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A look back at 61 years of prohibition in Colorado Springs

By: R. Scott Rappold
May 8, 2013 Updated: May 8, 2013 at 11:00 am
photo - Lynn and Jeff Jacobs of Great Storm Brewing
Lynn and Jeff Jacobs of Great Storm Brewing 

In a hole in the wall there lived some whiskey. Not a nasty hole, with 19th century medicines like cocaine toothache drops, heroin cough suppressant or laudanum, nor yet a bare hole with nothing to reward the thirsty patron who put down a coin.

It was a whiskey hole, and that meant comfort.

Pardon me if I borrow from the fantasy master J.R.R. Tolkien, who had the task of introducing 1930s readers to a strange world of hobbits and dragons. I need to introduce you to a place just as foreign and unfamiliar: Colorado Springs without alcohol.

Hard to believe, but for the first 61 years of Colorado Springs' existence, it was illegal to sell a drop of alcohol, thanks to the Quaker beliefs of city founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer.

There has been so much talk in Colorado lately about the end of marijuana prohibition that I've been thinking about Palmer's experiment in alcohol prohibition, which for six decades divided a frontier town in denial about the availability and popularity of the official beverage of the West: whiskey.

When Palmer founded Colorado Springs in 1872, not all the inhabitants shared his vision for a sober and genteel community. Though he had the law and the editor of The Gazette on his side, local prohibition was as ignored as national prohibition 50 years later.

Which brings us to the aforementioned hole in the wall, also known in the annals of local history as 'the wheel' or 'The Wheel of Spirituality.' Patrons put a coin down on a disc jutting from the wall of an empty storefront and a shot of whiskey miraculously appeared.

The police might come and take it and haul the owner into court to pay a fine, as happened in 1876.

'There was no objection or resistance made, but we learned that a new wheel took the place of the old one within a few minutes afterwards,' noted The Gazette.

The city took bartender John McDowell to court, where he was sentenced to 20 days in jail and a $50 fine.

Then there's the case of D.W.C. Root, who was castigated by The Gazette for selling liquor at his saloon and shot himself in 1874. Many in Colorado, such as a writer for the Pueblo Chieftain, put the blame on the temperance warriors.

'We are in the hands of a fanatical, religious mob, who are using every effort to obtain power and dictate to us - free born and free thinking citizens of the United States - Lord save us from such reformers and friends,' wrote the Chieftain.

A year later, Gazette editor and temperance champion J. Elsom Liller was dead from an overdose of laudanum.

Battles continued. In 1879, a beer garden south of town was so popular, with 166 patrons on one Sunday alone, that 'ladies who desire to visit Cheyenne Canon have complained of the place and do not dare to drive past it unprotected, ' protested the newspaper.

And then there's the sad story of Judge Baldwin.

Why a thirsty Irishman would settle in teetotaling Colorado Springs is lost to history. The only thing he ever judged was sheep contests at territorial fairs, but he certainly appears to have been well-known for his sidewalks speeches. A typical Baldwin speech, as reported by The Gazette:

'I'll tell ye, boys; I'll tell ye - county seat - rights o' man; laws o' the constitooshun; rights o' man - show me 'em; show me 'em boys - old town; Colorado Springs city; show me 'em - El Paso County - laws o' the constitooshun; General Jackson - don't care.'

In 1874, he got drunk and fell down a well.

'We want our whiskey men to consider the results of their work, and to ask themselves whether they can find no better occupation than to hand men the cup which may be the cup of death - whether it is worth their while to burden their consciences with blood of their fellows for the sake of growing rich quickly,' wrote Gazette editor Liller.

Despite such excoriations, it was years before city officials seriously began to crack down on liquor sales. A temperance rally in 1906 drew 2,500 people, and the new police chief in 1907 promised to crack down on 'wine rooms.' Pharmacies began selling 'medicinal' liquor.

Eventually, the national mood caught up with Colorado Springs. The state banned alcohol in 1916 and the country followed suit four years later, putting the business in the hands of the gangsters and bootleggers.

A constitutional amendment approved by Colorado voters in 1932 ended prohibition and made liquor control the purview of the state, superseding the local ban. The end of national prohibition a year later was applauded by The Gazette.

'Citizens who wanted liquor have always been able to get it, and the fact that they can now obtain it legally without even the excuse of pleading a fake illness for a prescription will work only to the detriment of the bootlegger and allied lawless elements, whose days of illicit prosperity are definitely over. Indeed, if there is any feeling at all in the arrival of repeal, it is a relief among law-abiding citizens that the 'joke' of prohibition is a thing of the past.'

But to this day, if the city ever allows alcohol to be served or consumed in the many parks Palmer donated to his city, including North Cheyenne Canon, Palmer and Monument Valley parks, the land is required to be returned to his heirs.

Just don't ask someone what's in that cup or bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag.


Rappold writes about the local beer scene every other week in Food.

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