A History of the Library in Steamboat Springs

The following is an excerpt from: Steamboat Round the Bend, copyright:1976 by Dee Richards

East Meets West with a Library

The big wagon tipped and joggled over rocks and fallen trees ... making its way west through the trail-less valley of the Bear River. Tied inside the large wooden, horse-drawn vehicle were the precious possessions of the James Crawford Family.

Although this small group knew not what awaited them during the coming months and years, they brought with them more than food and clothing and furniture for their new home. Mrs. Crawford had found room for books which were to be her children's heritage.

It was the year of our Lord, 1884. The pioneer settlement of Steamboat Springs – located in the sparcely [sic] populated territory of northwestern Colorado – was less than ten years old. Yet even then the few families, who at that time made up the tiny community, knew that in the daily struggle for survival there should be no neglect of mind and spirit.

Mrs. James Crawford and Mrs. Henry Monson were the moving spirits in the building of the first public meeting room....a wooden structure to be known as the Union Church. Services for all denominations were to be held in its interior and for a number of years, this was to be the only church building in all of the northwest portion of the state.

Settlers were asked to subscribe so that the work on the building could begin. Some contributed money and some worked with ax and team. Logs were hauled from surrounding forests to Horace Suttle's sawmill, located on the mountainside just above town. Dave Crowell, Sam Sutton and E. E. Turner were thought to have been involved in the project as carpenters.

Located between Seventh and Eighth streets on Pine, the little frame building was the scene of church services, community Christmas tree parties and all important public meetings. Union Church was the cultural as well as spiritual center of the settlement, and stood in solitary dignity to the north of the business district.

Strangely, it was the death of a 29-year old one-time visitor to this area that was responsible for the establishment of Steamboat Springs' first public library.

In 1887 Union Church became the William Denison Memorial Library. It became a public building to house a fine new book collection. A steeple was added to the front and atop it was placed a most magnificent bell...sent from Denison's friends and family...the first bell to cross the Rocky Mountain range. It was said that the silver clear tones of the bell could be heard for miles up and down the river valley...calling people to church and meetings...funerals and marriages.

William Denison, a native of Royalton, Vermont, came west seeking relief and perhaps a cure from the tuberculosis which had stricken him while he was a medical student at Harvard University.

In 1885, he had moved into the Steamboat Springs area and had built several cabins west of the settlement, near the junction of the Elk and Bear Rivers. Joined by his aunt that fall, they spent the better part of the winter with the Crawford family in Steamboat Springs.

The following summer he "proved up" on his homestead, but died soon afterwards in Washington, D.C. In mid-December of that year he was buried in Vermont. His will provided that the books of his library should be divided among his family. Instead the books found their way to northwestern Colorado, several thousand miles to the west.

According to a report in the Steamboat Pilot in a story some years later, the event was described as follows:

"...After he was laid away his relatives cast about for some method of showing their love and appreciation to the settlers around Steamboat Springs. In some of his letters William Denison had mentioned the lack of educational facilities and good books and how his friends had appreciated what books he had been able to loan them.

Therefore the relatives decided to found a library in Steamboat Springs and named it the William Denison Library. With rare judgment they seemed to know that the settlers, shut out in a great measure from the world, would appreciate good books. And it was a joyous day for the community when the first boxes of books were freighted in over the range and were, by loving hands, arranged on the rough board shelves made ready to receive them.

They were not new books direct from the publisher, discouraging use by their newness and fine binding, but were all books that had seen use. The Denison family was cultured and had a house full of books that they knew would be appreciated in the Colorado mountain community. When their friends learned of the move, they contributed of their old books, so that over 1,000 volumes were sent...."

"That library certainly fulfilled a useful mission for the town," continued the Pilot article. "The books were given out by the librarian twice a week and helped pass many a dreary winter. They also gave culture and tone to the community. "The William Denison Library remained in Library Hall, fulfilling its most important mission throughout the years of growth."

In 1892 a Steamboat Springs "brochure" announced that "A free circulating library containing one thousand volumes, founded in the memory of the late Wm. Denison, a former citizen of this place, now occupies the Union church building. The library is open to the public two days in each week and all efforts are made to secure for it the largest support and patronage."

For ten years people in the valley made almost daily use of the little frame building and the family of books therein. In 1899, because of an acute need for school rooms, the books were removed to a recently built frame schoolhouse just to the east and Library Hall was used for the second grade of the elementary school.

A devastating fire in 1910 destroyed the two-story school house and all but 400 volumes of the book collection went up in flames. For five years the community was without a library, but in May, 1915 the Civic League sponsored and established a reading and rest room on the back of the Pupke building on Lincoln Avenue. What books had still remained from the Denison collection were used as the nucleus of a new collection of volumes, newspapers and magazines. During the two years that this reading room was available for public use, the number of books grew from 70 to over 400.

The first great war in Europe again forced the closing of Steamboat Springs' reading room, as people were too busy to use or man it. Books went back into storage.

In 1924, the P.E.O. and Women's Club led the community in the re-establishment of a public library. A mass meeting was held at the high school with a fine turnout of concerned citizens. Elected to the first Board of Managers were Mrs. A. H. Poppen, Mrs. F. J. Blackmer, Nettie Anderson, J. M. Childress, L. C. Fick and Arthur Jackson. Mrs. F. L. Colley was appointed librarian, a post she held until she retired in the early 1960's.

In November of that year the town Board added a one mill tax levy which was earmarked for financial assistance to the library. It was not, however, adequate to completely cover all expenses, and annually for a number of years the community aided the library by a special fund-raising event.

With 400 books gathered together, the library opened its doors on December 4, 1924 in a room in the rear of the Bank of Steamboat Springs. The following October it was moved to the IOOF (Campbell) building. By 1930, the newspaper of that day reported, there were 4650 volumes of the shelves of the big corner room.

When the building in which the library was located was sold in the early 1960's, the shelves and books were relocated in the front of the Community Hall at Fifth and Lincoln.

February 4, 1967 was a day of great sadness and great rejoicing. It was on that day that the skiing greats of the world gathered in a beautiful new structure at the west end of Lincoln Avenue to pay a final tribute to Wallace "Bud" Werner. On that day a building, soaring in its architecture to match the dreams of the young man whose name is permanently affixed above its door, was opened. On the routed, simple sign we read the words: BUD WERNER MEMORIAL LIBRARY.

Through the dedication of such people as Gates Gooding, the sum of $70,000 was raised and the memorial library building was "paid in full." Back in 1967 there were 4700 volumes in the collections...today they number 14,061.

In 1971 one further step was successfully taken...the town-supported library was designated a district library...giving it a wider tax base from which to draw funds for maintenance, acquisitions and expansion.

And what of the little frame building so lovingly dedicated to William Denison? When the two-story school to the east burned, the school district purchased the remaining portion of the south half of that large block. George C. Merrill purchased the Denison building and had it moved to Eighth and Spruce.

It was never again fully utilized and in April, 1918, board by board, it was demolished. The beautiful old bell now hangs in its own tower on the grounds of the United Methodist Church at Eighth and Oak Streets...still calling the community to live together in love and learning and service.