Tom Ross: Book reveals Steamboat Springs you never knew

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

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"Images of America Steamboat Springs," by David H. Ellis and Catherine H. Ellis

— Northwest Colorado is blessed with a wealth of serious books about local history. And there is a brand-new volume that will quickly earn a place in your personal library. It will help you see Steamboat Springs the way the pioneers did. Literally.

Arcadia Publishing released "Images of America Steamboat Springs," by David H. Ellis and Catherine H. Ellis late this year as part of its ongoing Images of America series. The books in the series are intended to tell stories from the past that continue to shape lives in towns and cities across America today.

I already have a roster of Routt County history books to rely on, but even at first glance, the Ellises' new book taught me things I did not previously understand about the Yampa Valley.

To my knowledge, there is no other compact publication of important Routt County historical images that rivals this one.

Early in my newspaper career here, I had the profound pleasure of interviewing people who described their first trip to Steamboat on a stagecoach. There are photographs showing the stage that arrived here from Wolcott, closely resembling the archetypal carriage from the 1939 John Ford classic film, "Stagecoach," starring Claire Trevor, John Wayne and the great Andy Devine.

That version of the stagecoach is lodged in my brain.

Now, thanks to the Ellises, I've quickly come to grasp that, historically, stagecoaches here came in many shapes and sizes. During the first half of the 20th century, any cart or wagon that could ferry freight and passengers over rutted, muddy, snowy roads was pressed into service as a stagecoach.

In the winter of 1939-40, in the snowbound hamlet of Columbine, Cyrus Hartzell's horse-drawn hay sled, with a partial Conestoga-style canvas cover for the passengers, made a serviceable stagecoach. Even Burkie Byer's two-wheeled horse cart with scarcely any room for passengers would do in a pinch.

Of course, if the Images of America series is meant to inform readers of how their town's history shapes modern life, then the Ellises' book has to chronicle the history of skiing here. Although the opening chapter is devoted to Ski Town USA, the overall book is more about the rise of western civilization in the Yampa Valley.

There are images of schoolteachers, miners, logging flumes, railroad trestles, Ute Indians, a 1920s horse packing trip to Upper Island Lake in the Flat Tops, pugilists, cowhands and World War II-era cheerleaders.

What will this fall's City Council candidates think when they read that back in the day, the town council issued an edict banning horse racing on public streets on Sunday mornings?

The book is deliberately light on text, but it isn't lacking in that regard. There are detailed introductions to each chapter, and photo captions are rich with historical details - in particular, the names of the people pictured.

Judging from the prose in the book's introduction, which rises to the level of poetry, either the Ellises disciplined themselves to keep the text brief or the publisher insisted on it - or both.

The Ellises are professional ornithologists who have authored nearly 200 scientific articles and books. This one is a gift to the Yampa Valley.

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