The Durango-area tourism office markets Southwest Colorado as “A Dozen Vacations in One Destination.”
Attractions include outdoor recreation, national parks, agritourism, the narrow gauge railroad and, of course, the town’s Old West heritage.
But how accurate is the historic image presented in cowboy-themed events and gunfight displays on historic Main Avenue? And, how important is it to understanding this small mountain town?
Many visitors come to Durango specifically for the Old West experience, said Anne Klein, sales and marketing manager for the Durango Area Tourism Office. “It’s not just the packing peanuts around a vacation, people come for this Western heritage.”
But for Jeff Ellingson, curator of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad museum, the popularly portrayed image pales compared to reality.
“The actual story of Durango, the actual history of this town, is far more interesting than anything Hollywood’s been able to do,” he said.
From saloons to houses of ill repute, from casinos to shootouts in the street, Durango’s history features every facet of Hollywood’s Old West.
Durango was founded in September 1880, and rapidly expanded in the first few months, said Robert McDaniel, former director of the Animas Museum.
Towns in the Southwest, like Durango, were vital to the expanding mining industry, Ellingson said. “Coal meant a fuel source, it meant things could happen, it could power railroads, it could power stamp mills to process ore, it could do so many things.”
The town’s rapid growth meant vital services for proper management lagged. McDaniel said: “You had really a boomtown situation, and you had no town government, which is to say you didn’t have a city council, you didn’t have any city departments, you didn’t even have a city police department.”
Law enforcement duties fell to La Plata County’s sheriffs, who were at times overwhelmed by the sheer number of incidents, he said. “He had to be in a lot of places at once, so it was a fairly lawless situation here for a period of a few months.”
It was during this period that most shootouts in Durango occurred, McDaniel said.
One particularly famous series of events started April 10, 1881, just over a month before the city government’s formed, when a drunken Henry Moorman shot into a dance hall, striking and killing J.K. Prindle, who was in town from Silverton.
Moorman, the son of a judge from Ohio, fled, but he left tracks in fresh snow. He was captured and placed in a jail cell where the DoubleTree Hotel now stands.
When Moorman awoke the following day he had no recollection of the evening events, but the townsfolk did.
“A vigilante committee dragged him out of jail, and he was hung from a big pine that used to be about right where Toh-Atin Gallery is,” McDaniel said.
The same evening a group of cattlemen from Farmington arrived in Durango pursuing the Stockton gang, cattle rustlers that were based in town.
The cattlemen planned to seize members of the Stockton gang that evening, but, with the fervor surrounding Moorman’s hanging, they waited until the following day.
On the morning of April 11, 1881, the Stocktons recognized the New Mexicans and a running shootout between the groups ensued on what is now East Third Avenue. While no lives were lost, Durangoans had their fill of the Stockton gang, and the gangsters were asked to leave the next day.
Perhaps the two most famous gunfights occurred well after the town government was in place, McDaniel said.
In January 1906, the famous confrontation between Sheriff William Thompson and Marshall Jesse Stansel occurred on Main Avenue at the old El Moro Saloon.
The two lawmen got into an argument over enforcement of gambling laws in Durango in front of the saloon. It is unclear who drew first, but by the end of the day, only Stansel was alive.
The modern-day El Moro Spirits and Tavern incorporated the lawmen’s shootout into its foundation and daily operations.
Another memorable gunfight was between editors of rival newspapers, The Durango Democrat and The Durango Herald, in April 1922, McDaniel said.
Rod Day of the Democrat and William Wood of the Herald had exchanged barbs through their publications, and they met in the 900 block of Main Avenue on April 24. In the ensuing confrontation, Day sustained a broken nose and Wood was shot to death.
“He (Day) stood trial, and was acquitted – basically as was Jesse Stansel when the marshal shot the sheriff,” McDaniel said.
McDaniel believes portrayals such as the gunfights on Main Avenue held weekly by the Diamond Belle Saloon have more to do with Hollywood than history, as do their reception.
“Let’s think of ourselves today and all of the gun violence that’s going on and people shooting people down in the streets. We pretty much think that’s horrible, don’t we?” McDaniel said. “By the same token, and probably not surprisingly too, the people, when these gunfights were going on in Durango, pretty much thought the same thing.
“People like me find it really odd that a hundred years goes by or 70 years goes by, and all of a sudden something that was a horrible occurrence is now somehow glamorized. And you get these re-enactments, and people find it interesting, and ‘oh, it’s the old cowboy thing,’ when in fact it’s just murder.”
The need to draw on all aspects of the Durango’s past is something expected from a city that has been voted multiple times into the “Top 10 Western Towns,” by True West Magazine, Klein said.
“Like anything, you’re going to have pros and cons on what people think,” she said.
That’s something the D&SNG acknowledges, Ellingson said. “Today, we’re a tourist town, and we should be. People come from all over the world to see us because we’re famous.”
“The shootings in Durango, the hangings, all of that happened. It wasn’t made up, and people should know that,” Ellingson said. But there is much more to the area then Moorman, the Stockton gangs, Thompson and Stansel and a pair of editors who were determined to show that the pistol was mightier than the pen.
“I love this town. I always have. And it has the most interesting history, this area does, Telluride, Silverton, Ouray,” he said. “All of this is an incredible story, and probably one of the most beautiful places on Earth.”
Luke Perkins is a student at Fort Lewis College and an intern for The Durango Herald. He can be reached at [email protected]