Colorado Experience: Courthouses
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Colorado Experience: Courthouses

August 11, 2019


– The courthouses
across Colorado are much more than
judicial landmarks. Their geographic locations
represent power, land status, and permanence. Hi, I’m John Ferrugia. In this episode of
Colorado Experience, visit three
courthouses differing in style, composition,
and legend, that have one thing in common. They created edifices of
order, in what was once, called the Wild West. And now, Colorado
Experience: Courthouses. – Courthouses are a
sign of permanence in these volatile
boom town communities. They tell the world, we plan
to be around for a while. – This courthouse is a
microcosm of our history. – What is the role of
a courthouse today? It is a place where you can see
human aspiration to think hard and carefully about choices. – Courthouses symbolize justice. They symbolize the
fact that you will get a fair shake in Colorado. – This program was funded by
the History Colorado State Historical Fund. – Supporting projects
throughout the state to preserve, protect,
and interpret Colorado’s architectural and
archaeological treasures. History Colorado
State Historical Fund, create the future,
honor the past. – With support from the
Denver Public Library, History Colorado, with
additional funding and support from these fine organizations
and viewers like you. Thank you. [music playing] – The atmosphere in
Colorado, before the era of the courthouse builders
was terribly chaotic and disturbingly violent. And other times,
just people trading, people doing stuff,
people figuring out how to negotiate with each
other, tribal societies with a good sense of
order and with a sense how you deal with people who aren’t
performing as they ought to. – The Pike’s Peak Gold
Rush was an amazing time. Tens of thousands, maybe
hundreds of thousands of people rushed into Colorado within the
space of a couple of summers. Colorado went from a
European-American population of a very, very few to
almost 40,000 by 1860. And they brought with
them a lot of traditions, but what they didn’t bring was
a stable sense of law and order. – And there’s a bunch
of strangers in here and they’re just trying
to figure each other out. – Colorado was, in
fact, part of four different Western territories. Each, which had a
competing jurisdiction over different parts of
what would become our state. And so, miners really
were on their own devices at the beginning. And in order to
institute law and order they had to
improvise and come up with miners courts
or vigilante groups. – Vigilantes were a common theme
in the mountain towns, mining towns. People didn’t think that
the law acted quickly enough and often took matters
into their own hands. – It’s all well and good
for a vigilante group to go after accused murders and
shave off half of their hair, kick them out of
town, or hang them. But what if that
group loses control? There’s no check to that
kind of vigilante authority. That’s why we need courts. Courts are essential to
adjudicate property disputes, to enforce laws and regulations,
to provide a sense of fairness to the accused. And without those
systems in place, you’re teetering just on
the wrong side of anarchy in Colorado’s early pioneer
communities. Gold miners
brought with them was a really strong
sense of local government and self-sovereignty. We can set up our own
institution of government. The miners courts usually
recruited local attorneys to come in. They might adopt some rules
from another state or territory. But the courts themselves,
were held in whatever building was available. Mining communities
inparticular were so volatile that people didn’t think to
build a court house right away. – And in fact, the mining camp
might not last long enough to be worth the investment. – Statehood is really the
tipping point for, OK, now we’re going to do it. And we’ll make it
clear that this a place where we are settling in and
taking ourselves seriously as a civic community. So Lake City was part of that. We are here and it’s
going to be a boom. And we’re going to
be here for a spell. It’s going to go well. – Hinsdale County is located
right in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Certainly not an easy place
to get into and out of. – It’s the most remote
county in the lower 48 states due to the lack of access. Lake City’s origins go
back to its initial cabin, which was built here by Enos
Hotchkiss, in August of 1874. He was building a toll
road through this area. And he discovered a rich
mine in the process, called the Hotchkiss Mine,
which was later renamed, the Golden Fleece. And that had rich
silver and gold in it. And when news of that got
out, it caused a stampede. Lake City immediately went
from a couple hundred people to 4,000 people. The residents who moved here
planted trees along the street. And as we know, people
who would plant trees, would expect to be here a while. Schools were established. We had five churches
within a very short time. That’s not to say that we didn’t
have other entertainment as well. There were a large saloon
and red light district. So as part of that
development, we had a courthouse from
the very earliest years. – The Hinsdale County
Courthouse is interesting, because it represents a stage in
the evolution of mining camps. The first stage of
a mining community is usually a city of
tents and log cabins that might only last until
the gold and silver runs out. But if the town survives
that first stage, town builders usually
try to start building a more stable community. And they start building out
of frame structures. – The courthouse was
built in June of 1877. Probably considered a temporary
structure at that time. That once Lake City boomed
and we doubled our population again, we would have a
stone or a brick courthouse. That boom never came though. – For most of the
folks engaged in that, this was going to be
a really big deal. This county was going to be it. – The Hinsdale County
Courthouse sort of represents the evolution of Lake City
and how it was really only in the second stage, the
semi-stable stage of mining camp development. – The courthouse,
when it was built, was one of the larger
structures in Lake City. – It’s a beautiful building. You can see in historic photos,
the two stories was a big deal. The whiteness of the
courthouse was a big deal. It’s also unique,
in the fact that it is wood frame, Italianate
construction and architectural design. That’s unique, in
the state where a lot of our big
iconic buildings were made of stone or brick. – They were so eager to move in
that they sent out invitations for a grand ball that was going
to be held in the upstairs court room. The complication however, in
1877, there’s no railroad. Everything had to be shipped
in by ox cart and wagon. When they sent out
the invitations for this grand ball, weeks after
they’d started the building, they didn’t realize that
the windows hadn’t arrived. So they went ahead and
had an orchestra up here and people in their
finery showed up. There were carriages
that lined up outside. And the ball did take place. But it was without windows. So it was a little bit drafty. – Pioneer courthouses
were, in every sense, a community center. It was a place to
see and be seen. It was a place to do business
and to participate in politics. – People who would
cast their ballots or come to this
courthouse for a trial would start days in advance
before they actually arrived. – They braved snow
storms and mountain passes that were closed. And once they were
here, they would tend to stay for a few days. Hence, you do your shopping,
you do your entertainment. And this was the social center. – Colorado became
a state in 1876. And one of the
provisions of statehood was that Colorado
would, very quickly, hold a referendum on whether
or not to grant women the right to vote. – The editor of
the Silver World, was well acquainted
with Susan B Anthony. He invited her to come to Lake
City on September 19, 1877. She arrived here, somewhat
dusty and careworn after riding side saddle
for 81 miles from Del Norte. And the next day, went
to work on the notes for a two-hour speech. That speech was scheduled
in the upstairs courtroom. – The response was overwhelming. – Two hours before the
speech was to be delivered, it was packed. – It overflowed the
courthouse and they had to actually move
her remarks outside. – As many as 300 people, a fair
number of women, majority men, lined up outside in the cool
evening hours on September 20th to hear Susan B. Anthony. She spoke for two hours. Hinsdale County voters politely
listened with rapt attention. – And it was inspirational
enough to get some of the men in the audience to agree to
support women’s suffrage. However, suffrage
failed in 1877. – Among those 300 men that were
in the audience that night, was a young attorney by the
name of J. Warner Mills. Mills was inspired
by her speech. Mills ended up in
Denver in the 1890s. And Mills is credited as the
author of the Colorado Equal Rights Amendment. We were the second state
to pass women’s suffrage. And that was in 1894. But from the Lake City
perspective, we inspired that. Because he was
among the audience that night on
September 20th, 1877. The courthouse has been the
scene of many great trials through the years. One of the best known,
was in April of 1883 when Alferd Packer,
who was accused of killing five
companions in 1874, was tried in this courtroom. This was his first trial. He happened to be in
Utah in November of 1873 when there was news
of big mineral strikes that were taking place
in Colorado Territory. Packer and five
other men headed up the Lake Fork, which was a wild
and unknown area at that time. And certainly not one to
be traversed in January and February of 1874. The next we know, is
that Packer, by himself, without those five men, show up
at the Los Pinos Indian Agency, apparently well-fed
and suspiciously having more money
than he started with, as well as having the guns
that belong to his companions. And it was in August of 1874,
that unsuspecting individuals came across the bodies
of those five men. They were hurriedly
buried, but it was noted that the flesh had
been systematically removed from those bones. Packer was immediately
jailed in Saguache. He escaped, however. And it wasn’t until 1883, that
he was recaptured in Wyoming, brought to Lake City,
and put on trial. He wasn’t charged
with cannibalism, as is often stated. He was charged with killing
those five fellow men. There wasn’t anything
particular on the books to keep you from
eating an individual. – He was found guilty of murder. He was sentenced to be hanged. – In the courtroom, we have on
display, the original judge’s declaration which ends with may
be hanged until you’re dead, dead, dead. Lake City was so excited
at the prospect of this, that they sent out invitation. And local women started
packing picnic lunches to go to Alferd
Packer’s hanging. – But then, he got
off on a technicality in that Hinsdale
County had not existed at the time of
the alleged crime. He was jailed in Gunnison until
1886 when he was tried again and was found
guilty at that time. And rather than
being hanged, he was sentenced to life inprisonment
in the Canon City penitentiary. – The Bent County
Courthouse stands proud in the town of Las
Animas in southeast Colorado. The story of this courthouse
is an interesting one, as the railroad dictated
a change of county seat prior to the construction
of this magnificent edifice. – When Bent County
was officially incorporated in 1870,
its original location was the community of Boggsville. A really interesting
multicultural community of cattle
ranchers and fur traders who had come together. The Bogg family and the
[? powers ?] family, really represented the
first county authority. But when the railroad
arrived in Las Animas, Boggsville’s fortunes
really declined. The county seat was moved
from Boggsville to Las Animas. – Wherever you go,
if you’re talking about the last few decades
of the 19th century, you are going to
encounter the force of the railroad in that story. Developers get to work. And they lay out towns. And then, a railroad
manager will say, we don’t want to go there. And so good luck to the town
founders who thought this is where it’s going to be. So adapting to nature,
that’s important. But adapting to railroad
companies’ wills, that’s just about as
important if you want to have a town that persists. – Bent County is in the
southeast corner of Colorado. There was some controversy
around the creation of the Bent County Courthouse. In the late 1880s,
southeastern Colorado was undergoing a land rush. As farmers began moving in
to southeastern Colorado to take up dry land farms
under the Homestead Act. – The construction
of the courthouse was approved in
1886 by the voters. Bent County was much
larger than it is today. So the voters in
Chadwell and LeHunt and all those
communities voted yes, to build a courthouse
in Las Animas. Now, on July 4th, of
the following year, 1887 was when the cornerstone
was laid for this building. But the story gets
very interesting when it was election time. Cheyenne Wells didn’t like
paying for a $30 round trip train ticket to
come to Las Animas to take care of county business. The local newspaper was
very, very aggressive in trying to promote change. In fact, they were successful. They changed from a
Democrat county commission to a Republican. So on July 9, 1888,
not this courthouse, but the courthouse that
served the county burned down. Now, that was six hours before
the Democrat commissioners would be turning all the records
over to the new administration. So we had no county
records at that time. The courthouse though,
was finished being built in November of 1888. The furniture was
received in March. And that’s when the county
began occupying this building. Also, at that exact
same time, the state legislature changing
sides in Bent County. Bent County was separated into
a number of other counties. In fact, 13 new
counties were created in southeastern
Colorado in 1889. Those other counties’ residents
had to pay taxes though, to repay the bonds for
this courthouse, which was a bitter pill
for them to swallow. But they had in fact, supported
it and were obligated. So a lot of our neighbors paid
for the Bent County Courthouse. Much to their dislike. – They talk about
grain elevators as being the cathedrals
of the planes. You can see these edifices
from a long way away. But on the Great
Plains, the building with the next most stature
is the county courthouse. These buildings rise
up out of the prairies. They represent the
stability of government. They represent the
aspirations of the community. The Bent County Courthouse is
a particularly good example. It’s a monumental building. It has elements of
Greek architecture. It stands there on the plains
as a monument to stability and authority and democracy. – Law enforcement and local
government in the 1880s was very much, if you look
back, there were murders. There was dishonesty. Just like we have today. – But I don’t know
that it was entirely necessary to build a structure
exactly like this one. The folks in
Cheyenne Wells, that’s exactly what they
were complaining about. That the folks in
Las Animas were taking advantage of the
taxpayers in the rest of the county. So whether it was necessary
to build something like this, I’m not certain. But I’m glad they did. The Bent County
Courthouse was actually built utilizing local
sandstone from a quarry nearby and also local brick. Ultimately, the brick that is
on the exterior of the building came from St. Louis. The locally manufactured
brick wasn’t hard enough to withstand water.
It wanted to crumble. We have the writings
of a young lady. She writes in her memoirs
that she attended a dance here on New Year’s Eve, 1888. And they dance in every room
throughout the courthouse. There was a big celebration. And that was the opening
of the courthouse. We do know, the
courthouse lawn area was used for community events. In 1921, there was a murder
out on one of the creeks here, outside of town. Two guys were
fighting over water. Which isn’t uncommon
in Colorado. One man shot the other,
Mr. Hammond was his name. He died. But what we found
in the minutes was, the county commissioners had
paid the local Ford Dealer in 1921 to disassemble
a Model T Ford, bring it up into this
room, and reassemble it as part of the evidence. The fellow who shot him was
actually found not guilty. – In isolated areas, such
as the County of Ouray, vigilantes often took the
law into their own hands. After Colorado territory
transformed into a state, and mining claims
ruled city conflict, a need for established
order became apparent. – Ouray was a silver
mining community that dates back to the 1870s. And it was named after one of
the leading chiefs of the Utes Uncompahgre Ute leader, Ouray. Ouray is situated in a
beautiful mountain valley. It’s the home of
the Ute Indians. They spent their summers in
Ouray and up in the mountains above Ouray. And their winters down in
the Uncompahgre Valley. The miners themselves, were
very sensitive to the fact that they were interlopers on
land that was traditionally claimed by the Ute people. – The first settlers
arrived in the early 1860s. They were prohibited
from coming here, but of course, they were
seeking gold and silver. And they came anyway. – It was originally
started as a mining town. There are a lot of mines up
in the hills around here. – The town of Ouray
was founded in 1876. – Ouray, originally, had
up to 5,000 or more people, as inhabitants. There was a red-light district. There was a financial
district, mine assay offices. There were multiple
grocery stores. There was a hospital, a school. – Between 1876 and when the
courthouse was built, in 1888, the county rented rooms in
various buildings around Ouray. The citizens of the county
were unhappy about having to go to two or three different
buildings to do their business. And so they petitioned the
county to build a courthouse. – So the courthouse was
built out of necessity. – The Solid Muldoon campaigned
for building of a courthouse. And the editor
would shame the town for not having this
imposing building that would ensure the permanence
of Ouray for many, many years to come. – And in 1888, in
April, the county passed a bond issue for
$20,000 to build a courthouse. – Well, it does speak to
the prosperity of Ouray in the 1880s. The voters were willing
to vote to use their tax money to pay for a very
expensive county courthouse. Ouray. In the late 1880s, was at
the peak of its silver boom. And so probably,
local residents felt that they could easily afford to
build a building with stability and security. – Historically, this courthouse
is an architectural gem. It was designed by the
same architects who built the Beaumont
Hotel, which is also a prominent building in Ouray. – And the courthouse contract
was awarded to Francis Carney. Francis was a resident of Ouray. And he had a big edge
up on the other people who submitted contracts, because
he owned a brickyard in Ouray. And the railroad had come to
Ouray in December of 1887. All the wood furnishings
came into Ouray by train. And the courthouse was finished
and occupied in March of 1888. – That kind of more formal
architecture for a courthouse, is certainly a way of
saying, we’re here. – When the building
was first built, it was the biggest
building in town. – The chairs inside
the courtroom have some wires on them. And there’s some wire
underneath the seats. Those were used for cowboy hats. Take your cowboy hat
off, turn it upside down and slide it into the
wires underneath the seats. – When the courthouse
was first built, the Ouray Volunteer
Fire Department was in the courthouse. They had these large carts
that contained the hoses and had pumps on them. And they were horse-drawn. The carts were stored in this
building on the ground floor. Horses would have been stored
at a livery stable in town. And so when there
was a fire alarm, the men would have
gotten the horses, brought them over
to the courthouse, hitched them up to the horse
carts, and gone to the fire. – One of the great things
about these little Colorado towns like Ouray is that
they attract Hollywood. The courthouse in Ouray
served as one of the sets for the John Wayne
movie, True Grit. – I started my over 46 years
in law enforcement in 1968 on the police
department in Montrose. That was the year that
True Grit was made. And the movie company hired us
on our days off to do security. There’s probably
95% of the movie was filmed in the
Ridgway, Ouray area. – The courthouse
scene in True Grit was filmed right
in this building. – And when John Wayne leaves
the courtroom and he starts down the stairs and he stops to
roll a roll-your-own cigarette and that’s on a landing
on the stairway down here. He goes on down the
stairs and walks out through the front doors. And through the
magic of movies, when he walks through
the doors, he walks into the park in Ridgway. It makes it look like this
courthouse is in Ridgway. – If you are
resident here, that’s a really, really funny scene. – It just really speaks to
the time capsule quality of towns like Ouray that so
much of the built environment is authentic to the
frontier period. That it feels
authentic for Hollywood to come out and
use these as a set. – When John Wayne
goes somewhere, people pay attention. The Hollywood
filmmakers knew what they were doing when they
picked the Western locale. We don’t go to see mid-westerns,
we don’t go to see southerns. We go to see Westerns. – In a state where the
Wild West was conquered by civility and order, modern
day conveniences, aesthetic, and the temptation
of the new, resulted in the destruction of numerous
historical structures. Many who honor the structural
symbolism of the past, are actively preserving
tangible buildings for future generations. – Not every Colorado
community has preserved its original courthouses. They’ve been lost to fires or
neglect or become outdated. But the communities that still
host their original courthouses can look at their
system of government and see the continuity
that takes place over time. – Historic courthouses
are remarkable, three dimensional
invitations into the past. To walk over the
threshold, literally is to go in the footsteps
of our predecessors. – The courthouse in
Ouray helps contribute to the historical significance
of that community. – The building is
remarkable, in that, it looks almost exactly
like it looked when it was completed in 1888. – To have a building that still
functions 125 years later, in its original intent,
and is capable of being run as the county nerve
center, is unique. – The original brick
has been painted over red. That’s the only change to the
outside of the courthouse. Inside the courthouse,
there’s some electronics that have been added over the years. But the furniture, the
seating in the courtroom is the same as it was
when it was built. – Ouray is a national
historic site. And this courthouse is one
of the premier structures in the county. People really, can
only appreciate history when they’ve become enmeshed in
the buildings and the sights. – There’s a grant application
to restore the courthouse to its original. That includes taking the
paint off of the ceiling. They painted over, what they
call wallpaper or stencil. And they’ve taken some paint
off to see what’s under it. It really looks interesting. – Our plan is to repair the
exterior to its original form and also, make sure that
the interior is fitted out to carry the county forward
into the next 125 years. – And the courthouse
in Hinsdale County really shows us our hardscrabble
origins and how important it was to build symbols of
civic government and democracy in volatile mining communities. – The fact that
the building never burned, that we have a
courthouse that dates to 1877, we’ve never lost
any of our records. – In Lake City, there are
certain buildings that define how the community looks. The Hinsdale County Courthouse
is an iconic building in our community. – As a centerpiece of Lake City
in Hinsdale County history, it’s important to bring
this building back to its original appearance. – In 2010, we spent
a year working with architects and
engineers to determine all of the needs of the building. And so what we found,
was a critical issue of our courthouse sinking,
especially on three sides, and floor joists
beginning to rot. That made the courthouse project
rise to the top of the list for the Hinsdale
County commissioners. For us, in Lake City,
there’s no separation between restoring and embracing
the heritage in our lives today. It’s part of the
charm of Lake City. – And a courthouse
like the Bent County Courthouse is an architectural
gem in this rural community. – It’s the largest
building in Las Animas and maybe even in Bent County. But for many years, it
was not well maintained. – The county assessor came to
the commissioners and said, you know, I really need to
do something in our office. And one of the towers
was pulling away from his office a little bit. It was in horrible shape. We were in a situation
where we either needed to build
something somewhere else or preserve this structure. So ultimately, what turned
out to be a renovation of one office, turned into
a complete renovation It had not truly
had a good sprucing up since the very beginning. This project was done to
preserve a historic landmark. But it was also
our intent to make sure we had a building that met
the needs of modern America. And it would serve our community
many years into the future. – As Colorado’s
historic courthouses continue to act as the
judicial focal point of their communities,
they serve as a reminder of Colorado’s growth
and transformation since first becoming
the Centennial State. – To walk in those footsteps
and to walk into those buildings is to be, not exactly
in the company of the people of the past,
but it’s really a big series of steps in that direction. – Having the opportunity
to have something that represents the
history of Colorado. And the history of
Southeast Colorado is extremely important. With the renovation of this
building and the landscaping work we’ve done. It’s a landmark on Highway
50 that we’re very proud of. – The courthouse Hinsdale
County is the oldest courthouse that’s still used for
its original function on the Western
slope of Colorado. It’s an integral feature of the
Lake City historic district. – It’s important to preserve
the Hinsdale Courthouse, because it illustrates
a 19th century way of life that has vanished. This courthouse is a
microcosm of our history. – The hope is that we
continue to use our courthouse for at least 140 more years. – The chairs that
still furnish this room are the same chairs that
spectators to Susan B. Anthony or to the Packer trial sat in. The judge’s bench
is the same bench that Judge Gerry delivered
the guilty verdict of Packer in 1883. This building embodies the
most perfect representation of our county and
town’s history. – The county courthouse
is an iconic building in the city of Ouray
and for Ouray County. – And the fact that the
building is still used shows the citizens of Ouray are
very proud of this building. – As long as this
town is in existence, this courthouse will be used. – We always have
needed courthouses in the volatile mining
past or in our present day. Courthouses represent
the order that we all depend on in order to live
in a place like Colorado. [music playing]

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  1. I grew up in Las Animas.. I watched the renovation of the Bent County Courthouse.. I really wish you could of shown the jail house that sits next to it as well.

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