May 03, 2023
A time when jail in Ouray meant a death sentence
With the discovery of gold and silver in the 1870s, thousands came to prospect
With the discovery of gold and silver in the 1870s, thousands came to prospect and mine in the northern San Juans. People were building log cabins and pitching tents in small mountain settlements.
In August 1875 a notice was posted on a tree announcing the new townsite called Uncompahgre. A few men stayed in town through that first winter. Within a year, 300 people lived in Ouray, the new name for this community.
Young Ouray was a wild, loud and rowdy place in its early days. Adding to the chaos, miners from high country came to town regularly to buy supplies, drink and "socialize." Townspeople demanded law and order, and they hastily built a wooden jail and hired a sheriff.
The Ouray Times reported in 1877 that the jail wasn't secure and leaked. A prisoner had even "kicked out a couple of logs and walked home." This unsecure jail wasn't acceptable in this frontier community. The town then bought steel cages and built wooden frames around them.
Those wood and steel jail cells were still in use in 1887 when another tragedy occurred. Joe Dixon was a pastry chef who been employed at multiple Ouray saloons and hotels. At the Delmonico Hotel Joe had threatened Ellar Day, a 19-year-old woman, who was working as a server there.
Ellar and Dixon both got jobs at the new Beaumont Hotel, and Ellar asked her father, J.H. Day, to escort her to and from work. J.H. arrived at the hotel and found Dixon holding Ellar and another girl hostage in one of the rooms.
Dixon frantically fired his .38-caliber Smith & Wesson, hitting Ellar. Both men began wildly shooting, and Dixon shot Ellar a second time.
Sheriff Myers arrived, arrested Dixon and locked him in the jail. A crowd of angry miners gathered around the jail that evening. The men marched to the sheriff's home demanding the keys to the jail, but the sheriff declined. The mob moved back to the jail and tried to break the door down. Unable to get inside, the mob set fire to the wooden frame. After the flames died down, they found Dixon dead in his cell. Ellar died from her gunshot wounds two days later.
Ouray still needed a lock-up, so the wooden frame was replaced around the cages. The jail was back in regular use. In 1887 several downtown buildings caught fire, which quickly spread to the wood around the jail cells. With two prisoners screaming inside, people tried to break into the jail cells. The rescuers found one prisoner dead and the other died soon after.
The Silverite-Plaindealer opined that "the men (prisoners) would have been able to have held out until rescued" except for the hay on the floor. One victim's family sued the electric company, which they blamed for the faulty wiring.
Newspapers around the state printed the story of Ouray's jail of death. Colorado Secretary of Pardons Clarence Stonaker visited Ouray and the jail. The Ouray Herald published the secretary's official report.
"There is no other jail in Colorado, and few in the country, that are in such a horrible condition as the Ouray jail. It is branded by state officials as a disgrace to the state that should be wiped out immediately by the citizens of Ouray, even if mob law be necessary to accomplish that end," a portion of the report read.
Six months later the city council decided to build new city offices, including a jail. Ouray hired Frances Carney to build the one-story brick and stone structure on the site where the Dixon Hotel had been a few years earlier. Three years later the city had new city offices, a jail and a fire department. After a small jailhouse burned down in Ridgway, all who were arrested in county ended up at the jail in Ouray.
In 1974 the federal government set up new requirements for jails to ensure humane treatment of the prisoners. The county commissioners decided the local jail couldn't ever meet the new standards, and they needed to find another solution. Since 1979, Ouray has taken its inmates to the jail in Montrose.
Thanks to preservation efforts, you can still see buildings and sites from Ouray's early days. That old steel cage jail sits on its original site next to the county courthouse. There is even more linking us to the jailhouse past. It is rumored that the Beaumont Hotel is haunted by the spirit of Ellar Day, the woman shot by Joe Dixon.
Sources include correctionalnews.com, sah-archipedia.org, ouraycounty.gov, telluridenews.com, ouraynews.com, and montrosepress.com.
Carolyn Snowbarger is a retired educator. After teaching middle schoolers in Olathe, Kansas, for 28 years, she and her husband Vince moved to Washington, D.C. She directed the Teacher-to-Teacher Initiative at the U.S. Department of Education and then managed continuing education programs for the American Institute of Architects. The Snowbargers moved to Ridgway in 2013 after decades of San Juan family vacations.