Exploring the history beneath the streets in Old Colorado City

OLD COLORADO CITY, Colo. — It’s now a tourist hot spot but Old Colorado City wasn’t always as quiet and quaint as it is today.

Nearly 160 years ago, it was just the opposite – providing both women and men an alternative lifestyle, one that wasn’t necessarily accepted.

Founded in 1859 by a group of businessmen, Colorado City was once considered the Wild West. In a time before trains or railroads, pioneers looked to profit from those mining gold.

“So when we had hoped to make money off the gold miners there was something called the Civil War that interrupted so we finally struck gold when Colorado Springs did not allow alcohol,” said Suzanna Schorsch, the treasurer with the Old Colorado City Historical Society. “Our gold was served in a mug and it had a foam on the top of it and that’s how we kind of became known as the Wild West.”

Originally founded for the wealthy, Colorado Springs was considered “Little London” and that meant alcohol was forbidden.

“General Palmer didn’t like industry that much because it was noisy and dirty so we end up like this was a big blue collar town and it was just that way,” said Leo Knudson, who works on the maintenance committee with the Old Colorado City Historical Society.

Fast forward 20 years and the Denver Rio Grande and the Midland Railway come into existence. The miners waiting to board the train to Cripple Creek had a hold over time and Colorado City offered a way for men to occupy themselves.

“They’re going to have a drink or two,” said Schorsch. “So because whenever you have a saloon, you usually have working girls that come in and open up houses of ill repute you might say and you also have gambling. They just go hand and hand.”

In the roaring days of the late 1890s, Colorado City had 28 saloons within just two blocks. They operated 24/7 and men and women alike could come and go as they pleased.

“At first it wasn’t frowned upon,” said Schorsch. “It was just known but at the turn of the century in the 1900s it starts to be frowned upon because we had the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement come in and families were moving in and they wanted to clean up this side of town.”

In 1909, 6 churches pressured the city to limit the hours on the saloons. They were forced to close on Sundays and couldn’t open before 6 a.m. but the town, as wild as it was, found a way around the laws.

“If the gentleman would want to have a drink or go across the alley for other services, then all you had to do was go in the barber shop, go down to the basement, go through the tunnel, come up in a saloon, drink, gamble and it was kind of like a speak easy type situation,” said Knudson.

The tunnels were small and cave-like, providing men with a blanket of security and secrecy. To this day, it remains unknown how many tunnels were constructed, but the city knows of at least four.

“Maymie Majors brothel is still as it was in those days,” said Schorsch. “It’s a brick building. Next door to it was Laura Belle, our top madame in the city, but it is now a nursing home and there’s no sight of her house left.”

In a time where there wasn’t much of an opportunity to make a decent living, Laura Belle found a niche, running a gentleman’s club that brought in up to $500 a night.

“She had a parlor house which is a completely different picture of prostitution than many of us have had,” said Roberta Hardy, the President of the Old Colorado City Historical Society. “Her parlor house was lovely. It has Persian carpets, it had chandeliers, it had a dining area and a gambling area and of course, upstairs it had some other things.”

In 1913 the town went dry and the tunnels were no longer useful. Over time, both the saloons and brothels faded into history but remnants of a life led underground still exist.

“Colorado Springs actually ended up as a financial education center and Manitou was always known of course for its wellness, its spas so everybody else for their rough and rowdy entertainment came here,” said Knudson.

“We were colorful back then and we’re colorful now,” said Schorsch.

A building that still stands today is Thunder and Buttons, a popular bar and eatery.

The name behind the bar comes from a man named prairie dog John O’Bryne. He operated a hack service where he’d offer rides to folks traveling from Denver to Colorado City in his carriage.

Instead of using horses though, he had two elk and their names were Thunder and Buttons.

 

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