DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald
The year was 1881. Durango was only 7 months old, yet an outlaw gang was threatening the peace of this burgeoning town.
Ike Stockton, leader of the gang, was having shootouts on what was then called Main Street, and he had plans to take over the town, said Sharon Greve, who is compiling a history of the Durango Police Department.
“He was quite a terrorizer, all the way from here to Silverton,” Greve said. “People really feared for their lives.”
Townspeople went behind Stockton’s back to form a police department that could bring some law and order.
Thus, in May 1881, the Durango Police Department was born.
Greve is working to compile and preserve stories such as this for the Durango Police Department. She is asking for the public’s help in sharing stories, documents or photographs.
“History is made every day, and history disappears every day that you don’t get it captured,” Greve said.
Historical accounts exist for many other longtime Durango institutions, including the fire department, but no such archive exists for the police department, which is almost as old as the city, Greve said.
She has racked up 326 hours, so far, researching the first 20 years of the department’s history.
“It adds up fast, because research is slow,” she said. “I’m a detailed person.”
Durango Police Department Chief Jim Spratlen asked Greve to tackle the project.
“We really don’t have the history of the Durango Police Department since its inception,” Spratlen said. “It just seems like a shame – all that history, and it’s not being captured.”
Stockton’s reign of terror came to an end in 1882 when then-Sheriff Jim Sullivan tried to arrest him. Stockton went for his gun, but Sullivan beat him to the draw, according to historical accounts.
After Stockton’s death, his outlaw followers disbanded, and a succession of marshals worked to regain control of the streets. It was a difficult task given all the gambling, saloons and prostitution houses, Greve said.
“It was pretty wild before we got some law and order,” she said.
The first marshal was Robert Dwyer, who also served as the sheriff of La Plata County. Since then, the Durango Police Department has had 21 marshals and eight police chiefs, Greve said.
The top brass have been tasked with a number of odd jobs. In 1901, it was the marshal’s job to make sure the Goodman Paint and Wallpaper Co. removed “an exhibition of an obscene nature” that caused pedestrians to stop and stare on Main Street, Greve said. Details of the racy display have not been found in the annals of history, she said.
Greve’s research has revealed other details about the police department that may seem odd today.
In the 1930s, the police department had a snow plane with its logo slapped on the side, Greve said. The snow plane was made from airplane parts and traveled across the snow on skis, ice on skates or wheels on the train tracks. It was clocked at 120 mph, she said. It is unknown exactly how the snow plane was used in law enforcement.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the police department raised and lowered a red flag at 10th Street and Main Avenue as a dispatch signal to on-duty officers. The red flag became a red light in the 1950s, Greve said.
In the 1950s, the police department had five officers and one car. Today, it has 54 sworn officers and 35 vehicles, including marked and unmarked cars, motorcycles and two radar trailers.
In 1974, Cpl. Gale Emerson died when a brick wall in the 800 block of Main Avenue exploded during a fire started by arson. He is the only officer killed in the line of duty during the department’s 100-plus-year history.
People who might have history to share about the department – whether it be oral, documented or photographed – are asked to drop it off or give their contact information at the Police Department, 990 East Second Ave.
The men and women who serve the department deserve to have their stores told and preserved, Greve said.
“We do need to know how our police department came about,” she said. “They do deserve the tribute to them, because they are our line of defense, our protection, and once history is gone, it’s gone.”