Tom Ross: Steamboat's first building boom

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The Maxwell Building already was standing in downtown Steamboat Springs in 1909 when the arrival of the railroad signaled an unprecedented building boom on Lincoln Avenue.

— News flash! Lincoln Avenue and Steamboat Springs undergo an unprecedented building boom.

But it's not what you think.

I'm talking about the building boom of 1909.

That was the year the Moffat Railroad finally pulled into Steamboat and the new connection to the world on the other side of the Rocky Mountains touched off a growth spurt. No fewer than 36 new homes were built. The new frame homes must have been disquieting longtime locals who were still living in affordable log cabins.

The corresponding population growth even led to construction of a three-story school building.

The reality of seeing the first railroad car full of cattle shipped out in January followed by a shipment of sheep in September signaled a boom in commercial construction, if not outright real estate speculation.

The handsome red brick Maxwell Building was already standing in 1909, and by March the post office had relocated there.

Naturally, a handsome new railroad depot valued at $15,000 was undertaken. However, the depot was far from being the grandest of the construction projects. A new 100-room hotel was valued at $50,000. And because the railroad meant visitors would be able to travel here with relative ease, Steamboat's future as a spa town was apparent to everyone.

The forward-looking residents glimpsed a new future when tourists might come to visit and invested another $50,000 in the construction of a new bath house and swimming pools at the geothermally heated Bathouse Spring. The new building replaced the old A-frame building constructed by James Crawford in 1889. Could that have been Steamboat's first redevelopment project?

Before the first snows arrived on Storm Mountain in September, Steamboat Springs even had a sewer district. Indoor privies - woo-hoo!

Automobile traffic could not have been much of an issue along the dirt main street called Lincoln Avenue. After all, Model T Fords first began rolling off assembly lines in 1908. However, you can bet that all that construction commotion probably caused a lot of horses to bolt with buggies trailing behind.

I probably would not be able to share these details with you were it not for the determination of the late Steamboat Pilot editor Dee Richards, who died just seven weeks ago on June 10.

In January 1976, Dee published a 227-page book with former publisher Chuck Leckenby entitled "Steamboat Round the Bend."

Make no mistake, Dee was the researcher, photo editor and author. The history book would never have been completed without Leckenby's support. It was undertaken to commemorate the 100th anniversary (in 1975) of the arrival of the Crawford family, the first European settlers. They built their cabin just downstream from the big bend in the Yampa River where its course shifts from a generally northerly flow, due west for its confluence with the mighty Green River. Hence, the name of the book.

Dee's book, long out of print, is the definitive historical treatise on the rise of Western civilization in this frontier outpost and devotes several pages to the building boom of 1909. You can review a copy of the book at Bud Werner Memorial Library, which is, coincidentally, under construction.

The year 1909 was a challenging year for the Steamboat Pilot - its building burned down with the Whipple stage barn on May 5. The stage barn was never to be rebuilt, but the newspaper had already moved into a new building by Dec. 1.

As the year drew to a close, a prosperous future for Steamboat seemed assured. After all, the building boom had boosted Milner Bank deposits to $200,000.

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