Mining camp myths and prurient interests
Aspen Times Weekly
Mining camps and the cities that grew from their profits are chronicled mostly by two kinds of narratives: rags to riches stories and soiled doves’ tales. General histories filled with pages of photographs entertain, but few sell. Detailed descriptions of precious mineral extraction, the lives of average citizens, and social trends remain rare. Page-turner pamphlets about prostitutes predominate, although their contents mostly maintain myths. Prurient interests prevail.
Mining camp prostitutes, as presented by popular literature, are blessed with beauty, show kind-hearted care for others and flaunt flamboyant personalities. Reality for these denizens of the red-light districts did not match the myth. Many suffered poor health, involving venereal disease, alcoholism and opium addiction. They lived lonely lives of forced isolation, family shame, local notoriety and self-loathing.
Every mining camp had its red-light district. Western settlements coped with male-to-female ratios of five to one at best, and saloons outnumbered churches. A prospector easily parted with his gold dust. Gambling, drinking and prostitution distracted miners from bedbugs, drafty cabins and muddy streets. Mining camps grew into burgeoning cities when mines employed hundreds of laborers. Communities became more family oriented, but the red-light districts remained.
Aspen, a late-comer mining town, did not endure a long, illustrious “camp” period that would generate soiled-dove stories, although invented tales entertained early skier tourists. It did, however, support a sex-trade quarter that was frequented and protected by bachelor miners and loathed by families.
Victorian standards prevailed in Aspen. A “good” lady adhered to many expectations. Family women and young girls were largely confined to their homes. Local temperance and suffragette movements attracted strong followings that advocated restrictions on alcohol and Victorian sexual restraint. Their goals included limiting the number of saloons and their hours. They ran prostitutes out of town and severely confined their presence. With booze and bed shut down at home, some Victorian men took their entertainment elsewhere.
Aspen’s 1886 ordinances were typical of their day. Women were not allowed to dance anywhere liquor was sold. Use of opium was banned. Indecent exposure was a crime. Soliciting by prostitutes was a misdemeanor subject to a $10 fine. But, as was the case in more than 140 American cities that allowed prostitution, these ordinances were not consistently enforced.
Red light districts occurred in the low-rent areas of a city, usually located near male employment centers or where traveling men congregated. In Aspen, the cribs were at the base of the mountain on Durant Avenue, where men passed through on their way to the mines, near the Midland railroad station, and close to hotels like the Clarendon on Mill Street, where traveling salesmen passed through each day.
Before the railroads reached town, residents tolerated prostitution, but after trains transported visitors to Aspen, the truce ended. In 1888, an Aspen Daily Times editorial complained, “But while the general public is willing to wink at the infraction of the law, it demands that this evil be secluded, and that the creatures who live such lives not obtrude themselves upon the public gaze.” The editor went on to observe that, “The first thing a stranger sees upon arriving in the city at that depot is the signs of prostitution, the half-clad women standing at the windows and doors of the houses. Nearly all the way to the hotel the same sort of a scene is presented, and the impression gained of the city is one that is most unfavorable.”
Aspen’s district moved to less obtrusive locations while the women’s suffrage and temperance groups slowly drove prostitution underground. The progressive movement in the first decades of the 1900s ended legal prostitution for Los Angeles in 1913, for Denver in 1915 and for San Francisco in 1917. Some predominantly male mining towns ignored state laws until the beginning of World War II.
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