Boys Gone Wild

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On the twenty-sixth day of July, year ninety-one,
The drinking community of this town was undone,
On complaint of the parson, by order of the Judge,
All thirsty old topers were deprived of their budge,
An eye-opener, a cocktail, a plain morning dram
Was denied the bum, the boss, and the hard-working man.

-- From an August 1, 1891, editorial in the Summit County Journal protesting Colorado's newly enacted Saloon Law.

The boys of Breckenridge have always behaved badly. Ever since Colorado's early mining days, the town has been overrun with men who like to drink and have a good time.

Before there was a town, the Blue River Valley was home to the Utes. But when gold was discovered, a rush of non-natives soon arrived. General George Spencer, an early Western pioneer, founded "Breckinridge" in 1859, naming it after then-United States vice president John Breckinridge in the hopes of wooing the administration to open a post office in town -- an undertaking that proved successful. But when the Civil War began, it became clear that the vice president's sympathies lay with the South, and Breckinridge became a general in the Confederate army. Embarrassed by their association with the politician, who was ousted for treason by the U.S. Senate, the townspeople changed the spelling of the community's name to Breckenridge.

Main Street quickly emerged as the center of social life for miners in the surrounding camps, and Breckenridge became the Summit County seat. By 1880, the town boasted approximately 2,000 residents, eighteen saloons, three dance halls, numerous gambling halls and plenty of prostitutes.

The mostly male population was prone to fighting -- over girls, gambling debts or out of plain old drunken stupidity. "About twenty years ago, two gentlemen, who were in every respect valuable citizens, quarreled about some trifle -- I've forgotten what, but it resulted in a challenge to mortal combat," reads a letter penned in the 1880s and cited by Mary Ellen Gilliland in her book Summit: A Gold Rush History of Summit County, Colorado. "They agreed to fight with hatchets, thirty paces apart.... The evening before the fight was to come off, one of them received a letter from his mother, in which she informed him that his antagonist was the son of her dearest friend, and she hoped the boys would love each other like brothers. This letter brought about a reconciliation, and they are still living, both filling prominent positions in other states."

When students from Princeton University visited Breckenridge in 1877 as part of a scientific expedition, they were shocked by the rough Western culture they found. Gilliland quotes from the students' account of their trip in her book: "We have spent some very queer days out here, but this beats them all. To get out of the reach of the noise was impossible, and you might think that there was a den of wild animals being fed, or something worse. We heartily recommend Breckenridge as being the most fiendish place we ever wish to see," they noted. "We were forced to spend the morning and afternoon in the company of men whose language was vile, and whose actions were tinged with a shade of crime that shocked and hurt our senses; never did anything so bestial and so unworthy even a mention by manly lips happen before our eyes."

In 1891, a Methodist minister sought to put an end to the town's drunken debauchery by pressuring the sheriff to enforce the new statewide Saloon Law, which required bars to shut down at midnight on weeknights and to be closed all day on Sunday. The townspeople revolted. Editors of local papers called the minister "unChristlike." Some men blew up his church bell by placing dynamite in the belfry, while others hung him in effigy after he insisted on closing the town's faro and poker tables. The Saloon Law was obeyed for a while, but Breckenridge authorities eventually stopped enforcing it.

Although Victorian sensibilities were introduced to the town later in that prosperous decade -- the few ladies there sipped tea from china cups in carpeted parlors while men became active in the Masons and hosted formal balls -- Breckenridge maintained its raucous reputation. In 1955, the Summit County Journal ran a series of stories on the town's history. One article headlined "Where There's Gold There's Gunsmoke" told of the murder of a saloon keeper on Main Street in 1898; a doctor shot the man dead because he suspected the saloon keeper of flirting with his wife. A grocer murdered a bartender on the very same block of Main Street a few years later for the very same reason.

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon