The Sturdy Scotch Brothers — pioneers of frontier Aspen

Among my Colorado pioneer ancestors were a couple of Scottish brothers named Davie and John Brown, who ran a company in frontier Aspen during the 1880s. The Brown Brothers Company graded numerous roads in the Aspen area and did the same to the railroad bed between Glenwood Springs and Newcastle, Colorado. Operating from offices at 516 West Hopkins Avenue, they also graded roads and built sewers within the town limits. They maintained a corral in town, where others apparently boarded their stock.

Aspen mines

Silver mines near Aspen

These activities all served to finance their main interest — the search for gold, silver and other minerals. They worked several mines in Conundrum Gulch: the Bouneventura Mine (near a place once called Leona), the Ne Plus Ultra, and another they called the Jessie Brown – obviously named after a beloved female relative.

Later dubbed the Sturdy Scotch Brothers by a Telluride newspaper editor in the 1890s, John and Davie earned this nickname by way of numerous wild adventures – both in the Aspen area and later in Telluride. One of the Aspen incidents occurred in October of 1888. Davie Brown was riding his horse down Aspen Mountain (today the site of Aspen Mountain ski area), when a leather ribbon on the horse’s bridle came loose. The horse responded by having a leap and plunge, then racing headlong down the treacherous mountain path at full speed. Somehow, Davie held on until the horse lurched around a hairpin curve and rider kept flying onward. He landed in a heap on a stack of timbers.

aspen mountain

Aspen and Aspen Mountain in 1893. Photo by William Henry Jackson

A number of miners witnessed Davie’s wild ride and rushed to his rescue. They carried him down the mountain to Davie’s home in town and called a Dr. Robinson. Davie’s many friends in Aspen were greatly relieved to find out that his injuries were only “confined to the limbs” and were not necessarily serious. The next day, this “Sturdy Scotch Brother” tried to get out of bed, but his progress wasn’t great and his friends and brother John persuaded him back under the covers.

Aspen, Colorado 1890

Aspen in 1890

Only a few months later, in February of 1889, John Brown faced a more serious event. John was managing the railroad works on the Glenwood to Newcastle project. He reprimanded one of the crew members for slacking off on the job. The man was actually a kid of about 19 or 20, first reported by newspapers as “Olman Cawkins,” who, along with another man named Westley Downs, had appeared in the crew camp and asked for work. (Later articles corrected his last name to “Calkins.”) They were put on the job but at some point John Brown felt that Calkins was “shirking his work.”

According to Davie Brown, who did not see the shooting but who was given an account by another witness, Calkins talked back to John, who then told him to “go and get his time” (Translation: “You’re fired.”) Calkins stayed to argue and the exchange quickly disintegrated into a physical altercation. This came to an end when Calkins pulled a gun and shot his employer.

Davie said that the first he knew of the fight was when he saw his brother being carried away by several men toward camp. John had apparently wrestled the gun away from the shooter because he had it in his hand. Davie took the gun from John and went looking for Calkins. He was prevented from shooting the kid by a group of men, and Calkins was arrested and taken to jail in New Castle.

President Teddy Roosevelt on road between Newcastle and Glenwood Springs, 1905

Although the papers first reported that John Brown was dead, and then corrected themselves to say that he would soon be dead, John Brown lived. A few days later, he explained for reporters what happened:

“I told the man to fill his scraper or go to the tent and get his check. He paid no attention to me, and I went towards him. He carried a stick in his hand, which he used in driving the team. With this he struck at me, and I struck him with my glove. He turned around and drew his gun. I knew what was coming and I threw myself against him. He shot me here, (showing the reporter the wound in his stomach). After he had shot me I took the gun away from him and beat him across the face with it. I am not in the habit of quarrelling with the men. I had said nothing that would cause him to want to kill me. I never saw him before.” (Aspen Weekly Chronicle, February 11, 1889, p6.)

Amazingly enough, a Justice Medaris in New Castle before whom Calkins appeared decided that shooting a man was no reason to keep the kid in jail so he let him loose. Calkins reportedly was “on his way to his home on the Frying Pan, where his father lives.”

When Davie Brown heard about this, he went to a different justice in town, Justice Mow, and swore out a warrant for the arrest of Calkins. He handed the arrest warrant to Under Sheriff A.J. Gregory, who set out looking for Calkins to bring him back in.

Around the same time, local papers reported that Gregory had captured Calkins and brought him back to Aspen, where the shooter spent one night in jail and was transferred the next day to Glenwood Springs.

The shooter’s release by Justice Medaris is inexplicable and must have been galling to the Brown Brothers. The New Empire newspaper said:

“The shooting was a cold-blooded affair. The ruffian who fired the shot should be dealt with in a severe manner, and should not be allowed to escape.

The action of Medaris in turning him loose is not easy to account for, and until he gives a good reason for the course pursued, the people here are inclined to condemn him for it.” (Aspen Weekly Chronicle, February 11, 1889, p6).

A later article said that Medaris had released him because no one appeared as a witness against him when he came before the justice. (Translation: Screw Up).

In May of that year, young Calkins went on trial in Glenwood Springs for assault with a deadly weapon. He pleaded self-defense. The trial was not covered in detail except to report the verdict: not guilty.

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