Saloons caused clashes during the mining days
Part 1 of a three-part historical series leading up to this weekend’s Kingdom DaysBRECKENRIDGE – Today, ski shops and coffee bars cram the streets of Breckenridge. A century ago, saloons packed those same streets, welcoming men as they trudged home from the mines.For most newcomers, it’s hard to imagine Breckenridge as anything but a resort town. But beneath a thin layer of paint and a bit of pavement lie stories not of a recreation haven, but of the Wild West.Breckenridge sprung up shortly after the discovery of gold in 1859 along the Blue River, and with it came the customary things associated with such a town: more miners, a post office, preachers and handfuls of saloons.Miners worked long hours in cold, dark, claustrophobic conditions. Many of their wives and children lived elsewhere, especially during the early years.Saloon after saloon cropped up as mines began to prosper, providing places for men to unwind and spend their new-found income. The debauchery of Western lore likely existed just as much here as it did in other mining towns and camps. However, in the decades immediately following the discovery of gold, saloons functioned as much more than the bars we’re familiar with today, said Sandra Mather, Breckenridge historian and author of “Behind Swinging Doors”.”So many people think of the movies and the cowboy pictures, and that very often is distorted,” she said.The saloons did offer spaces to drink, dance and gamble. But during Breckenridge’s infancy, they also provided sites to discuss civic matters, conduct business, vote, seek medical attention and arbitrate disagreements, Mather said. They served as places of worship where itinerant ministers preached. They served as employment agencies and libraries.But as the town exploded over the next two decades, saloons lost many of their functions beyond serving alcohol and offering gambling spots.”Those roles that the saloon had started began to disperse to the church, the courthouse, the lodge hall, because you could get what you needed elsewhere,” Mather said.The rowdiness associated with saloons drew more than just a bawdy crowd, some of whom were women. Methodist preachers in Breckenridge, such as the infamous Rev. Florida Passmore, voiced their distaste for the alcohol and gambling that seemed to consume the men’s lives.More women, mostly miners’ wives, were also making their way to town, and they wanted their husbands home at night, Mather said. They set about trying to make the community a better place, one of Victorian ideals.At the same time, a national temperance movement began to brew. On April 7, 1891, the state passed the Colorado Saloon Act, which closed saloons on Sundays and after midnight on weekends. Many disagreed with the regulation, some on the grounds of personal freedom and others because high saloon license fees and taxes provided a significant income to the town. “To close the saloons, you were disrupting a big part of the economic support of the town,” Mather said.But the Methodist preachers and many of the women saw the law as a step in the right direction. They fought to keep it enforced.For a short time they were successful, but by the next year, saloons were back open on Sundays.Methodist ministers raged against the evils of drink into the early 20th century, but by that time saloons had already passed their heyday and no longer served as the community’s only gathering spots.FootnotesThis article is based on interviews with Sandra Mather and her book “Behind Swinging Doors: The Saloons of Breckenridge and Summit County.” Sandra Mather, Ph.D., arrived in Breckenridge in 1980 to research her doctoral dissertation and has been hooked ever since. She has authored six books about Summit County and is working on her seventh. She is a professor emerita at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. Mather splits her time between Summit County and Southeastern, Pa. Rev. Passmore and the blown up bellThe Rev. Florida Passmore provoked perhaps the most violent clash between Methodist ministers and saloon frequenters in Breckenridge. Passmore campaigned against the drinking and gambling taking place in saloons and rallied the local sheriff to enforce the 1891 Colorado Saloon Act, which closed saloons on Sundays and after midnight on weekdays. Unfortunately for him, the town was ripe with dissenters, and his in-your-face tactics quickly backfired. Just two months after the law went into effect, someone scaled the Methodist Church belfry, affixed dynamite to the bell and blew it up.Undeterred, Passmore raged on, digging up the state’s long-forgotten 1866 anti-gambling act and trying to enforce it. His efforts failed. Eventually the Methodist Church grew tired of his crusades and tried him for insubordination. Soon after, he disappeared from historical record.Sources: “Blasted Beloved Breckenridge,” by Mark Fiester and “Summit: A Gold Rush History of Summit County, Colorado,” by Mary Ellen Gilliland.Julia Connors can be reached at (970) 668-4620.
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