Discovering Steamboat: Delving into Steamboat’s past
October 19, 2013
Steamboat Springs — Cemeteries are fascinating places. Spending an afternoon wandering through acres of gravestones, reading the names, dates and words etched on marble, is like embarking on a self-guided history tour of any community.
I knew that if I wanted to take a deeper dive into Routt County's past, a visit to the Steamboat Springs Cemetery was a top priority. So after weeks of driving by the cemetery sign on U.S. Highway 40 west of Steamboat, I finally made that turn onto Conestoga Drive and headed up to the cemetery, which sits high on a hillside overlooking town.
During my initial visit to the cemetery, I was able to find the gravesites of James Crawford and his wife, Margaret, who founded Steamboat in 1874, and I also discovered the names of other early pioneers, including Edith Hitchens, 1898, Aubrey Woolery, 1893, Helen Burgess, 1891, Charles Graham, 1897, and John Hangs, 1898.
I uncovered later-era Steamboat history when I tracked down the graves of Hazie, Bud and Pop Werner and Dr. Frederick E. Willett.
Bud Werner's headstone has the Olympic rings, a sketch of a skier and the words, "Many Are Taken, Few Are Chosen," etched on its surface. The words on Doc Willett's marker read, "On Him and On His High Endeavor the Light of Praise Shall Shine Forever," referencing the impact this pioneering physician had on the Steamboat Springs community.
Another marker that drew my eye was the Wither Family Memorial, honoring nine members of the Wither family and making note of the original Wither Cabin on Hahn's Peak, circa 1898.
As I began researching the cemetery further, I quickly found out Jim Stanko was the man I needed to meet. Jim kindly agreed to meet me at the cemetery to explain in more detail its history and how it is managed and maintained. I was surprised to find out that the Steamboat Springs Cemetery is a public cemetery supported by a 0.08 mill levy. It operates under the authority of the Steamboat Springs Cemetery District board of directors, appointed by the Routt County Board of Commissioners.
Jim, a third-generation Steamboat Springs native who began serving on the board in 1995, said his fascination with the local cemetery began in 1984 when he got involved with the American Legion and started placing flags on graves each Veterans Day and Memorial Day.
"This is my passion; I devote a lot of my time to this," Jim said. "I've lived in Steamboat all my life. This is the place I can come and can recognize people and know who they were. My passion is to see that they're remembered."
Jim showed me the oldest gravesite in the cemetery, which belongs to I. Belle Cantrell. She died Sept. 4, 1882, and her grave was one of the first to be moved to the new cemetery from its original location at Dream Island.
The Steamboat Springs Cemetery also includes a paupers section. There are 66 people buried there, but less than half of the deceased are identified in cemetery records. Each grave is marked with a white-washed wooden cross, and these simple tributes dot the bottom portion of the cemetery's hillside.
One of Jim's favorite duties as a cemetery association board member is guiding walking tours of the cemetery as part of the Tread of Pioneers Museum's Brown Bag lunch series. These tours usually are conducted once or twice per year, and Jim enjoys leading people through the cemetery, sharing its history and telling the stories of some of the area's most interesting people who are buried there.
With Jim serving as my personal cemetery guide, I learned about William E. Harvey, an early settler who died in 1914 and was famous for killing 56 bears in Routt County during his lifetime.
Jim also introduced me to John Rolfe Burroughs, one of Steamboat's most celebrated authors. According to Jim, Burroughs was a World War II hero who was captured on Wake Island by the Japanese. He spent the remainder of the war in a Japanese prison camp and kept a diary, which became the inspiration for his future writings. Burroughs later penned "Where the Old West Stayed Young," "Headfirst in the Pickle Barrel" and "I Never Look Back: The History of Buddy Werner." His writing earned him the Western Heritage Award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame.
And as my tour was coming to an end, Jim and I stopped for awhile in front of the graves of Lawrence "Tuffy" Wren (1897-1988) and Gordon Wren (1919-1999). Jim explained that Tuffy was a world-class bronc rider who is one of Steamboat's best-known rodeo cowboys. Gordy Wren, Tuffy's son, became a world-class ski jumper. According to the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame, Gordy was one of the only American skiers ever to qualify for both Nordic and Alpine events, and his second in combined jumping and fifth in special jumping at the 1948 Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland, was the best performance by an American ski jumper. He also is credited with teaching the Werners how to ski, Jim said.
To Jim, Tuffy and Gordy's graves represent Steamboat's past and present and are among his favorite stories to tell about the cemetery.
"The bronc rider and the ski jumper," Jim said. "That's Steamboat's yesterday and today. It ties into Steamboat's Western heritage and also represents what Steamboat is about now — the skiing."
I invite readers to help me discover more about Steamboat and Routt County by suggesting places you'd like me to visit, people you want me to meet or activities you'd like me to try. You can reach me at lschlichtman@SteamboatToday.com or 970-871-4221.