In the early 20th Century, Americans became ardent supporters of “good roads movements,” as the age of the automobile had arrived. Denver hosted “good road conventions” and by 1908 Colorado began to employ convicts from the State Penitentiary in Canon City for road construction. Convict labor built 1,000 miles of Colorado roads by 1915.
In 1912, Greeley Commercial club president, D. J. Crockett, met with local businessmen and Weld County Commissioner W. C. Levis to discuss getting Warden Thomas Tynan’s “road gang of convicts” for work in Weld County, at the rate of .30 per head, per day for men and animals. The Commissioners approved the request, although financing, timing and weather were big issues. Fortunately, scrapers, shovels, rakes, etc. were rented cheaply from local contractors who had finished their seasonal reservoir and railroad work. Thirty-two convicts arrived on Oct. 20th at a tent camp on the S. D. Marvel ranch 10 miles west of Greeley. Work started on Oct. 25th, and two miles of a 30-foot wide “perfectly crowned” and graded stretch was completed by Nov. 9th. One crew worked west towards Loveland, and one east towards Greeley starting from the Weld/Larimer county line, averaging one mile per week. A proposal was made to gravel the new road but with no State funds available, two railroads, the Union Pacific and the Great Western, promised gravel free of charge from their gravel beds at Dent and Windsor, respectively.
Mr. Crocket and Commercial Club members caravanned in seven cars to the camp near Kelim, delivering food which the camp chef cooked for Thanksgiving. The camp was supervised by Deputy Warden W. S. Warren, who married in the winter and brought his bride to the camp to begin their honeymoon and married life. Set up in military fashion, it included a kitchen and dining tent, and a commissary tent with a post office, general merchandise and prisoner-crafted trinkets made from metal, leather and horsehair which were sold to the many curious visitors. There were sleeping tents for the prisoners and larger ones for sheltering the teams and extra animals. Two of the convicts were from Weld County—Fred Piel and Rudolf Wickstrom. Piel, serving a seven-year sentence for murder, was looking forward to a visit from his wife and children, all working in the beet fields near Johnstown. Strict hours for rising and retiring were observed at the camp, religious services were held three times a week and on Sunday, and singing and crafts provided recreation. For every month of good behavior, ten days was reduced from each prisoner’s sentence, and four on this crew were granted their liberty in April.
By April 1913, the road crews moved four miles west of Greeley, to the Bert Havener farm. The camp, after completing 21 miles of road, concrete culverts and bridges, was moved on July 9th to Eagle’s Nest, near Hardin, to complete the road between Greeley and Ft. Morgan. The county spent about $700 a month to maintain the camp, and the State paid all construction costs, saving Weld County $15,000.
Originally published in the Greeley Tribune on March 19, 2010
Written by Peggy Ford Waldo, former Curator of Development