Aspen Times Weekly: The Soiled Doves of Durant
October 15, 2015
A month or so ago, I wrote an article for The Aspen Times about a court trial involving the Residence Hotel on Galena Street in downtown Aspen.
While reading through other stories written by Times' reporters on the topic, I noticed one that said the building the hotel occupies used to be a brothel back in Aspen's freewheeling silver mining days. Like many others, apparently, I thought this was an interesting fact and included it as the last sentence of my story.
The next day I received a somewhat exasperated email from Anna Scott, archivist at the Aspen Historical Society, telling me, in no uncertain terms, that I was wrong. While there were certainly brothels in Aspen back in the late 1800s, she said, they were not in the area of the Residence Hotel. In fact, they know exactly where these "houses of ill repute" were located because they have the records, Scott wrote.
"Not every Victorian structure in Aspen was a bordello," she said later.
“Parlor house girls are well-educated, well-bred, musically trained, excellent conversationalists and physical beauties,” Kimberly Rehfuss (right) tells audiences in her presentation as a madam and proprietor of one such house named “Mollie Ross.”
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Scott suggested I check with her in the future before publishing other historical facts about Aspen's buildings, especially any claiming prostitutional provenance.
Before replying, I checked with the reporter who wrote the story containing the erroneous fact. This reporter (who shall remain unnamed, though his initials are R.C.) could not remember where he came across that fact. So I wrote back to Scott, apologized for the bum fact and said I would definitely consult her on any future historical questions.
Then, as an afterthought, I asked where exactly Aspen's brothels were located back in the day. And just like that, an Aspen Times Weekly cover story was born.
Because, make no mistake, there were whores aplenty back in those days. And their role in the transformation of Aspen from a mining camp to a booming town, while perhaps not integral, was at the very least important.
IN THE BEGINNING
The first white settlers — miners — arrived in Aspen in the summer of 1879, according to the city of Aspen's website. They first called the town Ute City, then changed it to Aspen in 1880.
Thirteen years later, 12,000 people lived here (a little more than half that many people live here now), and the town boasted no less than six newspapers, electric lights and two railroads, according to the website.
Megan Cerise, an archive technician at Aspen Historical Society, noted that one of the factors in "Aspen's success/organization was timing."
"In terms of frontier towns and westward expansion, Aspen was on the later end, and the city planners knew exactly how they wanted the town organized, from the street layout to the designated area for the 'less desirable' businesses," Cerise said in an email. "They had a pretty good idea of how to create a successful town based on what worked and didn't work elsewhere.
"Prostitution happened to be one element of this equation."
With that in mind, city councilors passed a resolution in February 1885 that created a red-light district in the southeastern corner of town. The resolution decreed that "no house of prostitution, variety theaters, dance halls or concert halls" shall be founded in Aspen after March, 1, 1885, except in the area bounded by Galena Street on the west, the alley between Cooper and Hyman avenues on the north. The district southern boundary was probably Dean Street, though the eastern boundary was unclear, Scott said.
As prostitution was against state law, this resolution caused much hand-wringing among the local population over the years, but Aspen's red-light district hung on after the silver mining industry went bust in 1893, and newspapers make mention of it until about 1915.
Still, the indignation over the city council's 1885 action began immediately.
"The city council passed a resolution last evening that goes beyond anything in the history of incompetency," began an article in the Aspen Daily Times on Feb. 26, 1885. "Does our council mean to say where all the prostituting may be done in Aspen, when the State statute makes the keeping of such places a punishable crime?
"Is it possible that our city council will pass a resolution which throws the stigma of lewdness and infamy over a portion of our beautiful town in which portion so many of our most respectable and virtuous citizens live?"
The short answer was, "Yes," and it wouldn't be long before the area became notorious.
ASPEN'S 'RED LIGHT DISTRICT'
"Durant" — as in Durant Avenue, though it is often referred to as "Durant street" in newspaper articles of the day — became the code word for the city's raucous underbelly. Everyone knew that a "resident," "denizen" or "girl" of Durant was a prostitute. Newspaper writers coined colorful metaphors like "the gilded grottos of dizzy old Durant" and "the plumaged creatures who infest the jungles of Durant street."
Euphemisms were popular. Prostitutes were called "sporting women" or "fallen women." Brothels were called "houses of ill fame" or "sporting houses." The 1894 edition of the Board of Underwriters Insurance survey, which details the use of each building in town, refers to the addresses 501 through 533 of South Galena Street all as "ill fame."
When the railroads came to town in November 1887 and February 1888, the depot was located on Durant, and some Aspenites tried to urge their fellow citizens to dislodge the houses of prostitution because they gave new arrivals a bad first impression.
"Those people have possession (of Durant Avenue) and it has seemed to be their intention to hold it," declared the writer of a story in the Dec. 1, 1888 edition of the Aspen Weekly Times. "This, the people of Aspen will not stand."
But stand they did, and the gilded grottos of dizzy old Durant continued on.
By the 1900s, the area was generally known as the "red light district." An amusing piece from the Dec. 16, 1904 Aspen Democrat details the holdup of a man leaving "a joint in the red light district" with "a denizen of Durant" on his arm. The writer ridicules the robber for trying to steal from a man leaving the red-light district, who "most naturally couldn't dig up enough to buy a postage stamp."
"The holdup, however, was quite gallant and did not attempt to search the soiled dove," the article concludes. "If he had, he would (it is said) have found the roll in her hosiery. But instead of that, he slunk off into the darkness, and no doubt proceeded to kick himself.
"Fools are not all dead yet."
An article in the Aspen Democrat from Sept. 7, 1907, headlined "Curtail Limits of Red Light District" details the police department's efforts to "maintain intact the prescribed limits of the red light district by arresting those who plied their trade outside the barriers." If these limits are too restricting for "the devotees at the shrine of the rouge," they should be relocated to "the junction of Castle Creek and the Roaring Fork.
"The demi-monde octopus almost in the heart of our city is enough — its tentacles must be cut off."
A writer for the Aspen Democrat-Times in a story from June 18, 1910, took a different tack. Noting that police had been called to quell a "riot in the red light district" at 1 a.m. the night before that was "started by a number of our well-known and apparently 'popular' citizens," the writer essentially threatens these citizens with public humiliation.
This behavior needs to stop "before they gain police court notoriety, and then newspaper publicity, which would shock not only their families, but the whole community," the story concludes. "Stay home fellers, where you belong."
Even in 1915 — more than 20 years after the bottom fell out of the silver market and Aspen began dwindling in population — the city's houses of ill repute remained in business. A July 22, 1915, notice in the Aspen Democrat-Times headlined "How About The 'Red Light' District" urged the city council "to perk up a bit more and, in keeping with the state law, close the houses of easy virtue that still exist on Durant street."
The real reason the district hung on, even into Aspen's "Quiet Years," was simple: money.
CASH IS KING
Saloon keepers, gambling house owners and prostitutes dealt in a cash business. Thus, they were a reliable source of income for the town, and city leaders were likely loathe to give it up.
Even before the city council passed the 1885 resolution creating the red-light district, city leaders had already begun taxing the underbelly, though they took care never to call it a "tax," which would have implied that such activities were legal.
A "Town Government" column in the Rocky Mountain Sun, an Aspen newspaper, from Aug. 23, 1884 reported the town board's decision to "collect the sum of $25 each month from each saloon where gambling was carried on, and $5 from each prostitute in the camp."
But hold those horses, "an interested spectator" named "Mr. Plumb" then spoke up, saying the board's object should be to get rid of gambling rather than make money from it.
"This bit of political economy riled the town attorney," the article states, "who insisted that sentiment was good in sermon, but in a town government human nature must be handled differently: gambling cannot be suppressed, and consequently it should be made to bear some of the burdens of society, the majority of which it acted toward as an incubator."
Translation: Don't be so naïve, Mr. Plumb.
These payments eventually became known as "fines." Saloon owners and prostitutes would pay the cash to the town marshal at the beginning of the month, and the marshal would turn over the funds to the city treasurer.
For example, the July 12, 1892, edition of the Aspen Daily Chronicle recorded the presentation of a report from the town marshal at the "regular meeting of the city dads last night" that noted the collection of a total of $862 in fines — $562 for gambling and $275 for prostitution.
But despite the fact that prostitutes paid high fines, they often received little benefit from them, said Kimberly Rehfuss, a local actress who plays a madam in Aspen Historical Society presentations and has conducted detailed research into prostitution's role in Aspen's history. For example, if a man beat a prostitute in public, it was the prostitute who was arrested and fined for it, not the man, she said.
This bit of unfairness struck some at the time as hypocritical.
"When the city accepts money from and issues a license to a saloon, gambling hall or bawdy house it is bound by that consideration to protect the holder of the license … against abuses in the nature of riot and misdemeanor perpetrated by the criminal classes," noted the Aspen Daily Chronicle on Aug. 24, 1889. "The saloons of the city and the sporting houses on Durant street help, like all other city tax payers, to pay the expenses of city government, and they are entitled to ample and equal protection."
The word "license" is important. Prostitutes themselves often looked at the fine as a prostitution license, Rehfuss said.
By the way, the writer described Aspen at the time as "the chief attraction of all the mining camps in the world" with 10,000 residents and "enough vagrants and criminals to supply a city of 100,000 people."
PLAYING WITH HISTORY
The Aspen Historical Society has numerous actors and actresses on hand to play historical roles in costume for visitors and history buffs. Rehfuss took her assignment seriously, and spent more than a year researching her role as a madam.
Digging up information about prostitution in Aspen wasn't easy, and she said she often had to read between the lines in newspaper articles to figure out the specifics of the situation.
What she discovered was that the plumaged, soiled doves of dastardly Durant fit neatly into four distinct classes of prostitute.
At the top of the hierarchy were parlor house girls and madams who inhabited elegant homes generally located on the mountain side of Durant just east of Galena Street.
"Parlor house girls are well-educated, well-bred, musically trained, excellent conversationalists and physical beauties," Rehfuss tells audiences in her presentation as a madam and proprietor of one such house named "Mollie Ross."
Parlor houses attracted wealthy men who wanted an evening of entertainment, Rehfuss says. The men often played cards together and drank fine wine while the women played musical instruments before the couples retired to the rooms upstairs, she says. These women often weighed at least 200 pounds, which was the sort of figures men of the time appreciated, she says.
If you traveled farther east down Durant Avenue, you'd then come to the next level of prostitute: brothel women, Rehfuss says. These ladies were not quite good enough for the parlor house. Their abodes were known as "boarding houses," and they were often the scene of alcohol and drug-fueled trouble.
Next came the "crib girls." These were self-employed prostitutes who lived and worked out of rows of one-room "cribs" barely big enough for a bed and a dresser that faced on to the street, Rehfuss says.
These women would stand in the doorway to attract business, which often lasted about five minutes, cost 25 cents and was based on high turnover. Men were "not even permitted to remove their boots and clothing, as doing so takes up too much time and cuts into profits," Rehfuss tells audiences.
Last, and most certainly least, were the streetwalkers. These women led a "pitiful and dangerous existence," often completing transactions in alleys and living in constant fear of being beaten, robbed or worse," Rehfuss says.
Prostitution in the 1800s was not glamorous. Newspapers of the day are full of stories of "fallen women" dying of suicide, drug overdoses or at the hands of customers. Prostitutes were maimed with hatchets, looked down upon and considered second-class citizens.
Some time after 1915, it appears that Aspen's red light district finally succumbed to the lack of customers. Newspaper searches after that don't pick up mention of it.
Lisa Hancock, curator at the Aspen Historical Society, tells a story that no one can authenticate about then-Pitkin County Judge William Shaw. It seems that in 1926, the judge kicked out the town's last prostitute because she had syphilis and was passing it on to her customers. He sent her over Independence Pass to Leadville, Hancock said.
Later, in the early 1940s, soldiers who trained with the 10th Mountain Division were encouraged to come to Aspen for R&R rather than Leadville because there were no prostitutes in Aspen, Scott said.
Today, if you walk east down Durant Avenue from Galena Street, you're not likely to be reminded of a red light district.
There's the Rubey Park construction at the intersection of Galena and Durant where Mollie Ross' parlor house used to be. Farther east on Durant is the base of the Silver Queen Gondola, then the five-star Little Nell Hotel
But that's where the red light district was for more than 30 years, and that's where it was designed to be, almost from the beginning. And without it, who knows where our fair burg might be today?
Thanks to the Aspen Historical Society's Anna Scott, Megan Cerise and Kimberly Rehfuss for their assistance in researching this article.