Territory Days: A Colorado City Tradition

Today marks the start of the 42nd annual Territory Days in Old Colorado City. The events at Territory Days span four city blocks of Colorado Avenue, from 23rd to 27th Streets, and last the three days of Memorial Weekend, this year May 27-29. Live music is featured every day at two stages, and vendors of all kinds line the blocks. Fun events like gold panning, train rides, an old-west shootout, Native American dance and drum demonstrations, magic shows, a petting zoo, and a Memorial Day Ceremony mark the start of summer for most local residents. For more information, maps and guides, go here.

Territory Days has kicked off summer events in the Pikes Peak region since 1975, hearkening back to the golden days when Colorado City was the center of Colorado Territory, way before statehood. Lots of great legends and stories give this area a rich, historic texture. Founded in 1859, Colorado City was the only large settlement between Denver and Pueblo, and because Colorado didn’t become a state until 1876, Colorado City, at its center, was promoted as the possible capital. In large part, Colorado City is why our state is named Colorado instead of Columbus, Franklin, Idaho, or San Juan.

Colorado City in 1862. (Credit: Penrose Library Digital Collection)

Colorado City in 1862. (Credit: Penrose Library Digital Collection)

In her book Colorado Gold Rush Days, Carrie Hunt Beard relates the story of the “Crimson Fire,” which destroyed Colorado City’s brothels in March of 1908. It was windy and cold, and at around 11:00 p.m., the fire started at Red M’s, a few blocks from the fire station, at the corner of Cucharras and 26th Street. The fire crew, led by a man named Jack Diamond, rushed out and started hosing down nearby buildings to quell the spread, but the wind carried the flames so that the entire district was soon engulfed. A local minister ran out into the street and declaimed the prostitutes, saying things like, “Thank God for this fire and the destruction of the red light district,” and insinuating that the fire was what these girls deserved. They stood around shivering and crying in small blankets, watching all they owned go up in smoke. Jack Diamond was so angry at the minister that he turned a fire hose on him, and “within a matter of seconds, he was a sheet of ice—á la ice statue.” It was below zero that night, so it must have taken quite a while to thaw him out. Although the minister left town shortly after his defrosting, the red light district was never fully rebuilt after the fire.

Laura Bell McDaniel, the most prominent Madam of Colorado City’s prostitution district, was known to spend quite a bit of time with John “Prairie Dog” O’Bryne, a guy who made his living transporting goods back and forth between Colorado City, Denver, and Cripple Creek. He was named “Prairie Dog” because he kept a prairie dog in a cage in the back of his wagon, which he would bring out and pet every once in a while. In the winter, Prairie Dog supplemented his hauling business by replacing his wagon’s wheels with sleigh runners and transport people up and down Colorado Avenue in his wagon, pulled by a pair of trained elk named Thunder and Buttons. So, if you’re wondering how the restaurant got its name, wonder no longer. Don’t worry: the elk burgers served there are made neither of Thunder nor Buttons.

Irving Howbert, who moved to the region as a boy, was elected in 1869 as El Paso County’s first Clerk. His office was in the back of the Territorial Building, where Senate and Legislature meetings were held and all county transactions took place. In his book Memories of a Lifetime in the Pike’s Peak Region, Howbert relates that when he arrived at work in the winter, the back room was so cold that the ink froze in the inkwell. His first order of business was to thaw it out so he could get to his paperwork. He eventually moved to a little log cabin next to the building, which, although it was not the first legislative building in Colorado City, still stands today.

By 1872, Colorado City was fast outgrowing Colorado Springs, due in large part to the Springs’ ban on liquor inside its limits. People who wanted to get a drink had to go to Colorado City to get it. As Colorado Springs grew, though, the promise of a new County Courthouse building lured the legislature toward the new city as the county seat. Colorado City and Colorado Springs sparred with one another for several years, each outgrowing the other, until Colorado City was finally incorporated into the Springs city limits in 1917.

Colorado City has evolved over the years into a tourist mecca, where those who wish to catch the city’s old-time atmosphere can enjoy a great view of the mountains while they wander through the shopping and restaurant district. At the corner of 25th and Colorado, turn and look west and you’ll still be able to tell the difference between the legitimate business buildings on the north side of the street and the illegitimate ones of the red light district on the south side. Victorian-era gentlemen who wanted to enjoy the company of a lady could’t be seen entering a house of ill repute, so tunnels were installed under the street so men could enter a business on the north side, like a bank, and travel incognito under Colorado Avenue to the brothel of his choice. Supposedly the tunnels are still there.

If you plan on attending the Territory Days celebrations, please be prepared for the weather, which could range from hot and sunny to wet and cold. Dress in layers, wear sunscreen, and drink plenty of water. Consider packing your own food or buying from a street vendor because the wait in line for seating in the local restaurants can be an hour or longer. Wear comfortable shoes since the walk to your car could be considerable if you don’t use the shuttle, which runs every few minutes from the Coronado High School parking lot. Thank our police force for their presence, and remember our fallen heroes this Memorial Day. Pikes Peak or Bust!

Photo By: visitcos.com