It has been said that Durango is a drinking town with a ski problem. Said in jest, it does reflect the fact there is more than one place for adults to enjoy an intemperate beverage. Home to many award winning breweries, Durangoans are particularly fond of beer. This is not new.
The first saloon opened in La Plata County in August of 1874. A wagon train from Santa Fe had arrived in the new town of Parrott City, two miles northwest of Durango, bringing wooden barrels of whisky. A rough board bar was placed beneath the cottonwood trees along the river. The handwritten “SALOON” sign welcomed ranchers and miners who could pour whiskey from a bottle on the bar into tin cups.
In the years following the Civil War, veterans heading west seeking adventure and fortune found themselves working long hours away from family. The saloon became the social center for miners, railroaders and smelter workers. More than a place to drink, many saloons offered the latest popular music, reading material, a safe for patrons’ valuables, mail drops and occasionally the services of a barber. The Durango police force used the El Moro saloon as a “headquarters” since it was centrally located.
Beer was the drink of choice. Many communities had local breweries. In 1892 The Durango Brewing Company manufactured keg and bottled beer and operated the Brewery Saloon in Durango. The La Plata Bottling Works made carbonated beverages and bottled Schlitz beer. Railroads brought beer into the San Juans from Denver and beyond. Tax laws at the time required that beer be placed in a barrel or keg with a tax stamp over the bung hole. The beer was transferred to bottles at local bottling plants such as Durango’s Best Bottling Works. In 1900 Adolph Coors announced his acquisition of property just south of the Strater Hotel for a bottling operation for Coors beer, saying: “There is considerable outside beer consumed here and it might as well be Coors’…We don’t care to and shall not endeavor to come into competition with the produce of your home brewery.”
The Antlers, El Moro, The Hub, Neglected Club – all were watering holes on the west side of Main Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets in 1903. And there were more. The Durango City Directory for that year lists ten saloons on that block alone. It’s no wonder proper ladies did not walk down the wooden sidewalk on that block.
Even though the revenue from liquor licenses (up to $400 in Durango) was important to the city’s budget, the Progressive movement grew and temperance voices were heeded. Prohibition came to Colorado on January 1, 1916. The rest of the United States banned the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors with the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution on January 16, 1919. And so the saloons of old La Plata County faded into history. Fortunately, prohibition was repealed in 1933. Saloons and breweries began anew and Durango reclaimed its spot as a great place for a beer. Or two.