Tom Ross: Steamboat’s pioneer businesses |

Tom Ross: Steamboat’s pioneer businesses

The Pilot newspaper building in downtown Steamboat Springs, circa 1895. The building burned to the ground in 1909.

— I made an assignment for myself last week: get away from my computer and visit a gaggle of local businesses. It was good to enjoy the brisk spring air, and at the same time I was reminded of how beautiful our city's historic shopping district is. Pretty quickly, I began to wonder what the mix of local businesses looked like 100 years ago.

Lucky for me, one of my most dependable sources steered me to, where I found a list of businesses operating in Steamboat in 1890.

You would be amazed at how diverse local commerce was all those years ago, when the only practical public transportation was a stagecoach. The population of Steamboat in those days was 300 souls, according to the 1890 Colorado State Business Directory published by James R. Ives.

I was surprised to learn that Steamboat was home to as many dentists at the beginning of the last decade of the 19th century as it was to blacksmiths. Local residents had a choice of two dentists when they had a toothache — L.E. Bamber and J.E. Klopfenstein both practiced dentistry here. And, if you needed a horse shoed or the rim of a wagon wheel replaced, Arthur Gough and Robert Woodson were your options.

Steamboat even had a shoemaker in 1890 — G. Giamboni. Two local women, Miss Almira Brown and Mrs. N. Chipman, operated restaurants.

There was a coal merchant, a physician, a painter, a man who bought and sold fur and hides, an attorney, a general merchandise store, a bank, a couple of hotels and an apothecary.

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There were two newspapers in town already — J. Hoyle published the Steamboat Pilot and J.R. Godsmark was the publisher of the Inter Mountain.

Mr. Woolery was the local lime burner.

The what?

I would surmise that lime, most likely from Emerald Mountain, was burned at a controlled heat to make quicklime for use in the mortar that was critical to some of Steamboat's earliest buildings.

Steamboat had three carpenters: Samuel Sutter, W.H. Bashor and Albert Bourquin. And there were two competing sawmill operators to keep the carpenters busy — H.H. Suttle and H.E. Turner.

To put the list of Steamboat businesses into its historical contest, I turned to the book "Steamboat Round the Bend" by the late Dee Richards.

Richards wrote in 1976 that the arrival of Suttle's sawmill meant local homesteaders could move out of their log cabins with roofs and floors of packed earth, and into more modern housing. Now they had access to wooden plank flooring, second stories and framing for windows and doors. And the presence of a lumber burner meant that even brick chimneys were an option.

When Steamboat's founding European couple, the James and Margaret Crawford family, moved out of the log cabin they lived in for a decade in 1886, it was into a wooden-framed building. Suttle's mill was the source of the native lumber.

Transportation still was a limiting factor on local commerce in 1890. The two closest supply points for goods were railroad stations in Rawlins, Wyo., and Denver. For that reason, Richards wrote, early residents had to be self-sufficient and made lengthy wagon trips to put in their own supplies for the winter.

"After the particularly hard winter of 1888-89, the stores in Steamboat Springs were just about empty of all food as spring approached," Richards wrote.

The first wagon to brave the mud that spring was one pulled by oxen on behalf of general merchandiser F.E. Milner.

"When the outfit arrived back in Steamboat Springs, the entire community turned out for a rousing welcome. The famine was over!" Richards wrote.

But there was a problem, she added.

"As it turned out, the greater part of one wagon was taken by a huge box. Opened, it revealed a large stock of straw hats!"

And, of course, that was the genesis of the old expression: "If you can predict Steamboat's weather in May, I'll eat my hat!"

I made that last part up.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email

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