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The County Seat History that isn’t found in a saloon

Sidebar by Ed Quillen

Local history – June 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHEN I MOVED HERE IN 1978, there were still Buena Vistans who professed anger at Salida for “stealing our courthouse” 50 years earlier. As I would sometimes point out, the courthouse was still there in Buena Vista. Salida hadn’t taken it.

Further note that in public-opinion surveys, the most-despised and least-trusted occupations generally include lawyers, politicians, bureaucrats, and journalists.

Now consider what you find hanging around a courthouse: lawyers, politicians, bureaucrats, and journalists.

Why would any town want the courthouse?

Odd as it may sound, the presence of lawyers, politicians, bureaucrats, and journalists improves property values. One book at hand, Creating Colorado, observes that “the designation of … county seats invariably raised land values and promoted business … The stimulative effects upon the economy were considerable and much coveted…. Bitter rivalries between prospective seats also revealed the high stakes of the new local geography that was being created.”

With that in mind, we can consider the courthouse struggles in Chaffee County, which started before there was a Chaffee County.

Before Colorado became a territory in 1861, this part of the world was technically apportioned among various counties of Kansas, Utah, and New Mexico, none of which bothered to establish functional county governments up here.

Colorado’s first territorial legislature designated 17 counties. The entire San Luis Valley was Costilla County, and the rest of Colorado west of the Front Range was divided into three vast counties: Summit, Lake, and Guadalupe (changed to Conejos after only six days).

Lake County (named for Twin Lakes) is the relevant one here, and its seat was Oro City — the early placer camp on California Gulch, just outside present Leadville. The gold ran out, and so in 1866 the seat was moved to Dayton (named because many of its first settlers were from Ohio, and the site is now the town of Twin Lakes).

Dayton faded, just when the mines looked promising near Granite. It got the county seat in 1868.

Over the years, Lake County was whittled down so that by 1879, it consisted only of present Lake and Chaffee counties. That was the year of the big Leadville boom, and even the Colorado General Assembly could see that a new courthouse was needed for processing mining claims, property liens, apex suits, and the like.

But moving the county seat required an election, which would take time and could lead to shooting. So the legislature sliced Lake County in two. The north part was named Carbonate County, and since it didn’t have a seat, Leadville was designated, and it has held the job ever since. The south part was called Lake County and it still had its seat at Granite.

ONE STORY has it that the legislature then realized that the truncated Lake County no longer held the namesake Twin Lakes. At any rate, it was quickly rechristened Chaffee County, in honor of a senator, and the young Carbonate County was renamed Lake County. That way, Leadville got to be the seat of Lake County without the nuisance of an election that Leadville would have won anyway.

During the rest of 1879, Chaffee County’s commissioners met in Granite, which was barely inside the new county. Buena Vista was growing rapidly, and it was in the middle.

It came up in the 1880 election. Salida received 159 votes, Nathrop 855, and Buena Vista won with 1,092 — when it had a total population generously estimated at 1,200, at a time when women could not vote. “It was a busy day among voters of that place,” according to the Chaffee County Press of Nathrop, “and they must have hurried up business rapidly to have made the rounds twice!”

Despite the election, “Granite’s stubborn populace refused to turn over county records,” historian Virginia McConnell Simmons recounts in The Upper Arkansas, and so a Buena Vista “committee hijacked a locomotive and a flatcar one night and chugged up to Granite, laid down some rails the short distance from the railroad grade to the courthouse, rolled the safe down to the flatcar, and returned to Buena Vista, the new county seat.”

Salida tried to get the courthouse in 1916. It gained a 2,003-1,340 majority of county voters, but a two-thirds vote was required. In the 1928 effort, civic leaders campaigned hard, with the economic argument:

“Farming land that surrounds the city of Salida will raise in value for farm land is always dependent upon the prestige of its trading center,” the Salida Record argued on that October 26. There was also cost and convenience.

“Why should Salida with its 85% of the population of the county, play the big brother part and maintain at a great expense the county seat at a disadvantageous point just as a sort of pension proposition?

“If 85% of your personal business was in Salida, you would not have your office and keep your books in Buena Vista. If with passing years you found conditions changed so that 80% of your business was 27 miles away from your office, it wouldn’t take you long to pack up and move.”

A FEW DAYS LATER, the Record answered the argument that moving the seat might cause a tax increase: “If you don’t care to pay taxes, go out in the jungles somewhere where there are no such things.” Also, “They talk of the high cost of moving the records. When Buena Vista stole the county seat from Granite it didn’t cost anything to move the records. The people of Buena Vista simply went there and moved them down, just the same as Salida will go up in privately owned trucks and cars and there will not be a penny of expense.”

Despite heroic voting from Buena Vista (502-4 in favor of keeping the courthouse), Salida gained its two-thirds vote, 2,279-944, and became the county seat.

Lawsuits filed by disgruntled partisans were part of the American way of life, then, too. One George E. Roberg sued to have the election invalidated on the grounds that a county seat question required a special election, rather than be decided at the 1928 general election. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled against him in September, 1929.

Today, Buena Vista has a handsome art gallery, an historical museum, and an impressive model-railroad display in the old courthouse. Salida has lawyers, politicians, bureaucrats, journalists — and a courthouse that has no courtrooms since the judicial facility next door opened a few years ago.

Ed Quillen is one of the journalists who occasionally frequents the courthouse in Salida, where he lives and helps publish this magazine.