Contentious, divisive, self-satisfied, the rise of modern America, the death of the American dream, reforming, status quo, rich, poor, escalating of slums and palatial mansions, urbanization, vote for women, rural troubles, east vs. west, silver vs. gold, big business and industry, small town woes, herald of a new age, foreign adventures, dawn of an American empire: All these words describe the 1890s.
No, these were not the “gay nineties” of legend. Far from it.
Durangoans experienced it all in one form or another. Their community was changing, and they changed with it.
America and Americans would never be the same as before, perhaps shown by the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. “Come to the fair, see the future, glory in the past.” Americans did by the hundreds of thousands. They experienced those things and then went home to reality, far away from the “great White City” dreamland.
Chicago, the rising metropolis of the West, exemplified the contrast. Spruced up for the fair, it was, without question, a transportation, marketing, farming and commercial hub for the Midwest and beyond. Its growth had been phenomenal. Now America’s second largest city, Chicago won the honor of hosting the fair from Washington, D.C., and rival New York.
Coloradans ventured east to see the fair, not to mention the midway with its attractions that dazzled some but worried more. Were some young men, and maybe a few young women, being tempted too much by the fair and the city’s bright lights?
Durangoans went to the fair as well, but it was costly to get there, and times were not good – not good at all – by fair time. In April 1893, the town, state, country and the world watched their economies crash and then slip into the worst depression Americans had ever experienced. In Colorado, it would last until nearly the turn of the century.
Bad times settled in, especially in Colorado and Durango. Silver mines closed when the government stopped the purchase of silver. Farmers were already hurting, with overproduction and low prices.
Those twin economic pillars collapsed. Many folks believed that was a diabolical plot on the part of eastern Republicans and Washington.
Some Durangoans just gave up and left. There seemed no future for them, their community or the world into which they had grown into maturity.
The birth of modern America proved to be a painful experience unless you happened to be rich. As Diamond Jim Brady reportedly said to his special friend, Lillian Russell, “Hell, I’m rich, let’s have fun.”
But when most Durangoans looked around when the 1900s dawned, they saw a world that their parents could only have dreamed about. Electricity had changed their lives, as had the telephone. And so had the rise of Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, both of which allowed them to purchase from catalogues the things small town stores could not carry at such a reasonable price.
They could learn about the national and world scene within hours, or at most a day after the news happened. And more of them were finishing the eighth grade and high school in large cities and small towns. Durango had a high school, plus several grade schools, and some Durangoans dreamed of the day that their community would be a “metropolis.”
It was a decade of contrast and change, of hope and failures, of birth and death. And out of the pain of birth came this new America – with it a new Durango. With all these things in mind, and with the background needed, the upcoming articles will take you back to that era.
Much will dismay you, dear reader, but there is hope in the future. The Durango that emerges is one you would feel at home in. Durangoans’ despair will eventually end, and the American spirit will triumph over adversity.
Duane Smith is a Fort Lewis College history professor. Reach him at 247-2589.