How Eagle ‘stole’ the county seat
EAGLE COUNTY – There was never a drop of blood shed in the battle for the Eagle County seat.But gallons of ink were spilled, and the tug-of-war between the mining town of Red Cliff and the ranching community of Eagle was fierce. The fight for county dominance was a bitter battle that stretched over more than two decades, involved four spirited elections and some expensive legal wrangling. The related political attacks at times made today’s campaign mud-slinging look like a society ladies’ tea party.Red Cliff, a raucous mining town up high on Battle Mountain was the original county seat, simply because it was the first organized town. Gold miners were drawn to the area by the discovery of a valuable vein on Battle Mountain in 1879. At the time, the land that is now Eagle County was actually part of Summit County. Residents of the Eagle Valley found that communications with the county seat in Breckenridge were difficult, due to the need to cross a mountain range to get there.Typical of mining camps, by February, 1880, Red Cliff had grown to a population of about 250 and the town boasted about 90 dwellings, including some houses, log cabins, and tents. It was definitely the biggest community in the valley in 1883 when the state legislature, in a special session on Feb. 11, created Eagle County. The new county stretched from the top of what is now called Vail Pass all the way west to the mouth of Glenwood Canyon and included a healthy little section of the Roaring Fork Valley, near Aspen. Red Cliff was declared the county seat.Four years later, the community that was to become Red Cliff’s foremost rival in the county seat battle, began to take shape about 25 miles down river. Located along the river bottom, Eagle was initially established as a sort of base community where miners could rest and re-supply on their way to the many gold-camps. Eagle’s elevation, a couple-thousand feet lower than Red Cliff, and broad valleys proved ideal for raising hay, grains and cattle. Many men who came to the area to find gold eventually realized that ranching offered more stability than the mining communities, which were dependent on the whims of the ore veins and the precious metals market.Before long, downvalley residents began lobbying for a change in the location of the county seat. The argument made then was for the next 26 years: Red Cliff was not centrally located in the county and getting there was a hard traveling and a financial burden for the citizens who had to conduct business there.The first vote …That first election, in 1895, asked the voters if and to where the county seat should be moved. Each community appears to have voted for itself. Red Cliff’s Eagle County Blade newspaper duly reported the results:Eagle…………………………………………303 votesRed Cliff……………………………………197 votesMinturn……………………………………103 votesWolcott……………………………………..12 votes Eagle declared itself the winner and Red Cliff immediately filed a lawsuit. Red Cliff questioned the validity because only resident taxpayers were allowed to vote. Red Cliff argued all qualified voters should have been permitted to cast ballots.That court challenge took several years to process. In June, 1899 the Colorado Supreme Court ruled the vote unconstitutional and all qualified electors had a right to vote on the county seat question. Further, the court ruled a successful vote to remove the county seat would require a two-thirds majority.At this stage of the battle, things were relatively dignified, judging from reports printed in the Blade, predicting the issue had been settled.The Blade, perhaps unwittingly, pointed out that strategically, a county seat move was unlikely if several communities were contenders for the honor. However, loyal to its own community, the newspaper also predicted Red Cliff would emerge the winner in a straight-out contest with Eagle.At this point, the Red Cliff community could afford to be magnanimous.”The people of Eagle who have counted so largely on a victory are no doubt much disappointed. Red Cliff respects their disappointment and has refrained from any demonstration on account of its victory.”- Eagle County Blade, June 22, 1899The newspaper further called for an end to the “enmities and jealousies” that characterized the contest. But the Blade’s prediction that the issue had been settled for years to come was wrong. By the spring of 1901, the move-the-county-seat effort had heated up again. John D. Nims, editor of the Blade, was outraged.
By this time, a general decline in mining, along with the rise of two mining camps adjacent to Red Cliff – Gilman and Belden – began to pull population away from the county seat.The second vote…By 1904, the county was once again headed to an election aimed at moving the county seat downvalley.Responding to an editorial in a Basalt-based paper endorsing a move, the Blade was defensive of its home community, citing statistics indicating a rebound in the mining industry.”Those people who are under the impression that since 1895 Red Cliff has died are deceiving themselves.” – Eagle County Blade, Aug. 18, 1904And the Blade offered a new argument: If the reason for moving the county seat was travel time, would it not make more sense for the more centrally located community of Wolcott, which was a ranching community and railroad shipping yard, to be named the county seat? A sentence or two later, the Blade accurately predicts that both Red Cliff and Eagle would fight that option.A week later, the argument grew even more heated, after two Eagle-based newspapers, The Eagle Valley Enterprise and the Eagle County Examiner endorsed a move of the county seat. The Blade fiercely disputed the arguments offered by its competitors.In particular, the Blade objected to arguments suggesting downvalley farmers were paying the bulk of county taxes. Comparing the assessed valuations of the respective school districts, the Blade concluded Red Cliff was the biggest taxpayer in the county.”Where do the taxes come from, the farmers or the miners?” queried the Blade. Further, the newspaper pointed out, Eagle was not yet incorporated as a town (that happened in 1905); and it had a “vile” domestic water supply. Red Cliff residents, in return, boasted that they had “an excellent system of water works supplied with pure mountain water,” and “splendid fire-fighting apparatus.”The Blade further bolstered its arguments with some convoluted figures detailing how the upper end of the valley had more voters than the lower end, and by arguing the lower valley, when tallied up, was more sparsely populated.Undaunted, the Enterprise pointed out how a prisoner escaped from the county jail in Red Cliff. The Eagle River Shaft, another Red Cliff paper, conceded that point, but said prisoners had also escaped from the Garfield and Lake County jails, as well as the state penitentiary.”Such bosh as this upon which it is claimed a county seat should be moved!” protested the Blade on Aug. 25, 1904.Again, the issue went to the polls. Again, Eagle failed to get enough votes to move the county seat.Try, try again…Still, the effort didn’t die. In 1912, a new law declared a county seat could be removed by simple majority vote if the county’s capital assets did not exceed $1,500. Five hundred of the county’s 800 taxpayers signed a petition to that effect, and the battle was on again.The Eagle Valley Enterprise made no bones about its intent to push for a change in county seat. While asserting its “highest regard” for “honest political opponents,” the Enterprise promised an honest fight:”We will not build up Eagle at the expense of Red Cliff or Gypsum or Minturn or Basalt or any other town in the county … there is no place for selfishness in the great work of developing and building up Eagle County…”- Eagle Valley Enterprise, Oct. 11, 1912.By the next week, that conciliatory tone had changed. “Voters throwing their money away. Costing them more to keep the county seat where it is than to move it to Eagle,” declared the Enterprise headlines.The newspaper even went musical in its fight:Vote for Eagle(Tune: Marching through Georgia)
Eagle wants the county vote,Now everyone take note;She is in the centerof the county’s boundary lineAnd would save the people’s patience,also cash and time,If the seat were at Eagle.CHORUS:Hurrah! Hurrah! We want the county seat,Hurrah! Hurrah! We will never be beat;So we want the voters of the county all to keepTalking and voting for Eagle.Eagle Valley EnterpriseOct. 18, 1912And the fight was on again. The arguments grew preposterous. O.W. Daggett, then crusading editor of the Red Cliff-based Holy Cross Trail drew up some complicated figures, comparing the number of miles that would be traveled if all registered voters went to the county seat in either Red Cliff or Eagle. Red Cliff had the favorable figures in his calculations. The Enterprise , based in Eagle, was outraged by this line of reasoning.”Daggett Springs Some Fiction” raged the headlines. The Enterprise suggested Daggett return to public school to learn arithmetic, and to Sunday school to learn to tell the truth. The newspaper concluded its tirade with a barb at Red Cliff:”…let the people of Red Cliff be the veriest angels of charity with every other virtue and willing to give to others everything they possess, except, of course, the county seat…”- Eagle Valley Enterprise, Oct. 25, 1912Eagle won that county seat election by a majority vote. On Nov. 10, the county commissioners ordered the county seat e moved to Eagle. Again, Red Cliff challenged the election results with a lawsuit. On Jan. 3, 1913, District Court annulled the election, saying that a two-thirds majority vote was needed.Fourth time a charm…By 1920, the county seat issue was facing voters again. Enterprise editor Adrian Reynolds again argued Eagle was more central, which would save taxpayers money. Further, he said, a new courthouse could be constructed at the same cost that would be involved in improving the “courthouse shacks” in Red Cliff.
To make his point Reynolds offered the anecdote of an imaginary “Reudi boy” (Basalt area resident) who might want to go the county seat to get a marriage license. The groom-to-be would have to use a wagon or auto to get to Basalt, then would have to pay $7.78 for a round trip train ticket to Red Cliff, Reynolds wrote.”If he takes the girl along it’s a pretty expensive wedding trip – and who wants to take a wedding tour to Red Cliff?” Reynolds asked in the Oct. 29, 1920 Enterprise.Longtime residents who to this day remember that election of 1920, maintain there was a conspiracy between Eagle and Gypsum. Gypsum allegedly pledged its support of Eagle as the county seat. In turn, Eagle reported pledged support of a high school in Gypsum. The vote tally bears out that theory:The VoteFor Eagle………………………….1,097For Red Cliff………………………425For Minturn………………………..104For Gypsum………………………. 3The move of the county seat was set for Dec. 15, 1920. On that same day, Red Cliff again filed a lawsuit, alleging that 100 citizens in eight precincts had voted fraudulently.The county commissioners filed a counter-claim. The local district court judge declined to hear the case, and asked for another judge to be assigned. Judge Cooper of Canyon City drew that task. On Feb. 4, 1921, he found in favor of the town of Eagle.Red Cliff appealed, and the case went to the Colorado Supreme Court. The legal wrangling continued. On Oct. 2, 1921, the Supreme Court ruled in Eagle’s favor. Shortly thereafter, the county commissioners ordered the removal of the county seat to Eagle.According to local lore, feelings continued to run so high that the move was made in the dark of night on Nov. 11, 1921. Newspaper reports indicate there was less subterfuge than that. Two railroad freight cars were put on a siding in Red Cliff, while the sheriff and three deputies moved the records. Six hours later, the records had been hauled to Eagle, and placed in a newly built vault in the “Woodman Hall” on Eagle’s main street (now the Brush Creek Saloon), the temporary county courthouse location.On Nov. 18, the town deeded over to the county a prime block of land, upon which the county administration building is located today.”Isn’t it a grand and glorious feeling, living in the county seat? We’ll say that it is,” the Eagle Valley Enterprise wrote on Nov. 11, 1921EpilogueThe county seat battle did not end in 1921. In the late 1970s, a Vail businessman caused a stir when he suggested the county seat be moved to Vail, then the fastest-growing town in the valley.That culminated with a tumultuous public hearing at the county building in Eagle, in which the meeting room was packed with angry Eagle residents defending their right to the county seat. Noting that Eagle was a more central location, and that the cost of land in resort-town Vail was high, the commissioners agreed that the seat belonged in Eagle. The arguments had a very familiar ring.No doubt a few Red Cliff residents got a chuckle out of that little drama.Sources for this story included the Eagle County Historical Society Archives and the Eagle Valley Public Library.Vail, Colorado