and Wm. McNally, entered the office of John Evans, the division engineer of the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad at the end of the tracks, near the summit of Breckenridge Pass.  Simmons felt that he had been cheated on his pay and demanded an extra 50 cents.  When Evans affirmed that Simmons had received the correct amount, Simmons drew a 38-calibre revolver and shot Evans in the lower jaw.  Witnesses took the three to Breckenridge to prevent a lynching.  Evans recovered after receiving medical attention in Denver.  Where was the office?  Beside the railroad tracks being built over Breckenridge Pass.

A week later, November 17, 1881, the Fairplay Flume noted that “Boreas is the very appropriate name of the station on the summit of Breckenridge pass.” Most likely people soon began transferring the name of the station to the pass.

Crofutt’s Grip Sack Guide to Colorado, 1881, confirms the location:  “The Breckenridge Pass road from Como is via Hamilton, up Tarryall Creek and over the ‘Range,’ as is also the branch railroad to Breckenridge, now building.”

A letter from a reader to the editor of the Montezuma Millrun appeared in the February 3, 1882, edition.   The editor entitled the article, “A Night on Breckenridge Pass via the South Park R.R.  The story confirms the fact that Breckenridge Pass and Boreas Pass are one-and-the same.  The writer boarded the cars in Denver en route to Summit County.  “The summit of Kenosha hill showed us that the Range was capped with heavy clouds and the chilling winds told us that anything but summer reigned over the Continental divide.  Arrived at Como we found that trouble was in the air.  Instead of the truthful statements of the Denver official, we found there had been no train across the range for three days until about two hours before our arrival.  We arrived at 1 o’clock and were tortured until 9 p.m. with the same old story, ‘Start in a few minutes.’

Well, we started with four engines, a passenger coach, a few flat cars and about thirty men to shovel a road to the Pacific slope.  For several miles we got along smoothly but at timber line ‘The trouble begins.’ Every cut was drifted full of snow and the engines were without a snow plow, so that we were compelled to sit still and wait until the shovelers had made clear the way.  For four weary hours, kept awake by the jolting of running into snow banks, by the swearing and yelling of the railroad men, and the shrill whistle of the mountain hurricane, we were compelled to sit and endure it until finally at one o’clock in the morning we reached Boreas.“    Thus the writer confirms the location of Boreas–on Breckenridge Pass.

The editor of the Colorado Daily Chieftain, on July 5, 1891, established the location with this quote:  “. . .The Denver and South Park road (railroad) traverses the county from Breckenridge pass to the long famous Fremont’s pass on its route from Denver to Leadville. . .”

And finally, the January 10, 1913 edition of the Summit County Journal & Breckenridge Bulletin included this article about the condition of the roads:  “A Communication from T.A. Brown to President Good Roads Association. . .  We have the road over Breckenridge pass, at Boreas, on the Colorado & Southern railroad, elevation 11,470’. ”

Thus it seems that thanks to the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad, Breckenridge Pass became Boreas Pass when the railroad built their station at the summit of the pass and named it Boreas, in recognition of the North Wind.

written by Sandra F. Mather, PhD

Date posted: March 24, 2022 | Author: | Comments Off on Breckenridge and Boreas Pass

Categories: Breckenridge History

Helen and Belle. Belle and Helen. Always together. Always in the same breath their names are mentioned. Who were the famed Ladies of French Street in Breckenridge? As Women’s History Month continues, the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance takes a look at Belle Turnbull and Helen Rich, women of literature who found inspiration in gritty Breckenridge during the height of the Great Depression.

Belle and Helen’s house June 2019

Their rustic cabin on North French Street no longer enjoys the sweeping vistas of the Ten Mile Range that Helen and Belle so cherished. Modern development encroaches on all sides, blocking views of the mountains that inspired their poems and novels. While many writers of the West focused on how man impacted the mountains and the landscape, Helen and Belle captured the people who were molded by the mountains. Their work centered on the ordinary people – illiterate miners, aging prostitutes, impoverished families – who made up the fabric of fading mining communities like Breckenridge. More than the writers who romanticized and glorified the Gold Rush, Helen and Belle were our most authentic chroniclers of historic Breckenridge.

They arrived together in Breckenridge in 1939 after renting a cottage in Frisco for several summers. Retired from professional lives in Colorado Springs, Helen and Belle longed for a quiet life to give all their attention to their writing. Surviving on a small pension from Belle’s years teaching high school English in the Colorado Springs School District wasn’t enough. Helen soon took a position as caseworker with the Summit County Welfare Department, serving as assistant to Susan Badger.

The Great Depression was hard on Breckenridge and even harder on Frisco, where the closing of mines meant the end of electrical service in town. In Breckenridge, the gold dredge boats still tore up the river valleys and employed the last of the hold-out miners. These are the people whom Belle and Helen wrote about.

Belle Turnbull from book cover

Belle Turnbull, a dozen years older than Helen, was born in 1882 in Hamilton, NY. At the age of eight, her family moved to Colorado Springs where her father took the position of principal of the high school. Immediately she was smitten. “The West was and still is an adventure,” she wrote. After an education at Vassar College, which “certainly didn’t prepare me for life in Breckenridge,” she taught school in New York for a few years. Happy to accept a position as English teacher at the Colorado Springs High School, Belle returned to her beloved West in 1911. Eventually she rose to the head of the English Department.

Helen Rich, Colorado Magazine, Spring 1979

Helen Rich was raised in Minnesota and Wisconsin in a strict religious household with a dentist father who insisted that she marry or teach. After college, she severed her ties and fled to Paris where she “learned to love life.” In the 1930s, Helen became the society writer for the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph and it was during this time that she met Belle. Realizing that she hated parties, Helen switched to features, reporting on crime and the sheriff’s office.

The slow pace of life in Breckenridge allowed the women time to write and the rarefied air inspired them. They were well into their 50s when they began their literary careers. Helen was the better seller of the two writers. Her novel, The Spring Begins, was a best seller in 1947.

The Willow Bender, her second novel, also received acclaim. Supplementing her income, Helen wrote extensively for local and regional newspapers. Her work can be found in many past issues of the Summit County Journal.

Helen also helped Reverend Mark Fiester with his seminal history Blasted Beloved Breckenridge. But she didn’t attend his Father Dyer Methodist church, professing to be “a heathen.”

Belle was a poet from her youth, and honed her craft in private until she retired from teaching. While not a financial success in her life, she garnered praise from other poets and, in 1938, received the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize from Poetry Magazine, earning a $100 award. Goldboat, her most remembered work written in free verse, was published in 1940. It showed her diligent study of gold dredge mining. She would later write a biography of the “dredge boat king” Ben Stanley Revett. In 1953 she published The Far Side of the Hill, highlighting the interdependence of people and place. Her “mastery of the compressed line” was featured in 1957’s The Ten Mile Range, a book of poems that was critically regarded but did not sell well.

Colorado poet laureate Thomas Hornsby Ferril was a great friend and frequently visited the Ladies of French Street. He valued their drinking whiskey, freshly made bread with homemade jelly, and shared love of fishing. Even more, he enjoyed their conversation, “wry, sparkling, sophisticated, earthy,” he later wrote.

Belle Turnbull by the fireplace (reprint). The fireplace is on display in the annex at the Barney Ford Museum.

A visit with Helen and Belle was a near requirement for famed literati touring through Colorado. May Sarton — poet, feminist, out lesbian and founder of the May Sarton Poetry Prize – was enchanted with Belle’s poetry and valued Helen’s friendship. Alex Warner, editor of the Colorado Quarterly, escorted May to Breckenridge along with his novelist wife, Marie. Poet Carl Sandberg took a trip to Salida with Helen and Belle. Helen often mentioned visits with Muriel Sibell Wolle, artist and author of Stampede to Timberline.

Ferril once brought Pulitzer-prize winning historian Bernard DeVoto to visit the Ladies of French Street. A family friend, who accompanied the men on the trip, remembered the lively conversation among the great writers where DeVoto found “more than a sympathetic ear” in Helen. The ladies’ whiskey and homemade bread enlivened the talk “during an increasingly animated give-and-take.”

Helen, the more gregarious of the two, was rarely condemning in her observations and conversation. She saved her condemnation for the men of the Denver Water Board. They wanted west-slope water and they came to Breckenridge to let the locals know that they did not need to ask for it, only to take. “They were rude men,” Helen observed. They were not welcome at the house on French Street.

For Breckenridge longtimers, the house on French Street was welcoming. At Helen’s memorial gathering around her gravesite in Valley Brook Cemetery, one miner broke the awkward silence, warmly remembering the lively poker parties the ladies hosted in their bungalow. Wrote one observer: “Both Helen and Belle had a salty, earthy, sense of humor that endeared them to their Breckenridge neighbors as well as to the literati who sampled Helen’s boilermakers.”

Curly Mackie and Frank Brown look at ore samples photo courtesy Sandra Dallas

The ladies’ relationship to their salt-of-the-earth neighbors wasn’t a one-way street, taking their jargon and stories for their own literary creations. Miner Curly Mackie, an inspiration for a character in one of Helen’s books, was illiterate. In cooperation, Helen helped him with his correspondence.

Was the ladies’ relationship an issue for the people of Breckenridge? Thomas Ferril asked the family friend who accompanied him on several visits if she might wonder about it. She wrote: “To us it was normal for two older ladies of limited means to share a house and expenses… Helen once mentioned Belle’s pension to Ferril, saying she did not know what she would do if anything happened to Belle.” The ladies each had their own bedroom in the small house and ensured that their graves were separated with Helen’s sister buried between them. While the people of Breckenridge didn’t seem to care, Helen and Belle cared to keep up appearances. Even today, we ask: does it matter if they were romantic partners? Is it our business?

Helen Rich Curio Shelf now owned by Sandra Dallas

Helen and Belle saw the transition from mining town to ski town. Helen “dreaded the ski boom” and wanted Breckenridge to stay the way it was. Yet the women were still welcoming to newcomers. Best-selling author Sandra Dallas was a young bride in Breckenridge in 1963, coming to town with her husband who was the first public relations manager for the new Breckenridge Ski Area. She soon befriended Helen and Belle, but mostly Helen as Belle’s memory was fading by then. She remembered asking Helen about Belle: “Belle forgets,” Helen replied, “and it bothers her that she forgets. But then, she forgets she forgets.”

Helen Rich encouraged Sandra Dallas to write about Breckenridge: “you have the gift.” She prodded Sandra: “the stuff out of which such books are made has to seep into a person.” Indeed, she was right. Several of Dallas’ popular books of historical fiction are based on Breckenridge, including Whiter Than Snow and Prayers for Sale.

Belle Turnbull Unsung Masters book cover

Belle Turnbull died in 1970 and Helen Rich followed her in death a year later. While Helen was the better-known writer in their day, Belle’s poetry has recently been rediscovered. The Unsung Masters Series featured Belle in a 2017 publication with reprints of many poems and critical commentary from modern writers and poets. Extolled one: “She is a poet of Colorado, but also a substantial American poet, perhaps a great one.”

Breckenridge was the better for having Helen Rich and Belle Turnbull as part of it. They held a mirror to the community that reflected authenticity, quirkiness and the resilience of a bristlecone pine on a high mountain ridge. In closing, we share this poem by Belle Turnbull about mountain women from the Mr. Probus (a miner) series:

Mountain Woman

God love these mountain women anyway,

Said Mr. Probus. Not to say they’re fair

Or sleek with oils, for woodsmoke in the hair

And sagebrush on the fingers every day

Belle Turnbull SHS-P.558

Are toughening perfumes, and the sunstreams flay

Too dainty flesh. But what remains is rare,

Like mountain honey to a mountain bear;

He finds his relish in a rough bouquet.

Days when their wash is drying, off they’ll go

And fish the beaver ponds. Hell or high water,

They wade the slues in sunburnt calico

Playing their trout like some old sea king’s daughter.

Hell and high water women…Steady now!

Not all of them, he said. One, anyhow.

For a more thorough analysis of the lives and work of Helen Rich and Belle Turnbull, see this article from Colorado Magazine published in 1979. Summit County Library has a copy of the Unsung Masters Series: Belle Turnbull, On the Life and Work of an American Master.

To learn more about Breckenridge history, visit a museum, take a tour, or read blog articles from the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance.

Written by Leigh Girvin

Date posted: March 21, 2022 | Author: | Comments Off on Helen Rich and Belle Turnbull: The Ladies of French Street

Categories: Our Collective History Prominent People

The day started early and ended late for miners and others working in the mines of Summit County.  Mining companies expected their workers to be down in the mine at 7:00 a.m. ready to go.  This required the miners to rise early and walk or ride to work, sometimes in heavy snow and the darkness of the winter months, from a family home, boarding house or perhaps company housing.

They first stopped in the dry room where the clothing they had worn the day before waited, dirty but dry, in baskets or on hooks. Miners wore Levi’s or baggy pants tied at the ankles to keep the pants above the tops of their boots and out of standing water.  Above their waist, they wore an undershirt open at the neck or nothing at all.  Some wore a woolen “union” undergarment beneath their shirt or work pants.  On their feet, they wore sturdy shoes or brogans to keep feet safe and dry.   On their head, they wore a felt hat hardened by repeated dipping in resin or linseed oil.   When they finished dressing, they picked up their drill steels, hammers and sledges, lunch, candle holders, candles and any other hand tools they might need and headed for the ladder in the manway.

The last thing the miners did before descending was pick up their  “brass,” a piece of metal about the size of a quarter with their individual number on it.  At the end of the day, they returned their “brass” to its specific hook on the wall.  In case of an emergency, it could be ascertained quickly by looking at the missing brasses which miners remained in the mine.

Candles illuminated the mines of Summit County in the late 1800s.  The candles, nine inches long and three-quarters of an inch in diameter, burned slowly, producing little smoke.  Made of hard tallow, they kept their shape in the high humidity and elevated temperatures of a mine. Men often had to purchase the candles themselves for five cents each.  One of the three candles needed for a ten-hour shift might be attached to the hat brim with clay.   If an individual miner didn’t wear a candle on his hat, he might use a wrought iron candle holder wedged into a rock wall or wooden timber.  Men purchased the candle holders from a merchant or ordered them from a catalogue.  In some cases the mine’s blacksmith made the six-to-twelve-inch-long candle holders.  Midway between a loop at one end and a long point at the other, a second loop held a candle.  Some candle holders had a hook on top so that they could be hung from a timber.

Other workers such as trammers, who pushed the ore cars to the surface, and muckers, who shoveled crushed rock into the ore cars, wore outfits similar to those worn by the miners.  The muckers used D-handled scoops called idiot sticks or muck sticks to fill as many as 18 ore cars in a ten-hour work day.  Blacksmiths wore heavy leather aprons for protection.  Timbermen, responsible for cutting the timbers for tunnel walls and ceilings, wore bib overalls for protection from splinters as they carried the heavy timbers and cribbed the tunnel surfaces.

Workers usually climbed down the ladder in the manway. They called it “walking to work.”   They preferred not to ride the bucket, which swayed as it descended, into a dark mine. Once in place, the miners began the exhausting job of drilling holes for their charges.

The men experienced a wide range of conditions in the mines:  warm and humid; cool and humid; and everything in between.  In tunnels below the water table, moisture seeped from the walls and ceilings.  Standing water might cover the floor, making it slippery and hazardous.

Miners commonly used single and double jacking in Summit County mines.  Single jacking with a four-pound hammer worked best in narrow spaces or with overhead drilling.  One miner held the drill steel, striking it 50 times per minute with the four-pound hammer, turning the drill steel after each strike.  Where space allowed, double jacking prevailed.  While one person held and turned the drill steel, the other swung the eight-pound sledge 25 times per minute.  The men changed positions every 15 minutes so that one could rest.  In very large areas, triple jacking could be done.  Two men swung eight-pound sledges, alternately striking the steel while a third turned the steel in the drill hole.

Drill steels varied in length and width.  The “starter” or “bull” steel measured one foot long with a 1½ inch-wide flared bit.  Made of Black Diamond rod, steels in a set increased in length by six inches while the flared bit decreased by one thirty-second of an inch.  The longest steel available reached three feet in length and had a three-quarter inch bit.  Anything longer could bind in the hole, making it useless.  The flared corners of the bit were of greater importance in penetrating the rock than the sharpness of the front edge of the bit.

Before the invention of dynamite, miners used black powder (a mixture of saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal) as their explosive.  Black powder did not have a reputation for reliability.  Misfiring and misfired holes, called “hang-fire,” presented problems.  William Bickford, in 1831, invented a fuse used with black powder.  His fuse, made of black powder wrapped in jute, strong twine and water-proof tape, burned one inch in 30 seconds.

When Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, it replaced unreliable black powder.  One pound of dynamite did the work of two and two-third pounds of black powder.   Besides causing headaches and nausea, dynamite had another huge problem:  it became unstable at temperatures just above 40 degrees Fahrenheit.  Some mines had metal dynamite warmers, looking like a candle mold sitting atop a water reservoir, to keep the sticks warm at night.  If they didn’t have a metal dynamite warmer, miners filled knitted dynamite warmers, shaped like elongated ski caps, with the sticks of dynamite and took them to bed at night.

Mines did not produce ore constantly.  Much time had to be spent drilling holes, blasting, mucking, timbering and testing to determine the path of the vein.

Since many of the workers came from Cornwall, lunch often consisted of a pasty (pass’ tee), a one-dish meal of vegetables and meat encased in a crust, and eaten like a sandwich.  Sometimes fruit filled the crust.  Some held meat in one end and fruit in the other.  Candle stubs kept the food warm.  Miners hammered a ring of nails into a board.  Putting a lighted candle stub in the middle of the ring, they set their lunch pail on the nail heads.  Soup, pasty, coffee or tea stayed quite warm.

Unsanitary conditions created by animal and human waste and rotting food scraps caused suffocating smells.  A dirt-filled box or powder box served the “call of nature” in a mine.  The task of cleaning the box fell to the low man on the mine hierarchy–the tool nipper whose primary job included distributing and collecting tools.

At the end of the long, tiring day, the men gladly rode the bucket to the surface.  As many as six men might cram into the bucket, dangling arms and legs on the outside.  As the bucket rose, it swayed, sometimes injuring an arm or leg.  The men returned their brass and tools and headed to the drying room where their clothing would be kept overnight.  Companies said that keeping the clothing meant it would be dry and warm when the workers returned the next day.  But the real reason?  High-grading.

When miners worked for themselves, high-grading did not present a problem.  When men became employees of impersonal mining companies financed by investors from “elsewhere,” high-grading blossomed.  Men hid pieces of gold in secret pockets, boot heels, lunch pails, hat bands, uneaten food, false-crowned hats and under fingernails.  People accepted it as a way to increase the average wage of $3.00 per day.

In the late 1800s, mining dominated the economy of Breckenridge.  A simple philosophy reigned supreme:  Mining came first; everything else placed second.  The newspaper editor offered this opinion:  The veins of Summit County would employ miners for centuries.  They would first wash away the boulders, gravel and soils, exposing the minerals.  The area would be uninhabitable but it would first provide the world with a great amount of mineral wealth.

written by Sandra F. Mather, PhD

Date posted: March 14, 2022 | Author: | No Comments »

Categories: Breckenridge History

Mr. Barney L. Ford ascended to wealth and political prominence in frontier Colorado after a youth spent enslaved. The home in Breckenridge he built in 1882, now a museum, bears his name. But what about the women in his life? His wife and daughter who accompanied him to Breckenridge? In this article, the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance (BHA) explores the lives of Julia Lyons Ford and Sarah Ford Wormley, women of willpower who made a life for themselves and their families in the upstart communities of the West.

The Ford family arrived in Breckenridge in 1879. It was Barney’s second attempt at seeking riches in the gold camp; the boarding house he operated in Lincoln City famously entertained guests at a Christmas party in 1861. Down on his luck financially, Barney returned to Breckenridge to make another start by opening Ford’s Chop Stand at the corner of Main Street and Washington Avenue. With him in Breckenridge were his wife Julia, their middle child Sarah, and son Louis. Though in their twenties, the adult children made the move to Breckenridge and continued to live with their parents. At the time, eldest daughter Frances was in California with her husband and son.

As with most women of the Victorian period, we learn about Julia Ford through the news of her husband. Very few primary sources exist with information about Julia. What we know of her is gleaned through census data, the probate record settling her estate, and the very few newspaper articles that mention her.

A fictionalized biography of Barney Ford, Mr. Barney Ford: A Portrait in Bistre, written in 1963 by Forbes Parkhill, takes great liberties with the lives of Barney and Julia. When he couldn’t find primary source information, Parkhill made up stories. Because the historic record lacked detail about Julia, Parkhill’s portrait of her cannot be trusted as fact. Recently revealed primary source research highlights the many fallacies of the Parkhill book.

Julia A. Lyons was born in Indiana on September 15, 1827, on free soil to parents who were not enslaved. Starting in 1880, the U.S. census started asking birth location of the parents of those enumerated. From this we learned that Julia’s father was born in Virginia. Her mother’s information is less clear as census data is inconsistent; she may have been born in Indiana, Ohio or Canada. When Julia was 22, she was living in Chicago where she met Barney Ford. Ford found his freedom the year before and made his way to Chicago with the help of the Underground Railroad. There he met agent Henry Wagoner and Henry’s wife Susan, who was Julia’s older sister. Barney and Julia married in 1849 in Chicago. By the time of the 1850 census taken in September of that year, Barney and Julia were 28 and 23 years of age respectively, and lived in Chicago near the Wagoners. Barney owned real estate worth $100 at the time. Their first child, Frances, was born the following year, in 1851.

According to a biography of Barney Ford written in his lifetime by General Frank Hall, Ford spent the years between 1851 and 1856 or ’57 in Nicaragua after an aborted attempt to reach the California gold fields. The BHA believes it is highly unlikely that Julia accompanied Barney on his journey to California for several reasons. At the time of Barney’s departure, Julia had infant Frances. Barney took a ship from the East Coast and likely was accommodated in steerage. Not only was it expensive ($150 per person according to advertisements of the time), it was a long and difficult journey with an unknown outcome. Julia had a significant support system of extended family in Chicago. Their second child, Sarah, was born in 1858, after Barney returned from Nicaragua. Lacking family journals, it is impossible to know what Julia did in the years that her husband was absent.

Possessed of gold fever, Barney came west again with the “Pikes Peak or Bust” prospectors, arriving in Denver in May of 1860. Barney was in the gold fields when their third child, Louis, was born on July 2nd in Chicago. Julia’s arrival in Colorado with the children is undocumented.

The entire Ford family lived in Cheyenne, Wyoming, at the time of the 1870 census. The younger children, Sarah then age 12 and Louis age 9, were in school. Eldest daughter Frances, age 18, was married to John F. Jones who worked as a steward in Barney’s hotel. They and their six-month-old baby lived with the Fords.

Newspaper accounts document Barney Ford’s life in Cheyenne, but not Julia’s. Therefore, we can only assume that she fulfilled her roles as wife, mother, grandmother, and helpmate.

The Fords returned to Denver by 1871. Barney ascended to prominence in the 1870s in Denver, running for a seat in the territorial legislature and growing his hotel and restaurant businesses. By the mid-1870s, Barney Ford was a very wealthy man. Yet only a few years later, business losses and setbacks sent him searching again for the next opportunity. He hoped to find it in California, where Frances and John had relocated. But it was Breckenridge where Barney Ford made his comeback.

Ford’s home in Breckenridge, illustration from Hall’s History of Colorado. Courtesy BHA

The 1880 census shows the Ford family together in Breckenridge, with son Louis, then aged 20, helping in this father’s restaurant, and daughter Sarah, then age 22, “without occupation.” Julia was keeping house. Their home at the time was the Photo Shop building at the corner of Main Street and Adams Ave. Not long after, Julia and Sarah were living in Denver. We know this because, in 1883, a significant event brought Julia and Sarah back to Breckenridge. According to a blurb in the Breckenridge Bulletin newspaper, on July 31, 1883, Barney Ford returned to Breckenridge with his wife and daughter who had been “residing in Denver for some time.” The newspaper described what happened: “We are glad to state that Miss Ford’s injuries, from the late deadly assault made on her in Denver, are not considered so serious as at first supposed, accounting only to a slight scalp wound.” In 1884, Sarah Ford was gone from Colorado, visiting in Rockford, Illinois.

Colorado conducted a census in 1885, revealing that the children were on their own. Barney and Julia occupied the house that is now a museum located at 111 E. Washington Avenue in Breckenridge.

In 1890, Barney and Julia left Breckenridge and returned to Denver, building or buying a home at 1569 High Street in the Capitol Hill area. Real estate records identify the house as built in 1890. Julia experienced joys and woes during the 1890s. Sarah married in 1892. Frances died in 1897. And son Louis was in and out of prison. Further research is needed to learn more about Louis’ criminal past, but it appears that he had a problem with theft.

The year before she died, Julia was listed in the Denver Social Year-Book, a “directory of the men and women who make up the social and club life of Denver with a complete membership register.” Julia is listed as residing at the home on High Street. Considered a great honor, Julia was the first, and likely only African-American woman listed in the esteemed volume, for many years.

Julia Ford gravestone in Riverside

On May 2, 1899, Julia died. It took a year for her estate to be cleared from probate. It appears that Julia owned the house on High Street and it had fallen into disrepair in the nine years since she and Barney moved in. The estate incurred significant bills fixing up the house, replacing the roof, repairing the boiler, and making improvements including paint, wallpaper, varnish, window screens, and more. Julia also owned a commercial property at 1313 15th Street that included shops, storage and rooms to rent.

In 1900, the census shows Barney living in Denver with Henry Wagoner, also a widower. Barney Ford would pass in 1902. Son Louis died in 1904. Barney, Julia and Louis are buried in adjacent sites in Denver’s historic Riverside Cemetery.

Daughter Sarah was in Denver in the days after her mother’s death, signing a waiver of service regarding the will on May 10, 1899.

We know almost nothing of Sarah’s life as an unmarried woman. It appears that she diligently followed her parents’ moves. Her mother stayed in Denver with her as a young adult. When in her twenties, Sarah visited friends in Illinois. Biographers imagined her singing in the choir in Breckenridge’s Methodist Church (later known as Father Dyer M.E. Church), which is a possibility. The Fords were involved with the Shorter African Methodist Episcopal Church in Denver. Biographers also imagined that many men asked for her hand in marriage, some only to tap into her father’s wealth. But this is merely speculation. Sarah’s young life is a mystery.

In June 1892, at age 34, Sarah married in Denver to a wealthy hotelier from a prominent African-American family from Washington D.C. Her husband, William H.A. Wormley, then age 50, was the son of James C. Wormley, proprietor of the famed Wormley Hotel on Lafayette Square near the White House.

Wormley Hotel 1884

1900 Inter-Ocean (Denver – 16th & Blake) C175

The parallels between Barney L. Ford and James C. Wormley cannot be ignored. It is unknown when they met, but their lives followed similar paths. Ford’s Inter-Ocean Hotel in Denver looks uncannily like the Wormley Hotel on Lafayette, which was completed only a few years prior. Their political involvements overlapped and they knew many of the same prominent abolitionists of the time. W.H.A. Wormley’s daughter Miriam spoke of the friendship between Barney Ford and her grandfather. The BHA feels it is safe to assume that Barney had something to do with his daughter meeting William H.A. Wormley, the son of his friend.

Thanks to the Wormley family archives generously shared with BHA, we have been able to piece together significant information about Sarah’s married life. She married into wealth. William H.A. Wormley’s mansion in Washington, D.C. was statelier than any home she had lived in with her parents. The Wormleys were popular in D.C. social circles and knew everyone who was worth knowing, from presidents to senators, ambassadors, business leaders and visiting royalty.

Wm HA Wormley House, c1897 – Sarah possibly woman to the right of white horse

William himself was a man of considerable accomplishments. He grew up in the hotel business with his father and brothers, learning the importance of associations. His first wife was the daughter of the valet to President Abraham Lincoln. When William assaulted an agent promoting passage to Liberia for recently emancipated slaves, Lincoln pardoned him (but still made him pay the fine). William volunteered for the First Colored Troops in Washington, D.C., and worked toward abolition and later for integration. He was an honorary pallbearer at Frederick Douglass’s 1895 funeral, served as a school board member, and later as a U.S. Marshal.

During her marriage, Sarah returned to Denver in 1904 to contest the will of her ne’er-do-well brother Louis who had left her $1 of the estate he received from their father. In his final months, between his last release from prison and before he died, Louis spent $1,000 in “carousing.” Sarah’s efforts were unsuccessful as an appeals court awarded the bulk of Louis’ estate to his common-law wife Clara Isom in 1905.

Note to history nerds: Clara Isom, who eventually won the estate, claimed to be LN Ford’s common-law wife. LN Ford left her $100 in his will. According to the article about Sarah contesting the will, Clara Isom is from St. Louis. Yet the claim that prompted Sarah to return to Denver to contest the will was by a Mrs. Belle Pruess, who claimed to be LN Ford’s fiance. Didn’t Louis weave a tangled web in his life! There is enough info on him for another article.

The post-Reconstruction era was hard on the Wormley family fortunes. In 1897, William sold the fabulous house on Park Street, which was torn down and the property subdivided. In an oral history shared by his youngest daughter Miriam, Wormley’s finances declined through his final years and he sold off many properties before his death in 1908.

Now a widow, Sarah managed on her own, relying on the solid work ethic she inherited from her father. Business directories from the early 1900s identify her as a dress maker. Step-daughter Miriam recalled that “Mother Sadie” was a charwoman (cleaning lady) after William’s death. The 1920 census tells that Sarah was working at a dry goods store.

Sarah passed at age 66 in 1924 in Washington, D.C. Her will remembered her “beloved husband” William and bequeathed her estate to his youngest two children, Miriam and Lawrence, “whom I reared from babies and look upon as my own.” And her estate was sizeable, despite the family’s economic decline. In addition to clothes, silverware, diamonds and furniture, she owned real estate in Washington, D.C. worth over $9,000. However, Sarah’s last will was contested by cousins living in California. The final disposition of Sarah’s estate is unknown, though step-daughter Miriam did not maintain a relationship with Sarah after William’s death.

Julia and Sarah Ford exemplify the resilient, ever-flexible women of the west who overcame adversity to do the very best they could. Both women worked, contributed to their families, fought injustice, owned real estate, and left estates of note. Their contributions fill out our understanding of the Ford family of Breckenridge.

To learn more about Breckenridge’s history, visit a museum, take a tour, or read our blog articles.

Written by Leigh Girvin

Date posted: March 3, 2022 | Author: | Comments Off on Women of Willpower: Julia and Sarah Ford

Categories: Our Collective History Prominent People

Ford’s portrait, illustration from Hall’s History of Colorado. Courtesy BHA


The story of Mr. Barney L. Ford changed completely in spring 2021 when the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance (BHA) received a new primary source document in Mr. Ford’s own words. Now armed with accurate information, the BHA understood how he achieved his freedom, when he adopted the name “Ford,” and when he was manumitted.

The document opened pathways of understanding about Barney Ford that were not available when his fictionalized biographies were published in the mid-20th century. In this article, the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance shares new information that puts to rest many of the myths and tells the true story of Mr. Barney Ford.

The best source of primary information about B.L. Ford is the seminal History of the State of Colorado, told in four volumes by General Frank Hall written over the final decades of the 19th century. Hall’s Biography section includes two and a half columns on Ford’s life, one of the longest profiles in the book, and longer than many other prominent citizens of the time. Hall also wrote one of Ford’s obituaries, sharing additional information not included in the original biography and revealing personal observations that reveal their friendly relationship. Census data, advertisements and newspaper reports fill in additional details about Barney L. Ford, his businesses and his family.

Yet there are significant gaps in Ford’s life that are likely unknowable. Enslaved people were property, not persons, and certainly not citizens. Records of the enslaved are virtually non-existent. And Ford didn’t appear to talk much about that part of his life. As Hall said relating Ford’s disinterested narrative of his period of enslavement: “the adventures that he passed through were mere incidents that might have happened to any person.”

When Forbes Parkhill wrote the first biography of Barney L. Ford in 1963, Mr. Barney Ford: A Portrait in Bistre (bistre is a pigmented wash used in illustration), Parkhill made up a story where he lacked information. Even his publisher, Johnson Books, acknowledged that fiction. Doris Sanders, director of the Book Department, wrote to Dr. W. Stanton Wormley in 1975, saying the biography was “fictional in approach, but factual in terms of dates, etc.” Yet in many cases, not even the dates in Parkhill’s book are correct. (Wormley was seeking information about his step-mother, Sarah Ford Wormley, middle child of B.L. Ford.)

Unfortunately for history, Parkhill’s account of Ford’s life has been taken as gospel truth ever since.

While there may be fallacies carried through the historic narrative of Ford’s life, there is one consistent truth enthusiastically shared from all sources: Barney L. Ford was a fine human being. From Hall’s biography to his many obituaries, Ford’s chroniclers give him high praise. Breckenridge’s Summit County Journal quoted from The Society of Colorado Pioneers, saying “He was a man of the highest moral sense… No arrogance ever accompanied his well-earned gains, nor did poverty lessen his renewed energy to recuperate his broken fortunes.” Hall’s obituary concluded: “Barney Ford was always and under all circumstances a gentleman in the cleanest sense of the word…. Quiet, modest and very intelligent, a close observer of current events, he was an interesting talker when you could get him started.”

This is the true story of Barney L. Ford

A baby named Barney was born to an enslaved African-American woman in Stafford Courthouse, Virginia in January 1822. This child was raised in South Carolina, and in his youth learned to read and write, “entirely self-taught” according to Hall.

In his teens he was droving hogs and mules between Kentucky and Columbus, Georgia, then he worked on a cotton boat on the Apalachicola River. It is possible that Ford was exposed to gold mining as he moved through northern Georgia during that area’s gold rush of the 1830s.

In spring 1844, at age 22, he was purchased by Nathanial Garland Woods, of Kentucky stock, but residing in St. Louis, Missouri. During part of his time with Woods, Barney worked on river boats on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. In October 1848, Wood brought Barney with him to the Illinois city of Quincy, a sizeable river town on the Mississippi River, and an important stop on the Underground Railroad. For reference, Quincy is just 16 river miles from Hannibal, Missouri, site of fictional Big Jim, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer’s many adventures.

In 1848, Illinois was a free state and Barney knew it. The law at the time: If a man brings his slaves to the state and stays ten days or longer, then those slaves are free. The BHA feels it is safe to assume that Woods had Barney with him in Quincy on business and that they stayed at least ten days.

Ford’s 1848 letter to Woods, published in the Chicago Western Citizen newspaper, October 1850

Barney left Woods in Quincy, but not before leaving him a letter, a long letter. In it, he outlined his grievances and why he deserved his freedom. He signed the letter, “Your humble servant, B.L. Ford.” Barney was 26 years old when he achieved his freedom. Read the full letter at this link.

With the help of the Underground Railroad, Barney made his way to Chicago, about 300 miles distant. There he met Julia Lyons, sister-in-law of the man running the Chicago Underground Railroad, Henry O. Wagoner. Julia and Barney were married in 1849.

Ford’s letter to his enslaver was published two years later in the abolitionist Chicago Western Citizen newspaper. Before Woods died in 1850, he wrote “I will my slave Barney now in Chicago shall be emancipated and his papers sent to him by my executors.” Perhaps those papers included Ford’s letter(s) as it was customary in that era to return letters to the sender on the death of the recipient. By October 1850, Barney Ford was no longer a fugitive, but a free man.

Ford’s 20th century biographers did not have the Quincy letter. Instead, they made up stories of Ford’s escape, based on the historic record and how other enslaved people found their freedom in Quincy, Illinois. Parkhill said that a cohort tossed a bushel of rice overboard, shouting “Man Overboard,” giving Ford the opportunity to flee down the gangway. In another biography, Ford escaped the riverboat by dressing as a woman with the help of the on-board actor. Pure fiction both.

Parkhill also perpetuated the myth that Barney L. Ford took his name from a locomotive seen in Chicago, the Lancelot Ford. Such an engine never existed in Chicago in Barney’s time. And now, with the Quincy letter, we know that Barney had adopted the last name “Ford” by October 1848. That Woods does not acknowledge the name Ford in his will may indicate that Barney chose “Ford” at the time he took his freedom. The source of the name “Ford” and specifically when Barney adopted it are unknown.

The middle name “Lancelot” is also a fiction. In no record do we see the name “Lancelot.” Ford also never used the name “Barney” except in a few legal documents. He was almost always B.L. Ford. During the 19th century, as population increased, many men took an initial for their middle name.

Almost nothing is known of Ford’s mother, though Parkhill named her Phoebe and wrote that she drowned when Barney was a teen, apparently searching for help from the Underground Railroad. Thanks to modern technology that allows for on-line search of digitized historical newspapers, we know that Barney visited his ailing mother in South Carolina in 1870. Sadly, no city or name is identified, leaving more questions to pursue.

Once manumitted, Ford’s gold fever drove him to seek his riches in the California gold fields. In 1851 he departed for the west, but made it only as far as Nicaragua, traveling by boat from the East Coast. This time of Ford’s life is well documented in Hall’s biography, but what about Julia? Parkhill places her in Nicaragua with Ford, but the BHA believes this is highly unlikely. Learn more about Julia and the reasons why she probably stayed in Chicago in this article.

Gold fever brought B. L. Ford to the Pikes Peak region with the early wave of prospectors. He was in Denver by spring of 1860, and in the Breckenridge area in 1861. A local story tells that Ford was chased off his Breckenridge claims by the sheriff, but this is unsubstantiated. Ford was in the Central City area filing claims in 1860, and in Lincoln City east of Breckenridge with a boarding house in 1861. There were men of color mining in 1860 in French Gulch between Breckenridge and Lincoln, but these men were not Barney Ford.

Another local myth that persisted about B.L. Ford through the years is that he returned to Breckenridge in 1879, not just to open a restaurant, but to find the gold he had buried on his old claim eighteen years before. There is no way to verify this old rumor and therefore, the BHA doesn’t perpetuate it.

Parkhill identifies Ford’s first restaurant as The People’s Restaurant, opened in 1863 after the disastrous Denver fire in April. Ford advertised a lot, and historic newspapers show that his first restaurant, THE People’s Restaurant, advertised oysters as early as November 1861.

Denver Rocky Mountain News (17 December 1902)

When Barney L. Ford died in December 1902, just weeks shy of his 81st birthday, one obituary said that he had been a state legislator. Ford ran for the Territorial legislature in 1873, but was not elected. It is a tribute to his prominence as a citizen at the time of his death that the writer thought he was elected. This same obituary stated that Ford was sent to Quincy on business by his enslaver, and that allowed him the opportunity to escape. With the Quincy letter, we know that Ford accompanied Woods to that city.

New information continues to surface about Barney L. Ford. The Breckenridge Heritage Alliance is dedicated to sharing the true story of Mr. Barney Ford. For more information about Ford and his legacy, visit the Barney Ford House Museum.

To learn more about Breckenridge history, visit a museum, join a guided tour or hike, or read our history articles and blogs.

Written by Leigh Girvin

Date posted: February 22, 2022 | Author: | Comments Off on Myth-busting: The True Story of Barney Ford

Categories: Our Collective History Prominent People