Durango’s hidden history of harlotry

Some Western towns herald their sordid past, but we keep ours on the down low

The Shady Lady in Silverton was one of the last operating brothels in the town. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

The Shady Lady in Silverton was one of the last operating brothels in the town.

From the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to Mesa Verde, history is a driving force of Southwest Colorado’s economy.

But in “historic Durango,” one component of that history is conspicuous in its absence: prostitution.

Historian Duane Smith, author of Sisters of Sin, said Nellie Spencer, perhaps Durango’s most venerable prostitute, only “hung up her shoes in the 1970s. By that time she was mad that women were giving it away in cars – plus, she was in her 70s,” Smith said.

The city’s only commemoration of prostitution is a plaque marking the spot where Spencer’s house once stood. Smith said that in the 1990s, Durango’s City Council “came unglued, nearly had heart attacks,” when he argued that a park positioned in Durango’s then-defunct red-light district off the Animas River Trail, near Backcountry Experience on Camino del Rio, be named, “Nellie Park,” in honor of Spencer, and the adjacent road, “Red Light Lane.” (The city settled on Smith’s second suggestion, “Iris Park,” unaware that “Iris” was Nellie’s nom de guerre, Smith said.)

“And that’s the most you’re going to get. This is a middle-class town, and they want middle-class families to come to it,” Smith said.

Rise and fall of fallen women

Nineteenth-century newspapers’ complaints about Durango being overpopulated by dogs, drunks and men will strike many modern readers as too familiar.

Their conniptions about rampant prostitution will not:

Durango Police Department’s Lt. Ray Shupe said there hasn’t been an arrest relating to prostitution since at least 2008. Emphasizing prostitution’s current nonexistence in Durango, one local resident even grumbled that Farmington’s Latitudes was the nearest strip club. (Its manager, Carson Williams, said about 25 percent of its clientele is from Durango.)

All but dead today, between 1860 and 1960, prostitution flourished in Durango, dominated by madams such as Bessie Rivers in the 1880s and Betsy Hickey up until World War II. For decades, the shrewdest madams routinely bought the police and bedded “all the most prominent local politicians,” as well as visiting dignitaries, Smith said.

Durango’s red-light district was mostly located by the river, but many dens of iniquity thrived downtown, where Kroegers Ace Hardware store and south City Market now stand, and especially along the railroad track, with one bordello – Angelo Dallabetta’s Southern Hotel – operating across from the train depot on Main Avenue.

Rod Barker, owner of Strater Hotel, recalled that its housekeeper and part-owner, Hattie Mashburn, grew wealthy running the hotel’s fourth floor, “Monkey Hall,” as a brothel.

“It may have contributed to the early success of the hotel, shall we say,” Barker said, noting other madams became so prosperous that during the Great Depression, “they were the ones making loans.”

Indeed, when First National Bank started letting women have bank accounts, it let the wife of the bank’s president open the first account.

Rivers opened the second.

Sister cities in sin

Perhaps Durango is no longer the pearl-clutching haven of bourgeois sensibilities that Smith wrestled with more than 20 years ago.

Susan Lander, interim director of the Durango Area Tourist Office, said the subject of Durango’s painted ladies was “fascinating” and – citing Telluride and Silverton – a historic narrative with potentially tremendous commercial appeal.

Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce, said he thought franker public acknowledgement of prostitution’s history “could add to the character of Durango.”

“The question is how you do it,” Llewellyn said.

Silverton places prostitution at the forefront of its history, giving it top billing in tourist materials. Indeed, click on the “history” section of its official website, (subtitle: “A Sordid Past”) and within three paragraphs, you’ll learn that in 1883, a grand jury brought 117 indictments against “lewd women.”

City signs denote that tourists are traipsing “Notorious Blair Street.” Walking tours dwell on houses of former ill-repute. If Durango’s “Iris Park” is a rather esoteric inside joke, the name of one Blair Street restaurant, “The Shady Lady,” is flagrant, red-lipped, street-solicitation, bidding tourists to elope with a romantic, sanitized and historically inaccurate image of the happy hooker.

Bev Rich, president of the San Juan Historical Society, said, “It’s not a new thing to capitalize on that kind of history. What we market is Blair Street’s notoriety – that it was loud, never slept and that it was overrun by ladies of the night.”

But Rich, like many Silvertonians, had misgivings about the way Silverton pimps the history of its prostitutes.

Mark Esper, editor of The Silverton Standard, said, “I really have a problem with the way the town has tended to glamorize it,” citing the dissonance between prostitutes’ frequent suicides and the lore of “Jew Fanny,” “which as a name itself is disturbing, to say the least.”

While prostitution empowered some women, such as Rivers, to fearsomely partake in capitalism at a time when women were near-uniformly denied professional opportunity and financial independence, working girls – even those brave entrepreneurs’ employees – fared far worse.

Esper, Rich and Smith all said that for most prostitutes, the exchange of money functioned as a comma in a list, indifferently punctuating the misery, backbreaking labor, violence, deadly illness and social victimization so many experienced as life. To characterize them as captivating, gloriously naughty sexual libertines is to deny that they were captives of a shameful and misogynist legal system, of men, of wholesale exploitation.

Rich said she didn’t know how Durango could ethically resurrect its history.

“Boy, it’s a good question. But it’s part of your history, too – Durango’s, the Southwest’s and probably Western civilization’s. To deny it happened is wrong,” she said.

Interim solutions are few, far between and when helpful, somehow coded in jesting language.

“You could put up plaques, saying, ‘The Governor Slept Here,’” Barker suggested.


Nellie Spencer, circa 1920s Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Duane Smith

Nellie Spencer, circa 1920s

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