Article by Lynda La Rocca
Local History – November 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine
“. . . no one who has ever entered the Pioneer … has ever forgotten its bewildering interior…. It is in fact a cosmopolitan establishment in the heart of an infant metropolis, and in point of equipment has no superior.”
Leadville Herald-Democrat, May 1886
FOR MOST OF LEADVILLE’S FIRST 100 YEARS, a man in need of refreshment looked no further than the Pioneer Club.
The Pioneer was founded in 1878 as the fledgling mining camp’s finest gaming and drinking establishment. When its doors closed in 1972, the Pioneer had also become famous (or infamous) for slaking another kind of thirst: It was a bar-cum-brothel where prostitutes plied their trade under the supervision of Hazel “Ma” Brown.
Brown made regular trips to Denver to recruit from among the city’s more experienced “come-along girls,” allegedly tempting potential employees with the prospect of a working vacation in the scenic high country.
“The ladies would sit at the windows of their `cribs,'” recalls 89-year-old Adolph Kuss, who delivered groceries and liquor to the Pioneer during the late 1930s and early 1940s. “They’d call out to customers walking along the sidewalk, `Come on in! Come on in!'”
Within the next month, a different kind of customer will begin frequenting the Pioneer Club at 118 West Second Street, when it officially reopens as a fine dining establishment.
Co-owners Johnny Atkinson and Ron Pirnie have spent more than a year restoring the Pioneer to its frontier-era glory.
“We’re trying to maintain the integrity of the original look both inside and outside,” Atkinson explains. “With a project this large and a building this old, that takes a lot of work. And we wanted to do it just right.”
That meant painstakingly scraping away thick layers of pink and black-painted plaster (“Ma Brown’s colors,” Atkinson says) to expose the original brick walls and wooden wainscotting. Workers also removed “a good four inches of glue, paste, and floor tiles” to reveal the original red-mahogany planked floor, and stripped off black paint that obscured a gleaming, pressed tin ceiling.
And everyone kept their eyes peeled for stray bullets. The remodeling uncovered nearly a dozen embedded in the two-foot-thick walls, evidence of some of the more lurid moments in the Pioneer’s past.
“We’re leaving ‘em in there for atmosphere,” Atkinson declares.
“Atmosphere” is one quality the Pioneer Club has always had in abundance.
The Pioneer originally opened on October 27, 1878 on Upper Chestnut Street, nine-month-old Leadville’s main thoroughfare. A year later, the saloon moved to its current home on West Second Street (then called State Street), where it quickly became known for its stock of the finest cigars, wines, and liquors, and for “the frothing, foaming lager [that] falls in sparkling torrents from the robust kegs.”
The Pioneer also housed “eight of the most superior manufactured of billiard tables” and “two ten pin alleys, the largest in the western country,” along with games to suit any gambling man’s fancy, from faro and poker to roulette. Upstairs lodging rooms sheltered both respectable boarders and an assortment of ne’er-do-wells.
Patrons were drawn to the bustling saloon with advertisements such as this one, from October, 1880:
“Are you fond of bowling? Well, there is an excellent bowling alley at 118 State street, at the Pioneer saloon. Are you fond of billiards? Well, some of the best billiard tables in the city are at 118 State street, at the Pioneer saloon, and it keeps open day and night. They make the best Tom and Jerry in town at the Pioneer saloon.”
Once inside, however, customers were well-advised to watch their backs. Those who didn’t, like Henry Williams, occasionally paid for their inattention with their lives.
Williams’ assailant, a prostitute named Frankie Dodge, was acquitted of his murder by a jury sympathetic to her mistreatment at the hands of a man portrayed as a lying, conniving gigolo.
It probably didn’t hurt that the Evening Chronicle reporter covering the 22-year-old’s May, 1889, trial described the defendant as “an extremely good looking young woman,” a circumstance equally apparent to the 12 male jurors.
This rather sordid drama unfolded on December 15, 1888, when Dodge confronted Williams at the rear of the Pioneer, a pistol concealed in the bustle of her dress.
Although Dodge testified that she only displayed the gun in self-defense after Williams threatened her with a razor, Williams’ deathbed statement painted a more premeditated picture.
“She [Dodge] asked me if I was going away and I told her it was none of her business,” Williams said three days prior to his death on January 19, 1889. “Then she made several attempts to pull a gun from behind her and finally succeeded. She shot, the first shot hitting me, and I turned and ran; she fired again while I was running. After the shot she said she was sorry she had not shot me the night before.”
Trial witnesses confirmed that Dodge had indeed fired at Williams the preceding evening — and that her aim was off.
TESTIFYING in her own defense, Dodge recounted how she divorced her husband after Williams declared his love and determination to marry her. Instead, Dodge wound up a single working girl who supported Williams by supplying him with expensive clothing and jewelry and giving him cash, which he promptly gambled away or spent on another lover.
A disillusioned Dodge tried several times to end the relationship, but Williams’s promises of marriage and fidelity always convinced her to return.
When the hapless Dodge discovered that Williams had decided to leave Leadville “as he had got all the money from [Dodge] that he could,” she begged him to stay. Her entreaties ignored, she resorted to bullets.
Williams lingered a month, eating ice cream and drinking beer, tastes that one doctor opined could have contributed to his death. The direct cause, though, was Dodge’s bullet, which pierced his liver and spleen.
“While telling her story . . . many people in the room were affected to tears,” the Chronicle reported. “The story of her unfortunate infatuation was undoubtedly one of the most pitiful ever heard in the court room.”
While pitiful, Frankie Dodge’s story is far from the oddest connected with the Pioneer Club.
Current owner Atkinson recounts the popular, albeit most likely apocryphal, tale of a lady of the evening whose client insisted on staging their amorous encounter on the Pioneer’s rooftop.
“The weather suddenly turned bad, as weather in Leadville often does, and the guy got blown clear off the roof, knocking the `Pioneer’ sign down as he fell,” Atkinson explains. “A passerby walked into the Pioneer and said, `Hey, your sign’s down,’ never even mentioning the body on the sidewalk.”
ANOTHER MYSTERY surrounds the date “1892” emblazoned on the upper facade of the Pioneer Club building when Atkinson and Pirnie took it over. Atkinson believes the date refers to a remodeling or rebuilding project begun in 1890 and completed two years later.
The Pioneer Club was rebuilt, according to the Evening Chronicle, but that occurred 11 years earlier, after it burned to the ground in a disastrous fire.
The March, 1881 blaze broke out in a rear room of the Pioneer and spread quickly, also destroying a theater, restaurant, liquor store, and concert hall. Less than three months later, however, the Pioneer was again open for business in “an attractive new building” constructed at the same West Second Street address.
The current incarnation of the Pioneer Club includes a 90-seat restaurant and bar area featuring a 21-foot-long, polished wood back bar and a large iron safe belonging to the original saloon. There are also seven condominiums on the main and second floors.
Its theme is “local-friendly,” says Atkinson, with the restaurant serving “all-American food, from burgers and steaks to seafood.”
Though there won’t be any flying bullets, falling bodies, or all-night faro games this time around, it’s a safe (and legal) bet that the good times will continue to roll at Leadville’s Pioneer Club.
Lynda La Rocca, who lives and writes near Leadville, welcomed this excuse to research the lurid and legendary history of the Pioneer Club.