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Hard drinks and history

Local historian Duane Smith leads pub crawl

Bootlegging. Gambling. Prohibition. Racism. Prostitution. And smog so thick it covered the city of Durango.

“Don’t think of Durango as pristine and pure,” Duane Smith, a retired Fort Lewis College professor and local historian, said. “You wouldn’t have wanted to live here. Don’t let anyone tell you about the ‘good ole days.’”

On Friday, Smith led a group of about 25 people, mostly FLC alumni, on a pub crawl through downtown Durango to benefit the college’s history department.

The tour stopped at five drinking establishments, each paired with a Prohibition cocktail and a short lecture about a slice of the city’s history. Topics included the train, mining, myths about a secret tunnel network and the overall Durango way of life.

But mostly, Smith stressed the hardships and unpleasantries of the city’s earliest days.

“The air quality was terrible in the 19th century,” he said. “You’re lucky you’re here now.”

That was because the city relied on coal for power until the 1920s when natural gas came along, Smith said. A thick layer of soot would coat the city, and many suffered from lung diseases.

The town was largely family-driven and Protestant, but like most old Western outposts, Smith said, it was “quite sinful” in Durango.

Prostitution was legal for the better part of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and, Smith said, there was an active Red Light District where South City Market is today. Many women were forced to work at brothels because of the lack of jobs. Those who did find work were paid half that of men.

Gambling and bootlegging (in response to Prohibition) were rampant around the 900 block of Main Avenue. Smith told his captive audience it would be amazed to know how many people were arrested making their own alcohol.

“The 900 block was the block of sin. Not much has changed,” Smith joked outside El Rancho Tavern.

But even in the city’s earliest days, the people of Durango were dead set on presenting the city as a desirable place to live. The success of the city relied on a growing population.

“Durango, even back then, worried about its image,” Smith said. “They did not want the ‘Wild West’ reputations because they needed the investment in mining. It was grow or die.”

Durango was touted as a “health mecca” because of the minerals in the water at Trimble Springs. Word was spread that the springs were capable of miracle cures for any number of illnesses, including syphilis, and were a form of birth control.

However, Smith said the city’s heart has always consisted of a tight-knit community. The townspeople persevered despite the many booms and busts of the region, and even rebuilt downtown after the 1892 fire.

In all, Smith said Durango encompassed the legacy of the frontier.

“We have the whole story of the West, right here,” he said.


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