Mountains, Men & Memories: Eagle County politics in 1906 similar to 2017
November 13, 2017
Editor's note: Mountains, Men & Memories is a new column to be featured in the Vail Daily on Mondays. Kathy Heicher, president of the Eagle County Historical Society, has a front row seat to Eagle County's history.
Political lunacy didn't start with last year's elections. It's as old as the political system itself, and Eagle County is no exception.
Consider the story of Joseph W. Gordon, Eagle County's state legislator from 1904-1906. When local Republicans unanimously selected Gordon as their legislative candidate in October 1904, Red Cliff's Eagle County Blade newspaper declared the nomination "… one of those rare cases, perhaps, of the office seeking the man."
His credentials were impeccable. Originally from Ohio, Gordon arrived in Colorado in 1888, locating in Pueblo and Canon City, operating feed and florist businesses. In about 1895, he became a minister of the Methodist Episcopal church, and landed in Eagle County. A popular preacher with strong oratory skills, Gordon was the driving force in building the Eagle Methodist church and organizing a church society in Gypsum. He also dabbled in mining, and worked in the mercantile business as a proprietor and a salesman.
"Preacher Gordon" won the election and launched an apparently successful legislative career. He served on five prominent committees: Labor; Fish; Forestry and Game; Roads and Bridges; and Printing. He secured $10,000 for construction of a road from Basalt to Ruedi. A champion of private property rights, Gordon shepherded a bill through the legislature restricting fishermen's access to private lands. Even when the legislature was not in session, he made frequent trips to Denver.
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In the spring of 1905 his political career began unraveling. A Pueblo newspaper reported that Preacher Gordon was actually a man of doubtful character with a criminal past and shady financial dealing. Denver newspapers repeated the story.
Outraged, Gordon called the newspaper articles "lies" and lashed out at the "yellow journals." Although the local newspapers defended him, his reputation was tarnished. In September 1906, he lost his bid to once again become Eagle County's legislative candidate.
Gordon was a lame duck legislator in November of 1906 when he mysteriously disappeared from the streets of Denver, leaving no word for friends or business acquaintances. Fearing he was the victim of foul play, his loyal Eagle County friends hired a Denver man to track down the missing politician.
Gordon surfaced three weeks later in Amarillo, Texas, claiming to be penniless and under medical treatment. The preacher said he had just closed on a mining deal in Denver and was headed to Union Station to catch a train back to Wolcott when he was slugged, chloroformed and robbed of $7,500 in cash. Gordon claimed his attackers threw him into a southbound freight train. When he regained consciousness the next day, he was in Texas.
Concerned friends brought him back to Eagle County, where his story fell apart. Gordon had financial issues and had been bouncing checks. The train schedules didn't jive with his kidnapping story. The city newspapers continued questioning his integrity. Local newspapers loyally defended Gordon as an "upright citizen."
Determined to protect his name, Gordon boarded a Pueblo-bound train out of Eagle, declaring his intent to file libel suits against the Pueblo Star Journal and the Denver Times. Then he disappeared again.
This time, the local press did its own investigating, and discovered that Gordon did indeed have a criminal past involving a different last name and crooked financial dealings. The investigation also revealed that while in Denver, Preacher Gordon "led the life of anything but a Christian."
Local loyalty for Gordon ended. The preacher's friends were sadder but wiser.
"It is not likely that Mr. Gordon will ever be heard of again, unless it is under an assumed name," reported the Eagle Valley Enterprise.
To summarize, politics 111 years ago involved a businessman turned politician, some good legislation, allegations of wrongdoings, counter-accusations of lies and "yellow journalism," bizarre behavior, an investigation, a duped public and disgrace.
Apparently, the primary difference between politics in 1906 and 2017 is Twitter.
Kathy Heicher, president of the Eagle County Historical Society, lives in Eagle. She can often be found in the Eagle Public Library archives, searching out stories of the past. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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