Tom Ross: Change constant in 'Boat circa 1902

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— Ski Town USA appears to be poised for unprecedented change in the New Year. The base of the ski resort and the heart of downtown are on the verge of extreme makeovers. It's already almost more than my mind can process.

The facelift Steamboat is about to undergo is so major we may not recognize the place in five years. If there were such a thing as construction-grade Botox, I'd by stock in it.

But then, change is a constant in life. If you don't believe it, just ask James V. Craig. Exactly 105 years ago, in January 1902, Craig edited the Steamboat Pilot's special New Year's Edition.

Steamboat was on the cusp of change in 1902, just like it promises to be in 2007.

Some of the language Craig used in 1902 sounds stilted today, but many of the trends he saw developing around his little community have a familiar ring.

"Eastern capitalists are beginning to learn of the many opportunities offered here and are risking their money on the hidden treasures of this vast empire," Craig wrote. "In this enlightened and advanced period of the world's history, when capital is searching for new opportunities, seeking for legitimate investments, all eyes are turned toward new and undeveloped sections."

The big news in Steamboat in January 1902 was the construction of the electric light company during the preceding spring. The advent of community electricity put Steamboat ahead of many Western Slope towns. A coal-fired boiler powered a pair of dynamos built by General Electric. The Pilot's printing presses were among the very first commercial applications of electricity here.

Not only did Steamboat have municipal electricity, there was telephone service thanks to the Western Slope Telephone Company with local exchanges in Meeker and Steamboat. Phone lines extended north from Wolcott to Yampa, Steamboat and all the way to Hahn's Peak. The phone lines went west form Steamboat to Craig and then south to Big Bottom, Hamilton, Kellog, Axial, Meeker and all the way to Rifle.

Some things hadn't changed in Steamboat, where streets were still packed dirt and a cowgirl could tie her horse up in front of the Sheridan Hotel.

However, the new steel bridge across the Yampa River at the west end of town, where 13th Street is today, spoke of changes to come.

A businessman who had come to Steamboat from New York 14 years earlier, F.A. Metcalf, was instrumental in procuring the steel for the bridge.

Craig was generous in his praise of Metcalf.

"Mr. Metcalf has acquired an enviable reputation for his ability and success in everything undertaken by him," Craig wrote. "He is engaged in the real estate and investment business and is doing a large and increasing business."

Unlike today, there was no big shortage of building lots on the multiple listing service in 1902.

Metcalf was offering "improved and unimproved town property," but was particularly interested in selling oil and coal lands. He also represented five insurance companies.

The big new subdivision in Steamboat that year was known as the "Fairview Addition."

Metcalf's ad in the new Year's edition read like this:

"The coming residence section - surrounded by mineral springs - Fairview Addition to Steamboat Springs. Now is your opportunity. Many dwellings planned. Lots are selling steadily to the best class of buyers."

Unfortunately, Metcalf didn't publish his asking prices in the ad. But I'm going to guess they were somewhat less than $200,000.

Another local brokerage, Niesz and Company, was offering a 280-acre stock ranch for $4,000. And 160 acres of deeded land for $1,000. But then, a subscription to the Steamboat Pilot cost $1.50 a year in 1902.

During the first years of the of the 20th century, large capital investments were flowing into Routt County. In 1900, a man named N. P. Hill drilled an oil well on the William Hitchens farm on the Elk River, seven miles west of Steamboat Springs. He was also exploring for thick seams of coal in Routt County.

In the meantime, placer mining for gold ore was booming near Hahn's Peak and Columbine.

Hill was the president of the Routt County Improvement Company, which had raised $1 million in a stock offering. Most of the shares in the company were held closely in New York.

Hill and his fellow investors were banking on the arrival of a railroad here to help extract mineral wealth from the region.

Editor Craig was convinced it would be only a few years before the railroad was extended from Laramie, Wyo., south to Steamboat.

Of course that dream never materialized.

So, if the pace of change in Steamboat Springs is making your head spin, take a deep breath. It has always been this way.

Well, maybe not quite like this.

- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205 or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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