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Innocent: homicide as public service

Photo courtesy John M. Motter Bartender Big Alex Fleming gunned down Sam Maxwell at the Rose Bud Saloon on San Juan Street in 1881. Maxwell was shot as he slipped out the side door shown at the right of the saloon. Fleming was shooting from the front door.

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Bartender Big Alex Fleming gunned down Sam Maxwell at the Rose Bud Saloon on San Juan Street in 1881. Maxwell was shot as he slipped out the side door shown at the right of the saloon. Fleming was shooting from the front door.

We continue our story from last week relating the contents of a newspaper article written in November of 1880 describing a wagon trip between Animas City and the end of the westerly advancing Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, currently in the San Juan Mountains east of Chama.

“The road (Denver & Rio Grande Narrow Guage Railroad under construction in 1881) crosses the Continental Divide between the Chama and San Juan rivers. Eight miles from the point where the railroad camp is located is another toll gate; from this toll gate to the summit, a distance of five miles, the railroad has some very difficult and expensive work, in the way of grading, to accomplish, the greater part of which is already completed and ready for the ties and iron. Bear Creek Station is seven miles from the summit of the Conejos Range on the east side. There is no accommodation there for travel and as the train runs so that it is necessary to remain there over-night it is not at all pleasant. A five-cent lodging house on Water Street in New York, as described by the Police Gazette, when compared with the sleeping room in the hotel at the end of the track at Bear Creek, is a paradise …

By January of 1881 the stages were running daily between the end of the rail line and Durango. An item in the Durango record said. “J.L. Sanderson & Co. will run daily stages both ways, between Chama and Durango.” Wall & Witter & Co. made the same announcement. Regular use and winter weather combined to put the roads in horrible condition.”

Sanderson’s six-horse coaches were referred to as “lumber wagons.” Drivers borrowed lumber to throw into ruts to help the wooden-wheeled vehicles get through without getting stuck.

“Instead of making the distance from Chama to Durango in 20 hours, over 40 hours of continuous travel were required on our most recent trip.”

To accommodate the stage passengers and encourage travel through Pagosa Springs, the citizens of the town constructed a bridge across the San Juan River, the crossing being in line with today’s San Juan Street.

The old bridge which had been built in 1861 one mile south of town by Baker as part of his toll road between Abiquiu and the Baker’s Park mining camp on the Animas River above today’s Durango, in bad condition, was burned.

Hotels were built to provide overnight service for travelers. The Chama-Durango stage trip was an arduous, two-day ride. Overnight accommodations in Pagosa Springs including the San Juan Hotel, Hamilton House, Opdyke’s Hotel, and the Pagosa House catered to the sleeping and eating needs of weary travelers.

Daily mail arrived with the stage from Chama; weekly mail was carried horseback from Summitville. People waited almost breathlessly for the next discovery of gold, another bonanza just around the corner.

And ever-present danger lurked, just around another corner. Law enforcement was far away when measured in miles, but citizens were only a small step from law breakers. Feeding the lawless contagion locally was the money spent by the men building the new railroads across the area. The Old West memorialized by cheap paperback books, and later by movies and television, was staggering around on its last legs.

Big Alex (or Alec?) Fleming gunned down Samuel Maxwell as Maxwell was leaving the Rose Bud Saloon. Both men carried six shooters in their fists, but Fleming was faster. Popular sentiment approved of Fleming’s firepower. Maxwell was considered to be a hard case and a trouble maker who was on the prowl for Fleming. A jury at the county seat of Conejos found Fleming not guilty, perhaps because Maxwell needed shooting.

This story was posted on September 12, 2013.