In a secluded valley deep inside the Rocky Mountains along Turkey Creek lies a little town that has survived the vicissitudes of boom and bust. Patiently guarded by mountainsides of quaking aspen and pine trees, the place evokes a sense of place from a different time. It was the first town in Eagle County and has complied a long list of “firsts”.
Close your eyes and imagine yourself the first person to wander into Red Cliff before it was a town, some hundred and fifty years ago. You’ll see only game trails through forests. You’ll be watching for wildlife for food and cautious of bears. You hear nothing but the sound of wind in the brush and can smell the tang of pine trees. You look down but see no other footsteps.
Tradition claims that first explorers and then expedition members came close to the valley behind the wall of red rocks that line the Eagle River Canyon. Although it is difficult to say who was the first white man to wander into the area, a hundred yards or so above the valley lays the grave of A. EcEldry D.C. August 19th, 1859. Was he the first to set foot there? And who buried him? The mysteries of the early days remain an enigma.
After the first explorers and expeditions came and left, prospectors arrived who did not stay. Next came members of survey parties who mapped the general area. The most famous was the Hayden Survey Parties that include William Henry Jackson along to photograph the Mount of the Holy Cross in 1873. Eventually, the Rohm party of explorers established a continuous settlement along Turkey Creek and soon a town was born.
The settlement, officially, named the town in 1879, choosing Red Cliff after the quartzite cliffs filled with hematite iron in the surrounding cliffs. In June of 1879, R.A. Moore built the Star Hotel as well as the first house, the little log cabin next to the old Court House.
That same year, the nascent owners banded together and built Fort Arnet on a rock formation at the entrance to town to protect them from the threat of Ute attack. However, after several days, with no sign of Indians, the fort was abandoned.
Although still small, by 1880, when the gold and silver boom brought thousands of people to Leadville, Red Cliff grew. A census taken in mid-February of 1880 showed a population of 250 people. With growth came characters of all sorts – miners and adventurers, shopkeepers, mill owners. Life in the mining camp was almost lawless, although by the end of 1880 the town had a school and teacher, physician, attorney and surveyor.
The town had few women. There was a Mrs. J.F. Squires, who in 1882, stayed at the Eagle Hotel and entertained the townsfolk with her singing. Perhaps the most noteworthy woman was Lydia Berkeley Tague who arrived in Red Cliff when she was only sixteen years old and worked with the postmaster, Dr. Mays. Her sister, Josephine, was married to Dr. Mays. Lydia married Patrick Tague and the couple operated a general store. Patrick was elected county judge, holding several terms. After he died, Lydia was appointed to fill the vacancy and thus became the first woman County Judge in the United States.
Eagle County was created by the Colorado legislature on February 11, 1883, from portions of Summit County and Red Cliff was chosen as the first county seat and held title until 1921.
With the many of firsts in a booming town, came the first “official” burial: Sylvester J. Linsley, a young man who, in June of 1880, was attacked by a 1,200 pound bear while he cut wood above Red Cliff. He died several weeks later and was the first body to be buried in Evergreen Cemetery.
The Wild West lived up to its name with the events between Tom Coleman and Dr. Denny in February 1888. A big man with an ugly temper, Coleman was a conductor of a D. & R. G. train and had married a lovely young woman. Dr. Denny was a dentist who practiced out of the Eagle Hotel. Denny, after performing some dental work on Mrs. Coleman, boasted to friends “he had had his arm around one of Red Cliff’s prettiest women.” When Coleman heard the story, his violent temper erupted. While he was placating his temper with whiskey, in the Eagle Hotel saloon, Coleman saw Denny enter and sprang at him. Denny fled to his office found a revolver and, turning quickly, fired. Coleman dropped. The last thing Coleman said before he expired was, “For God’s sake, take off my boots.”
By 1900, Red Cliff was the principal and most colorful town of the region with nineteen saloons as (well as open air structures that doled out rot-gut liquor) and a combination of about 90 tents, log cabins and homes.
Perhaps one of the most colorful characters to move to Red Cliff, and certainly a man who created many “firsts,” was Orion Wainwright Daggett who first arrived on foot in town in May of 1882. Whether to call him a crusader for a good cause or an outright liar would be hard to determine.
But here are the facts: Daggett was born in Indiana in 1864 and first homesteaded in the Gypsum area when he was twenty, operating the Red Rock Ranch and the Daggett Store until 1897. After moving to Fulford and then Central City, he returned to Gypsum. In 1903, he and his second wife moved to Red Cliff, where he worked as assayer and post master, and served several terms on the school board, as well. In 1920, Daggett purchased Red Cliff’s newspaper, The Eagle County News and renamed it The Holy Cross Trail.
Through his newspaper, Daggett had found a way to promote his crusades. Among the causes that he championed were Hubert Work for President of the United States, preservation of the beaver population, a tax on tobacco and gasoline, better roads, good schools, repeal of the Fourteenth and Eighteenth Amendments, a climb of Mount Everest, and a prospectors’ trail down the Colorado River.
As editor of the Red Cliff newspaper, Daggett had a way of spinning yarns and making them believable. Essentially, Daggett played on people’s inability to sort out fact from fiction and created fables that are still believed today including one that has the poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, writing a poem about an Acadian girl, Evangeline, climbing Mount of the Holy Cross for faith-healing. But the text of the poem makes it clear that Longfellow was writing about the Ozarks, not the Rockies.
And then, in 1921, there was the “highway” discussion. Daggett convinced the highway engineers to explore an old In-dian trail traveled over Loveland Pass to the top of the Mount of the Holy Cross. After completion of the survey, it was determined that the road Daggett suggested was impossible.
George Vail, an engineer, suggested a route over the low rolling mountains from Ten Mile Canyon to the Eagle River. Again, Daggett used his newspaper to extol the virtues of a shrine to be built where one could cross the Continental Divide and see the Cross of Snow. Daggett found such a site on Shrine Pass and pounded his keyboard with the assumption that a natural amphitheater could be created there to seat 50,000 people. Those 50,000 people, he proclaimed, would travel down Shrine Pass and into Red Cliff.
In the end, the Shrine Pass route was abandoned in favor of the Vail Pass route. Dejected but not out of steam, Daggett turned his attention to promoting the Mount of the Holy Cross as a national tourist attraction, to bring people to Red Cliff that way. Gaining steam, Daggett ran for Congress in 1934 but was defeated. When his beloved wife died in 1940, Daggett lost his lust for publishing and sold the newspaper. A bit of his soul went along with the press and Daggett died in 1942.
Perhaps no man gave more of himself and misuse of the printed word to further the advance of the first town in the area. Daggett’s intentions were honorable, but he did create incorrect tales of history.
Today, if you want to drive to Red Cliff, take the Minturn exit at Dowd Junction and go south. You will climb Battle Mountain and gasp at the terrifying drop to Belden Canyon. Pass beneath Lover’s Leap rock, where it is said a Ute brave and Arapahoe Indian maiden jumped to their death rather than be separated. Then turn left to enter the town of Red Cliff. Look back over your shoulder to view the Red Cliff Arch Bridge that was posted to the National Register of Historic Places on February 4, 1985.
Drive slowly and listen for the rumbling creek. Look at the snow glistening off of hundred-year old buildings. See if you can find the remains of Fort Arnet. Fantasize about those first footsteps in the town snuggled along Turkey Creek. It is a gentle town where one can visualize just about anything.