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The Lake County War was actually in Chaffee County

Sidebar by Ed Quillen

Father Dyer – August 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

You won’t find the site of the 1875 Lake County War in today’s Lake County — it’s in Chaffee County, and to add to the confusion, present-day Chaffee County was officially known as Lake County for a while.

When Colorado became a U.S. territory in 1861, the first legislature divided it into 17 counties. Lake, with its seat in the placer camp of Oro City along California Gulch, was one of them. Back then, it comprised its current area at the headwaters of the Arkansas, but also stretched west to Utah Territory and south into the San Juans. Lake, Summit, and Conejos counties took in the entire Western Slope.

In 1866, Saguache County took part of Lake County, and the shrinkage continued when Hinsdale and La Plata counties were formed in 1874, San Juan in 1876, and Gunnison in 1877. Oro City had faded, and the county seat (after a couple of years in Dayton near present Twin Lakes) was in Granite.

Before we get to the maneuvering that ensued, keep in mind that the Colorado constitution then allowed the legislature to create new counties, but required a public vote for moving a county seat. These elections often led to violence, however, of which there was already a surplus.

Now we move to the issue before the legislature in 1879. The silver boom in Leadville meant so much county-clerk business that a courthouse in Leadville, as opposed to Granite, made perfect sense.

But moving the Lake County seat from Granite to Leadville would have required a public vote, which undoubtedly would have inspired more discord in Central Colorado.

So the legislature created a new county — Carbonate County — and declared its seat as Leadville. (Carbonate County also included present Pitkin County, which was split off in 1881 with the silver rush to Aspen.)

The south part remained Lake County with its seat in Granite, as before, and thereby no election was required.

A few days later, when the ink was barely dry from the creation of Carbonate County, someone pointed out that Lake County got its name from Twin Lakes — which were no longer in Lake County.

That was the reason for changing the county names. Thus, the new Carbonate County became Lake County with its seat in Leadville, and the southern part of the old Lake County became Chaffee, named for Jerome B. Chaffee, a mine speculator and one of Colorado’s first U.S. senators.

As for Granite’s career as a county seat (the commissioners met on the second floor of a pioneer brewery), it lasted only until 1880. A county election gave Buena Vista 1,092 votes, Nathrop 855, and Salida 159.

That seemed like a clear mandate for Buena Vista, but there were critics who observed that the town, with a total population of only 1,200, somehow produced 1,128 votes on election day.

Claiming the election was fraudulent, Granite held on to the county records for a few weeks until some Buena Vistans ventured north, broke into the building, loaded the records on a railroad flatcar, and coasted them down to Buena Vista.

There a handsome courthouse was erected, remaining today as a museum and gallery. However, it quit serving as the county seat in 1928 when Salida won a hard-fought election.

Just why a town would want a county seat these days escapes us — the buildings are haunts for prisoners, politicians, lawyers, and journalists, which are all occupations much despised now — but some Buena Vistans still carry a grudge against Salida for the 1928 election. And they have a point — Buena Vista is much more central to Chaffee County than Salida is.

Anyway, that’s why the site of the Lake County War is now in Chaffee County.

— Ed Quillen