On the hunt: Local historians release “Chasing the Bad Guys” book
“Chasing the Bad Guys” by Bill Fountain and Sandra F. Mather
Breckenridge Heritage Alliance, June 2019
293 pages, $20
Available at Breckenridge Welcome Center, Next Page Books and Country Boy Mine
Modern Breckenridge would likely not exist as it does today without the discovery of gold along the Blue River in 1859. While it was a prosperous time for some people, that influx of riches also brought an influx of crime. Making matters worse, the region was broken into mining districts that each had their own set of laws.
To highlight the life of those special individuals wanting to put men behind bars, local historians Bill Fountain and Sandra Mather teamed together for a novel on the marshals in charge of keeping the peace. Titled “Chasing the Bad Guys,” a reference to Fountain and Mather’s “Chasing the Dream” series about gold mining in the county, the book charts the life of each Breckenridge town marshal from 1881 to 1923.
Mather first came to Breckenridge in 1975 to ski with her family and then came back in 1980 to complete her doctoral dissertation for the University of Oregon on physical geography, a “kissing cousin” of geology. She’s written over 20 books on the history of the county and is the namesake of the Dr. Sandra F. Mather Archives in Breckenridge.
Meanwhile Fountain, a California native with a background in managing Big O Tires stores, first came to the county in 1988. He was “bit” and starting getting into researching and collecting documents.
“I’ve known Sandie for quiet awhile,” said Fountain, “and we were talking one day and she said she couldn’t do anymore research, her eyes just wouldn’t do it. I had been researching for say, 25 years, and I love transcribing old original stuff. … She’s a writer, and I’m not, so why don’t we team up? The first book we did is about French Gulch. That started it.”
Together, with Fountain’s research and Mather’s writing skills, the two have written five books on mining and this is their first time straying from the subject. The idea for “Chasing the Bad Guys” happened when then-police chief Dennis McLaughlin reached out to Fountain in 2017 inquiring about former chiefs and marshals, the old name for the job. Rather than simply draft up a list, Fountain dug deep on the lives of the officers.
“I was hooked. I called Sandie and said ‘I believe we have a book here.’”
“I knew he was going to say that,” Mather said. “I could bet money he was going to say that.”
The book is organized marshal by marshal, starting with Samuel Blair as the original, and details their lives, notable crimes and other pertinent facts. Some chapters are more than 50 pages long, while Charles Marion Drake has only two pages in his. But it was important for the authors to include everyone they could rather than focus on the bigger names. “We want to document history,” Fountain said. “This was to get all of it. It wasn’t to just get the best stories. It was to document. The stories that are the fun reads are more like a novel. The others may be a little boring.”
“We wanted them all in there,” Mather added.
It also includes breakout boxes of relevant contextual information not exactly tied to specific marshals. Readers will find passages on the building of the schoolhouse that is now the Breckenridge library, when cement sidewalks replaced boardwalks and The Big Snow Winter of 1898. Most of the images — taken with early consumer cameras rather than professional equipment — haven’t been published before and the two paired the pictures with the marshals to give people the sense of seeing the town the same way the marshals did.
It took roughly a year and a half to complete through researching old newspapers online, traveling to the Denver Public Library to examine microfiche and using Ancestry.com to fill in biographical gaps. They would send drafts to each other — neither one live in the county full time — until the book was complete and released in June.
“We might go back and forth 20 times,” said Fountain. “It’s a process.”
An interesting story in the book that’s a favorite of Fountain falls under the purview of Herbet Howard Vogan, who was marshal from 1900 to 1902. In 1901, Vogan investigated a murder that happened in broad daylight on Lincoln Avenue involving a man named Truman H. Thompson shooting John W. Keenan. Vogan arrested Thompson, the two stopped for a drink at the saloon before transporting him to jail, and Thompson eventually was acquitted. The jury, all male, felt that the murder was justified because Keenan was sleeping with Thompson’s divorced wife.
“Chasing the Bad Guys” also includes Pug Ryan, one of the more infamous characters that robbed the Denver Hotel and is the name behind Pug Ryan’s Brewery. When researching that particular tale through old newspapers from around the state, Fountain found that “there’s more stories in the outlining details than what was reported in Breckenridge.”
The book covers the transition of titles from “marshal” to “police chief” and though it ends in 1923, there likely won’t be a sequel follows up from 1923 into the modern era. “It isn’t a matter of history or not,” Fountain said. “Everything is history. Yesterday is history. This is the book that we wanted to tell. The fun stuff is here. What this has in it is the murders, the robberies, the other stuff. Some of these have been told before, but I guarantee you, not in the depth like we’ve done here. It’s a moot point to take it any farther.”
However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any work left to be done. Through writing this book, Fountain discovered that Blair, Breckenridge’s first town marshal, doesn’t have a headstone in the Valley Brook Cemetery. He had assumed he was buried in Pasadena, California, where Blair resided before his death, but then learned Blair was cremated and laid to rest with his wife and child in Breckenridge. There is no mention of Blair — who also held the titles of police magistrate and justice of the peace — on their double headstone. Fountain is working to correct this and is tentatively planning to have a new headstone erected next summer.
Fountain and Mather hope “Chasing the Bad Guys” inspires a new generation of historians to document and preserve Summit County’s storied past. “There’s really about half a dozen, say, serious historians over in Breckenridge,” said Fountain. “I’m the youngest, and I’m 73.”
Mather, who believes this may be her last year returning to the county in the summer due to respiratory issues, wonders who will carry the torch.
“There are parts of this county we’ve not covered,” Mather said. “Somebody is going to have to come after us and do the Lower Blue. … My dissertation covered the beginnings of Copper, but someone should take that area and continue it. Same way over into the Snake. … Somebody is going to come after us and I’m hoping what we’ve written will be the impetuous to start with what we did and go from there.”
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