Minute by Minute

From Prostitution to Prohibition and Purchasing a Toilet

By Pam Pettee

It takes two things to make a community viable: the commitment of its residents and money. In Telluride’s case, its natural resources—the abundance of precious and base metals and, later, the resort development potential of its mountains—enticed the community to support the mining of both. The blood, sweat and years of dedication of its people kept Telluride alive through the vicissitudes of each industry. It’s not been easy.

Many stories are contained in the 127 years of meetings documented by the minutes of the Columbia (the original name of Telluride) and Telluride town boards of trustees, aldermen or council members. The records, bound in 16 red leather- and paper-covered books with gilt-stamped titles, occupy a bookshelf within the Town Hall vault. Or, in the case of the fragile, buckrambound Columbia minutes, the records are protected by acid-free paper and stored elsewhere.

Recorded by the town clerk, an elected official until 1972, and signed by the clerk and mayor, the minutes “spread upon the record” much of what was important town business. Included are meticulously handwritten transcripts of all staff reports to the town board; correspondence from notables, such as Bulkeley Wells, president of the Smuggler-Union Mine; and first and second readings of every word of every ordinance and resolution governing actions of the board and the business before it. The record contains elegantly worded resolutions of the board’s official position on tragedies, such as the fire in the bullion tunnel, the Cornet Creek flood, and the deaths of President McKinley and Mayor Gustafson’s mother.

Some omissions are striking. For instance, there’s no specific mention of the impact of the big miners’ strike (1901 to 1906), but a special meeting is called on June, 14, 1904, its object to “…consider the request of Captain Bulkeley Wells that the City of Telluride contribute the sum of $422 towards a fund which fund was to be used to pay militiamen now on duty in San Miguel County an extra dollar a day salary over and above that allowed them by the State.” L.W. Allen, city attorney, advised that an election by the people or a petition signed by a majority of taxpayers to release such funds was necessary. “Thereupon it was moved by C.F. Loebnitz, and seconded by M.A. Wood that a warrant be drawn on the salary fund in favor of Capt. Bulkeley Wells for the sum of $422 as for extra police duty in the City of Telluride.” It passed.

How does a growing town pay its bills? Property tax assessments, licensing fees and the water and sewer revenues don’t cover it all, particularly when costs rise and your constituents protest tax increases. Then emergencies occur, such as smallpox epidemics (1889) and the first Cornet Creek flood (1914). In those instances, the town borrowed money to cover the price of restoring the health, safety and welfare of its citizens. For at least 30 years, the state ordered Telluride to mitigate pollution from sewage and mine tailings in the San Miguel River. It wasn’t until federal and state monies came available in the ’60s and ’70s that building adequate sewage treatment facilities and other big projects became feasible. Even into the 1970s it was not unusual for the town to borrow money from its Water Works Sinking Fund (dedicated to water and sewer bond repayment) to cover general municipal operating expenses.

Moral Ambiguity

As the Telluride municipal story unfolds upon these pages, so does the town’s split personality. Columbia passed the original ordinances against gambling, prostitution and other “indecent” activity in 1883, with a penalty of $25 for each day of violation. A directive was made by Mayor W.E. Wheeler in August, 1884: “…that the Clerk be instructed to have all houses of ill-fame and their inmates fined—also all games running in the town.” The repeal of anyone’s license to operate dance halls or saloons is not noted in minutes of subsequent meetings. And the 1900 U.S. census lists prostitutes and gamblers residing among ore miners, tamale vendors, saloonkeepers, teamsters, Chinese laundry workers, laborers and the occasional cowboy and newspaper editor within the borders of the redlight district, a part of Precinct #11, South Telluride.

Without enacting enabling legislation, the town assigned powers and discretion to its police and fire committee. This allowed the night marshal to collect fines and entertainment license fees (including the use of each phonograph and pool table) from the saloons, three dance halls and their “inmates.”

The town health officer, a physician appointed by the board, managed public health concerns, such as smallpox and other contagious diseases, including a functioning “pesthouse” to contain those victims. Other concerns were tuberculosis transmission by local dairy cows and water pollution. The same doctor was also responsible for the bimonthly examination of the prostitutes for symptoms, including “the itch,” at $2.50 per exam and issuing them current certificates of health to be displayed at their places of work.

Charles Delos “Buck” Waggoner, cashier and, later, president of the Bank of Telluride, is renowned for his daring ruse that caused two New York banks to transfer $500,000 to the Bank of Telluride’s corresponding Denver bank in 1929, apparently to stave off his bank’s failure. Years earlier, in 1911, Waggoner was elected town alderman and mayor pro tem, serving three full terms. During a meeting in November, 1915, he expressed his problem with the ambiguity of the town’s moral standards.

November 1, 1915, page 168—C.D. Waggoner requested that the following protest be included in the minutes. “It having come to my attention from various sources, none of which being official, that the Fire and Police Board of the City Council have issued an order directing all public prostitutes in the City of Telluride, to each pay the sum of $5.00 per month to the City Treasurer, and that collections are being made thereunder, I desire to enter my protest and objection to such procedure, and I further request that this protest and objection be entered of record upon the minutes of this meeting by the Clerk.”

David Stemen, the new town attorney, followed Waggoner’s comments in an unambiguous letter to the board on December 6, 1915. His interpretation of the law was that a municipality cannot be criminally liable for exacting questionable fees, but that town officials might be vulnerable to charges of bribery: “As you all know there is a State Law and also an Ordinance expressly prohibiting Prostitution and Fornication…. The City protects these women, licenses them to carry on their immoral trade and I am sorry to say we are all a party to it…. Do we need this money enough to make ourselves liable to criminal prosecution? We take the money because it is easy to get and there is no comeback and because other City Councils before our time have done the same thing. …We are besmirching the name of this City which is already black enough. We are municipal pimps and nothing more or less.”

Over the years, the minutes reflect much time spent issuing and enforcing liquor licenses for up to 28 bars. It was during Waggoner’s tenure as chair of the finance committee that the record shows a transfer of $36,112.50 from a liquor license revenue account (of a total $47,280.89 in revenue transfers) to the town’s operations accounts. (A similar transfer of $24,000 was made in 1909.) The ordained license fees of the time do not “add up” to such funds, unless the required bonds were cash rather than signed notes and were not refunded, or a lot of fines were collected in lieu of closing the offending establishments. The town archives contain various financial ledgers and records, but none for the first few decades.

In 1916, Colorado’s Prohibition law took effect, barring the distribution and sale of spiritous liquors, and the town instituted a soft drink parlor license. Of note is an incident in 1923, when, after a public hearing, the council revoked Marcelino Nicolino’s license for serving a teenage boy in his “soft drink parlor,” The Busy Corner. The revival of liquor license revenues when Prohibition was repealed in 1933 was short lived. In 1935, Colorado mandated that 85 percent of all municipal liquor license revenues be forwarded to the state treasury to fund old-age pensions.

Grass Roots History

Depending on the inclination of the clerk, the deliberative discussions are usually recorded in summary form in the minutes. In fact, during the Depression years, when the population, the mining industry and the community itself were in survival mode, the minutes reflect little activity. In one meeting, council approved the purchase of a toilet for Town Hall. In another, it was decided, with the support of the community, to forego the election of a new town board in order to save money. The clerk and the treasurer each worked half days on a job-share basis and didn’t have much time to devote to this particular task—if, indeed, there was anything of substance to record.

The 1970s saw a major paradigm shift in the community’s orientation, and the town clerks recorded it. It was upon the appointment of Elvira Wunderlich in 1972, and continuing with her successor Carolyn “Carly” Shaw, that the minutes became a detailed record of community history, reflecting the reemergence of a town that dedicated much of its resources toward new growth, this time as a resort destination. And the election of “The Slate” to council in 1974 ushered in a governing majority of “new arrivals to Telluride” for a two-year term (a counter-slate was seated in the following election). Either from a sense of history in the making or a passion for live community drama, the minutes contain verbatim public discussion of issues that aroused the community collective in meetings that often ran well past midnight. Dogs running at large, the public firing of Marshal Everett Morrow, law enforcement issues, new development pressures, master planning, expanded municipal services—not to mention the birth of the festivals—brought many people for frequent, lively discourse.

Not so today. No deliberative comment is included in today’s town council meeting minutes, which now contain only agenda items, motions, vote tallies, other actions taken and a record of who spoke but not what they said. The full content of the discussion resides on a tape for six months before it is recycled. Let it therefore be spread upon this record that much is now being lost to the continuing history of the governance of a colorful, articulately outspoken community.