The history of notorious outlaw Pug Ryan and the robbery at the Denver Hotel in Breckenridge
The history of Summit County is written largely on gold and snow.
Long before the resorts moved in and skiing became the dominant culture among residents living in “Colorado’s playground,” the county served as almost a perfect model in the tradition of the American frontier.
Prospectors flocked to the area in one of history’s greatest gold rushes, railroads began to emerge through the mountains, and mining camps rose and faded away as the world looked forward to the turn of the century. And of course there were outlaws.
Just before midnight Aug. 11, 1898, a group of heavily armed robbers entered the Denver Hotel in Breckenridge. Among them were Dick Manley, Dick Bryan, Fred Wilson and the gang’s leader, Arthur L. Scott — better known by his alias Pug Ryan. The target was the hotel safe, or rather the thousands of dollars owner Robert Foote was holding inside for others in safekeeping.
Things quickly went awry, perhaps setting a tone for the tragic events that played out over the next day. Upon entering the hotel’s gambling room, one of the bandit’s guns accidentally fired, alerting the crowd and turning the gang’s attention away from the safe and toward the patrons’ cash and jewelry.
“I think it didn’t go as Pug Ryan planned,” joked Dr. Sandra Mather, co-author of “Chasing the Bad Guys,” a historical dive into law enforcement in Breckenridge. “They had to stick with the people in the gambling room, knowing they were going to have to escape and have everyone come after them. Everything did not go as planned.”
Among those robbed was Foote, who lost a gold watch and borrowed diamond stick pin in the holdup. Foote offered a $100 reward for the robbers’ arrests, an incentive taken up by Ernest Conrad of the Rocky Mountain Detective Association. Conrad was deputized by Sheriff Jerry Detwiler and left in search of Ryan’s gang. Sumner Whitney, president of the local school board and owner of a saloon, joined him.
The two visited an abandoned miner’s cabin near Kokomo — now a ghost town north of Breckenridge — after learning four strangers were camped there. Conrad and Whitney questioned the men and left the cabin. But suspicion remained. They reentered the cabin again, and when Conrad asked to look under the blankets, Ryan and his gang fired.
Conrad was killed instantly. Whitney, despite a shattered leg and half an ear missing from gunfire, was able to kill Bryan and fatally wound Manley. Whitney succumbed to his injuries the next month in Leadville. His wife, Martha, went on to successfully run his saloon.
Wilson took off to Glenwood Springs after the shooting, and was captured two months later in Ouray County. Pug Ryan escaped with the stolen goods and wouldn’t resurface again until after the millennium.
Ryan was arrested in April 1902 in Seattle and extradited back to Breckenridge to await trial for the murders of Conrad and Whitney. A gaffe in jail arrangements put a pause to the proceedings.
“At that time, because he had killed Conrad, they were concerned he’d get lynched,” said Bill Fountain, local historian and co-author of “Chasing the Bad Guys.” “They’d have to put out extra guards in the jail, and this was going to cost them $5 to $6 a day. And the sheriff up in Leadville offered to do it for $1 a day. (Ryan) and three or four others managed to get a tiny, little saw, and they sawed the lock and escaped.”
Ryan escaped the Leadville jail June 1, but his plans to lay low were ill conceived. He went to his sister’s residence in Cripple Creek, where he was recognized and arrested again June 7. Ryan’s trial began a week later in Breckenridge.
During the trial, the defense argued that law enforcement had misidentified the man and that he was not Pug Ryan — despite a “PUG” tattoo on his arm. The argument didn’t hold up under scrutiny, as a number of witnesses attested to his identity, including the sheriff of Lake County, who recaptured him after his escape.
Ryan was convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to life in a Cañon City prison. The loot from the robbery wouldn’t be discovered for another few years.
In June 1908, two children playing in Kokomo near the cabin where the shooting took place discovered a couple of watches, chains, a revolver and the diamond stick pin Foote borrowed on the night of the robbery.
Ryan remained at the Cañon City Penitentiary for the rest of his life and died June 4, 1931. He was buried in the Greenwood Cemetery under the name of Louis Arthur Scott.
While the story of Pug Ryan, the robbery of the Denver Hotel and the shooting in Kokomo has managed to remain part of the county’s mythos as the incident passes its 121st anniversary, it’s hard to say why it stood out from other pieces of history to come out of the era. Perhaps, as Mather postulates, it’s a reminder of the role lawmen played in the formation of the community and why that’s so important.
“It’s the whole idea of how important law enforcement was to Breckenridge to keep people wanting to come live here,” Mather said. “If you had a lawless town, people wouldn’t come invest. … They didn’t take him out and lynch him. It was the rule of law, even back then, that was important. … There were other stories that were equally important. … In the flow of time, it’s just one everyone happened to know about. But there are others flowing through, too.”
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