I wonder why … Steamboat has a street named Robert E. Lee Lane?
August 18, 2017
Editor's note: We're bringing back an old installment in the Steamboat Pilot called "I wonder why…?” Have a question you'd like answered about Steamboat history or just something you've wondered about for awhile? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chuck Porter has never loved the name of his street.
When Porter tells people outside of Steamboat Springs he lives on Robert E. Lee Lane (just like the general, he says), the person on the other end of the conversation will sometimes question how such a street name got in a town so far away from the south.
No other street in the state of Colorado bears the name of the Confederate general known for his role in the Civil War.
And for years, Porter himself couldn’t figure out how his street’s name was connected to his town.
He’s even flirted with the idea of trying to replace it with something else.
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"I couldn't figure out what it's got to do with Steamboat," Porter said. "I've always thought it would be nice to have something more representative of the area."
So how did Steamboat get a Robert E. Lee Lane?
With petitions gathering steam to rename a Robert E. Lee Road something else in Austin, Texas, and violent protests erupting in Charlottesville over the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue, we decided to track down the history of how the general's name ended up gracing a street sign in the Yampa Valley.
The nearby streets — Memphis Belle, Delta Queen and Mark Twain — gave us some clues and a hunch that was later confirmed.
But finding the actual history and origin of the name was no easy task.
The Steamboat Springs City Council has to approve a resolution every time a street is named.
So we sent an open records request to obtain a copy of the resolution.
However, Robert E. Lee Lane predates the city's street name resolution process.
The street, which got its name in 1971, actually was part of Routt County before it was annexed into the city limits.
So we went to the county assessor's office to take a look at the documents that created the subdivision.
The two men who signed the document that created the Fairway Meadows subdivision — and the street names — are long gone.
Another dead end.
But type Robert E. Lee Lane into the Colorado Historic Newspaper Archives portal and do some digging through the search results, and the story behind the street name is revealed in the digital archives of the Steamboat Pilot.
LTV-RDI, who owned Steamboat Ski Area back in the 1970s, sponsored a street naming contest in the fall of 1971 for a new subdivision near what is now the Rollingstone Ranch Golf Club.
An ad from the ski area thanking contest participants reveals the origin of Robert E. Lee Lane.
Jim Hinton, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, won third place in the contest for submitting the following street name ideas: Robert E. Lee Lane, Delta Queen Road, Natches Way (which should have been spelled Natchez), River Queen Lane and Mark Twain Lane.
All of them now grace street signs in that subdivision.
All of the names were the names of steamboats that traveled the Mississippi River, and likely a playful connection to this city's name.
Robert E. Lee, the steamboat, was named after the general and later dubbed the "Monarch of the Mississippi.”
The vessel achieved notoriety for beating the Natchez in an 1870 steamboat race.
The steamboat-themed names did catch some flak in 1974, when a Steamboat Pilot reader questioned why they had been chosen because they appeared to stray from a western-naming theme.
"Is it just that the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing or is it a long-delayed Confederate revenge?" the reader asked.
In response, Glen Paulk, then the head of the ski area, explained the streets were named along a "Mississippi Steamboat theme."
The newspaper archives don't reveal why Robert E. Lee Lane and the steamboat-themed names from Mr. Hinton were picked over the second and first place winners in the naming contest.
Dr. William V. Luetke, of Madison, Wisconsin, won first place and a $50 cash prize plus a weekend at the Steamboat Village Inn, for suggesting Arnold Palmer Parkway, Jack Nicklaus Drive, Lee Trevino Lane, Billy Casper Boulevard and Sam Snead Street.
Dig a little deeper in the Pilot archives, and there is one possible conspiracy about why Mr. Hinton's names were picked over the names that earned bigger prizes.
Around the same time, the Pilot reported a man named Jim Hinton from Minnesota was an advertising director in town working with the ski area on an advertising campaign.
Did he have an insider's advantage?
Perhaps that's a reporting project for a later segment of "I wonder why…"
Should the name be changed?
Porter said he's thought about trying to get the name of Robert E. Lee Lane changed for years.
He learned about the origin of the street name and the Mississippi steamboat connection recently while talking to a neighbor.
But he still thinks it doesn’t fit.
"I think the original intent about naming it to steamboats is too abstract," Porter said.
This week, he said he's even been kicking around the idea of sending a letter to his neighbors gauging their interest in the idea.
Residents would have to get new driver's licenses and checkbooks, among other inconveniences.
Porter stresses that his dislike of his street name isn't connected to the recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.
"Since I was born in Colorado, I don't have that sense of southern history that people would have, so it's not emotional to me," he said.
But he said the recent violence and headlines have made the question of whether the name should stay percolate in his mind again.
Porter has gone as far as to obtain paperwork from the city explaining how a street name can be changed.