The road has become a narrow tunnel in the nighttime snowstorm, its edges marked by the reach of our headlights. The blurred snowflakes illuminated by the beams whip past us out of the dark, giving us the sense of flying, like we are making the jump to lightspeed through a star-strewn galaxy far, far away.
In this particular corner of the Milky Way, however, we are easing our way up Colorado’s Highway 133 at speeds well below the posted limit. It’s the last week of 2021, in the midst of the first major winter storm of this season, and my wife, Stacie, and I are on our way to the small mountain haven of Redstone for a few days of stillness and respite after the busy holiday season and almost two years of living through this pandemic.
Typically a little more than three hours from our home in Denver, we are well into the seventh hour of our journey when two lines of colored holiday lights emerge from the snow. They are wrapped around the rails of a bridge over the Crystal River, it seems, to save travelers like us from missing the turn and guide us into the town.
The town of Redstone is an easy place to overlook, even in good weather. Among that class of western towns where the elevation (7,185 feet above sea level) significantly outpaces the population (127 at the last census), it dots the east bank of the Crystal River that flows down from McClure Pass to its junction with the Roaring Fork at Carbondale. Opposite the town, a row of strange ruins—beehive-like brick structures— line the west side of the highway.
Safely across the bridge, we pull up to the Redstone Inn, with its distinctive, square clock tower that rises into the snowy night sky as it has for nearly 120 years. Hauling our bags out of the car, we knock the snow off our boots as we open the door to the lobby, which has not changed much since the clock tower started to tick in 1902. As we settle into our third-floor room, the hotel’s guide book prepares us to enjoy Redstone with the proper mindset, explaining that the town “is a heartbeat, yet a world away from Aspen.” It encourages visitors like us “to stop, take a deep breath, slow down, step back in time, leave your cell phone in the car, and experience the magic of the valley and the inn.”
With Wi-Fi scarce and cell signals nonexistent, it is an easy invitation to accept. But there’s something perhaps unintended in that notion of a relaxing step back in time. Even quiet places vibrate with the drama of lives lived there, the consequences and repercussions that radiate out from them across the decades. The peaceful tranquility we’re seeking in Redstone belies a complicated past. Here, during the first decade of the twentieth century and, with the backing of one of Colorado’s largest corporations and one of America’s richest men, the ideals of the Progressive Era, the opulence of the Gilded Age, and the struggle for labor justice came together in an experiment aimed at creating a new future. The result was, for better or worse, a new way of thinking about the relationship between work and life that continues to shape the modern American workplace today.
In the light of the next morning, with the snow still falling, we get our first good look around. A carved wooden sign standing just beyond the bridge into town welcomes us to the “Ruby of the Rockies,” a moniker bestowed by an alliterative The New York Times reporter in 1902 and embraced by residents ever since. A weathered hand-painted sign on the main street boasts that this is a state historic district, a nod to the fact that not much has changed here since 1902 when the town was constructed as a sociological experiment by John Cleveland Osgood for his Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.
A walk down Redstone Boulevard (locals just call it “The Boulevard”) gives us glimpses of the town’s residents. The smell of wood smoke drifts from chimneys and Black Lives Matter signs dot snow-covered yards. A man shovels the snow off of his roof while another clears the community ice rink (free skates are available to borrow in the nearby shed). A woman walks two goats—whom she introduces as Bubble and Squeak—down the street on leashes attached to handknitted holiday collars. They are on their way over to the Redstone General Store, which sells essentials, local artists’ work, and artisanal beverages, and has served as a hub for the community to gather on cold afternoons since 1950.
Behind the buildings, the deep red canyon walls that gave the town its name loom. Their color is made even more vivid by the bright white snow. Before American newcomers called it Redstone, this place—along with much of what we now know as Colorado and large portions of the surrounding states—was firmly within the ancestral homelands of the Ute people, whose traditions do not record a migration story.
Indigenous presence and control notwithstanding, during the Spanish colonization of North America, the valley was nominally a part of Spanish and subsequently Mexican claims in the region, before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo moved the national border south. As the United States government asserted control, it forcibly restricted the Ute (and other Tribes) to ever-smaller portions of their ancestral territory in order to make way for onrushing American settlement.
To facilitate settlement, the US government dispatched surveyors to explore the newly American territory and report back on the most promising opportunities for extracting the wealth of its natural resources. In 1873, Ferdinand V. Hayden led a survey party through this valley, noting the area’s rich coal reserves. Six years later, while Colorado continued to expel the Ute from most of their homelands within the state, EuroAmerican prospectors combed the crimson hillsides in search of riches.
Despite the Hayden survey’s reports of coal in the area, those early prospectors were in search of gold and silver and had little use for anything else. Legend has it that the region’s richest coal deposit was discovered by two prospectors when an avalanche exposed a black seam in the red rock along a tributary of the Crystal River. Propelled by visions of shinier stuff, the prospectors weren’t interested in the coal, and when a dapper man from Iowa offered them $500 for the claim in 1882, they took the money and moved on.
The well-dressed buyer was John Cleveland Osgood, then thirty-one years old, already successful in business but not yet satisfied. He was born in Brooklyn in 1851 and raised by relatives after his parents both died when he was a young child. Compelled to go to work at age fourteen, over the next decade and a half he rose through positions of increasing responsibility in textile factories, merchant houses, coal mining companies, and banks. By 1878 he had saved enough to purchase a troubled coal company in Iowa.
Ambitious, quick with numbers, and adept at attracting financial backers, he soon put the company on solid financial footing. Shortly thereafter, at the request of a railroad customer looking to extend their lines west, Osgood journeyed to Colorado to investigate the new state’s coal resources. In the mountains, his fashionable wardrobe and fastidious grooming would have stood out. He wore his dark hair slicked and parted down the center; his mustache curled up into points at the ends. In photographs, his eyes look calm and confident, as though perhaps he saw something not apparent to everyone else.
What he saw, it seems, was that coal was the future. The compressed energy of verdant swamps from geologic ages gone by, the glossy black lumps of carbon were rapidly becoming the fuel of everyday American life in the decades around the turn of the century. Coal heated homes and businesses. It fired the steam boilers that made it possible to connect a continent by rail and to power the machines that freed humans and animals from their dreariest toils. It unlocked the alchemy that smelted ore into precious metal and forged raw minerals into iron and steel. By 1890, it accounted for 90 percent of the nation’s energy consumption. In short: It represented a fantastic business opportunity.
And, with his $500 purchase in the Crystal River Valley, John Cleveland Osgood suddenly had one of the finest supplies in the United States. With three business associates from Iowa, Osgood organized the Colorado Fuel Company. A decade later, he’d merged with a top competitor to form Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I), which became one of the nation’s biggest coal companies. CF&I boasted fourteen operating coal mines spread across approximately 70,000 acres and employed more than 7,000 workers who lived in thirty-eight company-owned mining camps from Wyoming to the Territory of New Mexico.
At the center of CF&I’s operation was the West’s only integrated iron and steel plant in Pueblo. Under Osgood’s leadership, the company would continue to grow throughout the next decade. By 1902, the company employed 15,000 workers, and when its many subsidiaries and related enterprises were factored in, it accounted for nearly 10 percent of the state’s entire workforce.
Back at the Crystal River, where Osgood had embarked on his journey to become the coal king of the West, extracting the area’s fantastic wealth required installing a large workforce in the remote valley. By 1902, CF&I had established Redstone along the main line of the Crystal River Railroad as a hub for processing the coal mined nearby into coke and shipping it to users like the company’s steel mill at Pueblo. It was a company town, but Osgood had a personal interest in Redstone and was determined to make sure that it wasn’t a typical coal company town, which had a well-earned reputation for being a dismal and dirty camp where coal miners and their families fended for themselves as best they could in makeshift housing that barely met their basic needs.
The inaugural edition of Camp and Plant, CF&I’s company magazine (and gift to future historians), which was published in December 1901, explained: “Beauty has been the guiding principle in the building up of our little town. We do not have monotonous rows of box-car houses with battened walls, painted a dreary mineral red, but tasteful little cottages in different styles, prettily ornamented, comfortably arranged internally and painted in every variety of restful color.” The New York Times reporter who visited in 1902 agreed, writing that Redstone, “is the most beautiful town in Colorado, a thriving little village of 250 to 300.” The writer complemented the community and its harmonious, wellbuilt workers’ cottages, counting more than 100 of them, each one different from the rest.
The workers living in Redstone’s cottages enjoyed homes that many people in Denver would have envied. Beyond their architectural individualization, each home enjoyed indoor plumbing (although they still needed to use outhouse bathrooms) with fresh running water piped from reservoirs along the Crystal River. Electric lighting was available for 35 cents per light added to the rent. Homes ranged from three to five rooms, and monthly rent was $2 per room. To encourage healthful living, each family was given a plot in the community garden across the river and a cow to provide fresh milk. Larger homes for upper-level managers rented for $18.50 per month, which included indoor bathrooms and choice locations higher up on the hillside.
The town’s layout was a physical expression of the workplace hierarchy, allowing the higher-ranking officials to look down over the workers of the town. And watching over all of it from a tasteful remove was John Cleveland Osgood himself.
From the Redstone Inn, The Boulevard jogs and winds south along the river, dwindling down to a narrow lane as it gradually climbs along the carved contours of the rust-red cliff face. The river meanders along a meadow floor, shallow and relaxed in its winter flow, a glassy black ribbon under the gray, snow-laden sky. The current floats easily around snow-capped boulders and past the wintery skeletons of riparian bushes poking up through the snow along the bank. The vista is framed by slopes covered with frosted evergreen trees, which are obscured by falling flakes.
When the road departs from the river, we come to two iron gates hinged to square sandstone pillars and topped with stone lions. This is the gate to Cleveholm Manor, the baronial estate that John Cleveland Osgood—his close friends called him “Cleve”—built alongside the Crystal River. And the welcoming lions are there to let us know just whose house it was.
Lions are prominent all around Cleveholm, so much so that one of Osgood’s biographers called him “The Lion of Redstone.” Stone lions guard the gates, and another greets visitors outside the courtyard. Metal lions cast in bas-relief adorn the trim plates of nearly every door in the house. Most notably, Osgood’s lion presides over the house from the impressive crest carved into the great room’s chimney, the focal point at the heart of the sprawling manor. Carved or cast, the lions hold a sheaf of wheat, supposed to signify freeborn landed gentry in England—surely a notion that Osgood identified with as he looked out over his estate from the room’s oversized windows.
He was exceptionally landed. CF&I’s success had made Osgood extremely wealthy—his fortune was reported to be the sixth largest in America by the turn of the twentieth century—and his estate stretched from near Marble (to the south) to past Redstone, including the town itself, which he owned entirely. Osgood called the expanse Crystal Park, and he situated his home at the top of an idyllic meadow overlooking the Crystal River.
The inspiration for his new house had been his wife, Nattie Irene Belote. Happier living in England by herself than in Colorado with John, Irene (as she was called) was a socialite and author who contributed to popular publications like Vanity Fair and wrote melodramatic romance novels. The latter were published by the Cleveland Publishing Company, which Osgood established for the purpose. Her debut novel, The Shadow of Desire, was a thinly veiled autofictional portrait of her marriage to John that The New York Times described to be “as unwholesome as any we have had the bad fortune to read.”
When Irene did deign to come to the area, John put her up at the gracious Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs. But around 1899, he began planning a home modeled on the English country estates Irene was so fond of. Not only would it showcase his status as one of the nation’s great industrial tycoons but, he hoped, it might lure Irene to live with him in his beloved and profitable Crystal River Valley.
Situated nearly a mile upstream from the workers’ homes, Cleveholm Manor was forty-two rooms (plus bathrooms) of grandeur standing at the heart of a 4,200-acre fenced estate. If you’ve driven up Highway 133 to McClure Pass, you may have caught a glimpse of it through the trees across the river. More commonly called the Redstone Castle today, it is a Tudor-inspired manor house, complete with towers, turrets, and sprawling wings. Resting on a base of substantial sandstone blocks quarried at Mount Casa just across the valley, it stands at the edge of a wooded hillside at the top of an expansive lawn sloping down to the Crystal River.
When we arrive, April and Steve Carver, who have lovingly restored the castle since 2016, meet us at the porte cochere where carriages once discharged passengers. The Carvers’ remodeling efforts “touched every wall,” says April, but did so with a light hand to maintain the original integrity of Osgood’s dream home. Having spent the last two winters as the only occupants because of the pandemic, April says the castle still reveals new things to her: “Every time you look out a window you see something different. Every time you look inside you see something different. It’s just amazing architecture—even the spaces for servants, or the carriage house for the horses.”
Osgood reportedly poured $2.5 million into Cleveholm, just a half-million less than it had cost to build the Colorado State Capitol several years earlier, and an amount equivalent to the annual earnings of more than 4,000 of CF&I’s workers, according to historian Thomas Andrews. It was designed by Boal and Harnois, the Denver-based architectural firm that also designed the workers’ homes in Redstone. With Cleveholm on their resume, the firm went on to design grand homes for the wealthy elite in Denver, including the Grant-Humphreys Mansion on the city’s “Quality Hill” (now operated as an event venue by History Colorado) and the Crawford Hill Mansion at Tenth Avenue and Sherman Street, once the home of Louise Sneed Hill and the epicenter of the Sacred Thirty-Six, Denver’s exclusive and exclusionary high society group.
Its nomination to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 proclaimed that Cleveholm’s interior “reflects the opulence associated with American entrepreneurs at the turn of the century.” It was the Gilded Age, after all, and there is gilding to be found in Cleveholm. Most notably, the ceilings in the library and the dining room were covered in shiny, room-brightening aluminum leaf tinted with a gold wash.
But even so, it has a comfortable feeling, more country estate than castle, and is decorated in an Arts and Crafts style that manages to feel homelike and cozy despite its sprawling footprint. And while it is opulent and ostentatious—a little bit of artisanal hand-stenciling or silk brocade wall treatment goes a long way to clarifying the order of magnitude between a manor house and a humble home—it still feels warmer and more welcoming to me, even on this cold day, than some of those great industrialist mansions of the same era that still stand in Denver.
Closed to guests for another Covid winter, when it opens again visitors will be able to glimpse what it was like to be at home with one of the United States’s leading captains of industry (as Osgood and his fellow industrialists were known by their admirers—and, no doubt, to themselves). The views of the winter wonderland outside are breathtaking from every window, but particularly from the west-facing rooms that look out across the lawn toward the Crystal River and the peaks across the valley.
These rooms—the library, the great room, and the dining room— remain almost precisely as the Osgoods lived in them, from the custom-made Tiffany light fixtures to the Stickley furnishings and elegant rugs. They, along with several other rooms throughout the manor, are protected by a conservation easement that ensures Cleveholm’s interior is preserved.
From the daylight basement to the upstairs bedrooms, Cleveholm was designed to impress. The white Colorado Yule marble floor in the lower level, like the floors of the Colorado State Capitol, was quarried in nearby Marble where Osgood had a stake in one of the mining operations. (Colorado Yule marble later gained national fame as a stone featured in the Lincoln Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.)
On the main floor, artisans sculpted plaster frescoes on ceilings. They rubbed Honduran mahogany paneling to a cherry finish that complimented the ruby-colored velvet upper walls. And they painted striking peacock and pineapple designs where others might have settled for wallpaper. At the heart of the house, rising two stories from the main floor, the great room is centered around a large fireplace into which Osgood’s personal crest was carved in the sandstone above the mantle, proclaiming “Pecturo Puro,” pure of heart, below the image of his lion.
Above the great room, an unassuming lace-covered window looks down from the second floor to allow the lady of the house to get a look at her guests before making her own appearance. That lady was Alma Regina Shelgren, the second Mrs. Osgood. John’s plan to save his marriage to Irene by creating a slice of England in the Colorado Rockies was not enough to keep the couple from divorcing in July 1899. Three months later, as construction began on Cleveholm, Alma and John were married.
Family legend has it that they first met in the court of King Leopold of Belgium, where Osgood was making a pitch for funding his coal operation. (King Leopold, as the exploitative private “owner” of the Congo Free State, was flush with investment capital extracted from African natural resources and receptive to opportunities in the extractive industries elsewhere.)
At the time, Alma was rumored to belong to the Swedish aristocracy. But more recent research suggests that, while she was in fact born in Sweden, Alma Regina Johansson (Shelgren was from her first marriage) immigrated to Chicago as a girl with her family and was orphaned soon thereafter. She did later travel to Europe, but wherever she met John, the two appear to have shared the experience of losing their parents and having to make their own way in the world.
Alma was called “Lady Bountiful” by residents of Redstone for her generous engagement in the local community. She encouraged children to write letters to Santa, which she would intercept and fulfill herself at lavish Christmas parties she held at the town’s clubhouse. Generous in all seasons, The Marble Times and Crystal Silver Lance reported in September 1901, that “The last day of summer was made memorable by the grand party given the children of Redstone and the vicinity by our Lady Bountiful of the Crystal Valley….Whatever life holds in store for them, not even the smallest little tot will ever forget this red letter day of unalloyed happiness and contentment.”
Alma was also a talented musician. She wrote the lilting, mid-tempo “Redstone Waltz,” and her sheet music is proudly displayed in a case in one of the castle’s several exhibition areas. Presumably, she played for guests in Cleveholm’s music room.
But her beneficence did not extend to the area’s wildlife. Alma was celebrated as an excellent shot. On June 4, 1904, the Aspen Daily Times reported on a successful hunt in the mountains of northern Colorado during which Alma killed a large black bear, a feat apparently so noteworthy that it rated a notice on the front page of The New York Times the following week. Most of the trophy heads that decorate the walls at both Cleveholm and the Redstone Inn—and there are a notable number of trophy heads—were killed by Lady Bountiful.
In the guest wing at Cleveholm, rooms are distinguished by different colored fireplaces: The architectural plans call out lavender, cerise, blue, pink, and green rooms, each with a private sink. Today the guest suites are named after famous visitors who enjoyed the Osgoods’ hospitality, an eclectic mix of the day’s leading figures.
Financiers J.P. Morgan, George Gould, and John D. Rockefeller (Senior and Junior) each found occasion to trade New York City’s gray urban canyons for the steep vermilion walls of the valley to talk business with Osgood. President Theodore Roosevelt stayed at Cleveholm during his hunting trip to Colorado in the spring of 1905, and was reported to have stationed himself on the porch like it was a decadent hunting blind as he shot at animals that were driven in front of the house for him.
Redstone was a coal town, but it was not a coal mining town. The coal was extracted from the mountain at Coal Basin, twelve miles west of Redstone up Coal Creek. In the summer, one can drive up the old logging road to the vanished townsite, where the mine area and the affected waterways have been the focus of extensive environmental reclamation efforts in recent years. Last summer, new property owners (heirs to Sam Walton’s Walmart fortune) created a free public mountain bike park that they intend to further the ongoing reclamation effort. But none of that is visible under the snow. The road is only plowed up to where the canyon begins, about a mile from town. So that’s where we strap on our snowshoes.
“Beautiful isn’t it? Winter is finally here!” one fellow traveler calls out to us as we make our way in the falling snow up Coal Basin trail toward the mine. And indeed it is. The snow falls heavily in massive fluffy flakes, landing cold against the skin on our faces and blurring out our view of the pine-covered slopes and red canyon walls just a few hundred yards down the trail. The effect, once again, is galactic. Only this time, instead of hurtling through the star-strewn universe, it feels like we’re standing at its center.
When we stop and the swish and crunch of the snowshoes pauses, the scene comes alive with other sounds. The big fluffy snowflakes create a lively static as they crash to earth. The river alongside the trail flows under snow-covered ice and emerges in burbling windows that look mirror-black in the flat light of the snow. A bird sings somewhere from a frosted pine.
In Redstone’s heyday, the chorus might also have included the chug and metallic whine of the narrow gauge railroad line, affectionately called the Columbine Road for the profuse wildflowers that lined its route, contorting its way through the canyon twice a day. The winding rails, which allowed the train to straighten out at only one point as it navigated through the canyon, carried passengers and, most importantly, hauled coal between Coal Basin and Redstone.
A few words here about that coal: Coal is an umbrella term for a variety of organic sedimentary rock types that will burn. The old Spencer hot water boiler in our 1918 Denver home still has instructions tacked to the wall detailing which coals to feed it: “pea coke or coke screened from coke braize; bituminous coals, such as Illinois No. 4 and No. 3 when mixed half-and-half with anthracite buckwheat or pea coal; Colorado lignates and Arkansas coals” all “properly proportioned.” The level of detail humbles me: a person really had to know their coal at the turn of the century. One type in particular—bituminous coking coal—was the secret to smelting Colorado’s ore into precious metal and for manufacturing iron and steel. This was the type of coal John Cleveland Osgood extracted from the Crystal River Valley.
Some 800 tons of that bituminous coal was being transported each day from Coal Basin to Redstone to be transformed in the coke ovens in 1903. Coke is coal that has been heated in the absence of air to burn off impurities and concentrate the fuel’s energy-producing carbon. The coal was baked in domed ovens that were loaded from the top and closed to allow it to bake slowly for two to three days.
Redstone’s battery of 250 beehive-style ovens (these are the ruins still visible along the other side of the highway) are arranged in two back-to-back rows to efficiently share the heat they generated. The smoke from the ovens was toxic and spewed tar, ammonia, benzol, and other pollutants that often killed vegetation for miles in the vicinity. The end result was valuable gray cinders of almost pure energy that burned hot enough to smelt precious metal or fire steelmaking blast furnaces.
The people who powered Colorado’s coal operations at the turn of the century hailed from around the world. Coal camps were notably cosmopolitan communities, diverse by design thanks to international recruiting programs funded by the operators. In 1901, twenty-seven different languages were spoken throughout the CF&I’s mining camps.
But tending the coke ovens was one of the least desirable jobs in the coal fields. Hot, dirty, and poisonous, the work was often done by the most recent and low-status immigrants—particularly those from southern Italy and the Slavic regions of eastern Europe (often referred to as “Austrians” because they had lived in the Austro-Hungarian empire)—who were looked down upon by other immigrant communities in the coal fields.
By 1903, Redstone’s ovens produced 11,000 tons of coke a month that was shipped to CF&I’s steel mill at Pueblo and smelters throughout Colorado. Between 1900 and 1909—the peak operating years—Coal Basin produced one million tons of coal. But by 1908, with demand declining and the steel mill upgrades running behind schedule, CF&I was producing more coke than it could market. The days of the Columbine Road were numbered.
From the window of our third-floor room at the Redstone Inn, I look at The Boulevard as snow gently falls again in big fluffy flakes. Redstone looks like the setting for a heartwarming holiday movie. The inn would certainly be a location in such a film. The same The New York Times reporter who christened the town the “Ruby of the Rockies” described the Redstone Inn as “a model little hostelry in old English style” when it opened in the fall of 1902. A succession of preservation-minded owners—and perhaps a bit of benign neglect—over the ensuing 120 years have retained the character that charmed the Times writer.
A more extensive Camp and Plant review in 1903 boasted that “The Inn contains all the conveniences and appliances of a modern hotel,” noting among them “steam heating apparatus, electric lights, hot and cold water, bathrooms, closets, barber shop, laundry, telephone, beautifully furnished lounging and reading room, and all the accessories.” While some of these features have lost a bit of their luster in the glare of modern convenience today, the lounging and reading room has remained a constant.
It is still beautifully furnished, and guests still congregate there for conversation, a game of chess, or simply to sit beside the warming fire. A mural above the hearth in the cozy fireside room has greeted generations of guests (at least those who could read Dutch) with this bit of advice: “Derkoop de huid niet voor de Beer gesch oten is,” or “Don’t sell the hide before the bear is shot.” The taxidermied trophies Alma Osgood had mounted to the walls testify to the practicality of this advice.
The inn, which was built to provide comfortable quarters for bachelor cokers, was an expression—one of the more generous expressions—of a broader movement toward welfare capitalism at the turn of the century. Historians like Thomas Andrews, F. Darrell Munsell, and H. Lee Scamehorn suggest that the coal company towns built in Colorado around the turn of the twentieth century were a response to the perceived threat of growing union sentiment and strikes among their workforce.
In the unrelenting tension between labor and management, John Cleveland Osgood was no advocate for labor. He was a vocal opponent of the eight-hour work day, claimed credit for developing the scrip system that paid workers with company coupons rather than cash, promoted the “closed camp” system in which companies built the towns their workers lived in, and refused to countenance unions.
The Denver Times related Osgood’s view of unions during a strike in Colorado’s coal fields in 1901: “I have never known a union among coal miners that was not a curse to the man as well as the employer. The labor union that is trying to control miners in Colorado is the most objectionable organization I have ever known. If we cannot get men to work in our mines unless they belong to the United Mine Workers, then we will close our mines.”
In the context of this grim view of unions, Osgood’s vision for Redstone as a workers’ haven built at company expense represented his attempt to relegate the union to irrelevance. He could try to make the union unnecessary by providing better for his workers than any company had ever done before. Osgood and his fellow reform-minded welfare capitalists (as they’ve come to be known) found what they thought was a sweet spot between their humanitarian concern for their workers’ welfare and their capitalist desire to prevent costly labor disputes. By assuming greater responsibility for the circumstances under which their employees lived and labored, they hoped to keep them doing both in service to the company.
To lead this effort, Osgood promoted Doctor Richard Corwin, who’d spent two decades running the company’s small hospital at the steel mill in Pueblo, to be the head of CF&I’s newly formed Sociological Department in 1901. Corwin was to “have general charge of all matters pertaining to education and sanitary conditions and any other matters which should assist in bettering the conditions under which our men live,” explained CF&I general manager Julian Kebler.
With the resources and breadth of CF&I to draw upon, Corwin was suddenly positioned to be one of the leading practitioners of Progressive thought among the activists who were then implementing a litany of social and economic reforms aimed at improving the lives of the working class. Corwin believed that the responsibility for providing “a healthy social and intellectual life for…adults… must be [borne] by the great corporations controlling the coal fields, for they have the means and control the situation.”
As early as 1899, Osgood and other company officials had noted the substandard conditions that many CF&I employees lived in. Corwin had inspected the company’s town at El Moro, northeast of Trinidad, and concluded that workers’ poor living conditions were responsible for high rates of illness in the workforce.
Determining that it would be a relatively small investment for the company to construct houses and other improvements that would upgrade workers’ quality of life, Corwin spearheaded an effort to do just that. The company’s Camp and Plant magazine, which the Sociological Department produced, was soon routinely full of photographs and descriptions of the new homes and whole new towns—not just at Redstone, but at Primero, Fierro, Berwind, and others—erected by the company for its workers.
Explaining that “Education is the master-key to the whole social betterment situation,” Corwin established universal kindergarten for all children in CF&I towns. The Redstone schoolhouse was one of the finest buildings in the community. And to ensure that workers and their families received the healthcare they needed, Corwin expanded the company’s Minnequa Hospital at Pueblo into a new, state-of-the-art facility capable of providing high-level care to employees at no-to-little cost.
Corwin was one of Colorado’s leading Progressives at the time, which is to say he also embodied many of the shortcomings of the self-sure reform movement that has come to be viewed by contemporary activists and scholars as well-intended but undermined by paternalism and racism. For example, Camp and Plant often made a point of pairing its alluring photos of new company homes with contrasting “before” shots of the shacks, tents, log cabins, and adobe buildings that Italian, Mexican, and other employees had previously built for themselves. All of which, the captions rarely failed to note, had been “torn down and replaced” by the “hygienic” new homes built by the company.
Most perniciously, Corwin’s efforts to promote social betterment, as he called it, among CF&I’s workers and their families were entwined in his embrace of eugenics. A pseudoscience that promoted a healthy society through the manipulation of human heredity, eugenicists advocated for limitations on the procreation of those people they viewed as inferior. Forced sterilization, institutionalization, involuntary abortion, and even euthanasia were the tools of eugenicists, and they were administered disproportionately to people of color and those in poverty.
Many leading Progressives, including social worker Jane Addams and trustbusting President Theodore Roosevelt, embraced eugenics as the solution to social ills. Corwin enthusiastically joined them, explaining in 1913 that “upon eugenics rests the salvation of the race.” The paternalism that animated his homebuilding program and school curriculums, and the racism evident in his endorsement of eugenics, cannot be separated from his motivations for promoting social betterment among CF&I workers.
For his part, Osgood made Redstone a laboratory for many of Corwin’s ideas, but he never hid the pragmatic calculus he applied to the whole enterprise. As one of the leading sociological journals of the day, The Outlook, reported in 1902, “While some stockholders might criticize the using of company funds for such humanizing purposes, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Company, Mr. John C. Osgood, declares he is simply carrying out good business principles in promoting the welfare of his employees. ‘We do not ask credit as philanthropists,’ he says; ‘we are aiming to carry out common-sense business ideas in the conduct of business.’”
Against the backdrop of a bitter and violent strike in the Pennsylvania coal fields that threatened the nation with a “coal famine” during the winter of 1902–03, Osgood’s welfare capitalism at Redstone must have seemed like good business indeed. Even more so when strike came once again to the southern Colorado coal fields in 1903–04 and the workers of Redstone and Coal Basin declined to join their fellow colliers. Osgood had built Redstone in the hopeful expectation that workers would exchange labor solidarity and militancy for workplace satisfaction and loyalty. And when it was tested that is, in fact, what happened. The investment in welfare capitalism paid dividends.
The only room at Cleveholm in which the view is obscured by bars on the windows is John Cleveland Osgood’s ground-floor study with its large walk-in safe. As we enter from the billiard room across the hall, it is tempting to imagine the cigar smoke in the air (Osgood smoked a handful or more each day), the business deals struck over the crack of billiard balls, and the safe door ajar as he worked at his desk.
Here, one of America’s richest men had schemed against the United Mine Workers of America as it tried to organize CF&I workers, strategized to repel a hostile takeover effort by John “Bet-a-Million” Gates and US Steel, and poured over financial statements as he tried to stem the losses from his behindschedule expansion plans to modernize the Pueblo steel plant. And here, he finally recognized that he would lose control of the company he had built; a company that had grown into one of the most significant industrial concerns in America in just two decades.
Even as builders were putting the finishing touches on Cleveholm, trouble was on the horizon for John Cleveland Osgood. When John D. Rockefellers Junior and Senior visited Cleveholm in the fall of 1902, they were not simply enjoying the Rocky Mountain scenery. Osgood was once again courting royalty—this time of the American aristocracy—for money.
He needed funds to fight off the hostile takeover attempt and continue with expansion plans at the steel mill down in Pueblo. The Rockefellers, along with George Gould, invested to supply the funds Osgood needed. But the deal proved fateful. Osgood did defeat the takeover bid in 1902, but he found himself overextended in the aftermath. When his creditors moved to take over the company from him, he could do nothing to stop them. He surrendered control of the CF&I to the Rockefellers and Gould in 1903.
Osgood insisted that Redstone, which he had built under the auspices of the company but with money that he considered his own personal funds, was not part of CF&I and not part of the deal. He wanted to keep his estate intact, and as long as the coal was flowing to the CF&I’s operations (and balance sheets) the Rockefellers did not fight him on it.
Lady Bountiful still frequently visited the town—traversing the road along the river in her yellow-wheeled buggy with a fringed umbrella and, later, her electric car—and inquired after its residents. She still arranged Christmas parties for the children. And the CF&I Sociological Department continued to operate the school and provide medical care. Life in Redstone was pleasant enough that superintendent T.M. Gibb felt moved to tell the Engineering and Mining Journal in 1907, perhaps with only a touch of managerial hyperbole, “This isn’t a camp—it’s a mountain village!”
Some of the town’s original residents seemed to feel the same way. They formed a mandolin club and a brass band. Theater productions were also popular and staged in the well-appointed auditorium in the town’s clubhouse, which served as a special event venue as well as a place for workers to shower, change, and unwind after the day’s work. Club members (who paid 50 cents a month for their membership) enjoyed a reading room with a selection of periodicals in a variety of languages, a library, pool and billiard tables, and penny-ante poker. The bar was well stocked, as Corwin and Osgood recognized that prohibition within the town led thirsty working men to bootlegging and the black market.
Many of the testimonials we have today about how workers and their families enjoyed their lives in Redstone are from the company’s self-serving perspective, but Norma Kenney wrote her memoir long after there was any company interest to flatter or appease. She was a teacher at the Redstone school while her husband served as the town caretaker, and she remembered their time there in an egalitarian light. She recalled a community in which “There was talking, visiting, borrowing, sharing, and mingling among the workers. Each type of work brought a paycheck home, which in turn was exchanged for company script [sic]. There were gradations in the paychecks, to be sure, but this did not affect life in Redstone, where without modern transportation and communication a close knit community had emerged.”
But, despite all the comfortable living arrangements, Redstone struggled. Turnover remained vexingly high, with workers often leaving to go work in the fruit orchards over McClure Pass at Paonia. In some ways, by providing so many of the elements of daily life, the company invited the concentration of workers’ frustrations—and if you were a coal miner or coker in Colorado at the turn of the century, there were going to be frustrations, no matter how nice your house was. If the company had not been so prominent in their lives, workers’ frustrations may have been more diffused among the many entities that create the texture of most Americans’ daily lives.
Part of the workers’ discontent may have been attributable to the dilution of the welfare capitalism philosophy that gave Redstone reason for its unique existence. After the Rockefeller-Gould group took over, the new management soon began dismantling the Sociological Department and, with it, many of the social betterment programs that had underpinned the construction of Redstone and many of the company’s other efforts at improving the quality of life for workers and their families.
The altruism that motivated the Progressive movement and its corporate expression through welfare capitalism had effortlessly overlapped with the desire for increased control over workers that motivated many of the day’s management strategies. Without the gilded handcuffs of welfare capitalism that made workers beholden to the company for higher quality of life than they could get elsewhere, there was little to obscure the company’s exploitation of its workers.
Whatever benevolence may have motivated Osgood’s creation of Redstone, it could never be separated out from his animosity toward the union. That animosity was on display a little more than a decade later when Osgood, now president of the Victor American Coal Company, was the spokesperson for the coal operators during another bitter strike in southern Colorado. He resolutely refused to negotiate with the union or acknowledge any legitimacy in the workers’ grievances. Even after the public recoiled from the violence that indiscriminately killed women and children when the state militia attacked the striking miners’ camp at Ludlow in April 1914, Osgood blamed the United Mine Workers of America for instigating the slaughter.
As we pack up on the last morning of our getaway, I look out at Redstone one last time. The town still stands much as it did when it was first built, a historic district for good reason. But the still-falling snow collecting on roofs, yards, fences, and signs softens their edges, and I can’t help thinking about how the accumulation of years can similarly blur our view of past events and the memories that sit in a place.
John Cleveland Osgood’s sociological experiment in welfare capitalism lasted only a decade in the Crystal River Valley and was, essentially, over before the Ludlow Massacre exposed more flaws at the heart of this policy. The coke ovens at Redstone went cold in 1909 as declining precious metal mining depressed demand for coke. The decision to establish the coking operation at Redstone and build the model company town here was based less on a business decision for a coking coal supply and more on Osgood’s desire to build his own home in the breathtakingly picturesque valley. When times got tough, there was not a strong enough case to keep it open.
The Osgoods shuttered Cleveholm as operations were shutting down at Redstone, leaving the workforce to seek opportunities elsewhere. As Redstone became a near-ghost town, The Denver Post reporter Lord Ogilvy eulogized in 1911 that “I have seen the Redstone sociological achievement of Mr. Osgood referred to as an experiment, but it was a great deal more than that; it was an achievement, the successful achievement of an idea often promulgated and seldom carried into effect.”
After he lost control of CF&I, Osgood did what he’d done before: He started over. In the wake of the tragedy that her husband had helped bring about at Ludlow, Alma went to France to help with the war effort as a nurse. Coincidentally, John’s first wife Irene, now the inheritor of a large home in the English countryside, was engaged similarly, turning her estate into a hospital during the war. After the war, John sued for divorce from Alma on grounds of abandonment, although he continued to express his admiration for her until the end of his life.
In 1920, shortly after his divorce from Alma was officially granted, John Cleveland Osgood married for a third time, saying his vows with Lucille Reid. The couple toured Europe before returning to live at Cleveholm in 1924. They launched a flurry of restoration and updates to reopen the estate and turn it into a year-round resort, but the effort was cut short by John’s failing health. When he died of stomach cancer just after the New Year in 1926, Lucille honored his wishes to scatter his ashes in the Crystal River and to burn his papers.
Lucille Osgood tried to carry on with the couple’s vision for a resort at Redstone, but as the Depression settled in she was forced to dismantle some of the original homes to get them off of the tax roll and to sell others. She finally sold Cleveholm in 1940, getting $20,000 for it—a steep drop from the $2.5 million Osgood had spent building it. In the year after the sale, only twelve people called Redstone home.
Depending on which side of the day’s politics you were on, John Cleveland Osgood was either a robber baron or a captain of industry. The distinction is important—the difference between heartless exploitation and essential economic leadership. Without his papers, which might have allowed us to appreciate his worldview more fully, we are left to take the measure of the man not from his own words but from the way he is reflected in his actions and those close to him.
The portrait that emerges is of an adroit and driven businessman, capable of recognizing opportunity, adapting to circumstances, cultivating close relationships, inspiring loyalty from friends, and able to confront multiple challenges at once. But it is also of a man who regarded the feudal systems of the past with an anachronistic longing, felt his workers owed him fealty if not gratitude, and who fought against unions with both enticing subversion and unyielding ferocity.
Whatever the mixture of altruism and self-interest that inspired him to build Redstone, the community Osgood enabled offered workers and their families a quality of life that was otherwise unattainable for most. It was a prescient way of doing business. His strategic embrace of welfare capitalism still echoes in the employer-provided health insurance enjoyed by many workers today, to say nothing of the bus passes, recreation amenities, workplace happy hours, and other employee benefits that have become entrenched in Americans’ workplace expectations today.
And so to visit Redstone today is not really to step back in time. Leaving aside the fact that it is no more possible to do than it is to step into the same proverbial river twice, that phrase often covers all manner of wishful recreations of the past. Most often, these enticing visions of the past are calibrated, perhaps unconsciously, to reinforce historical narratives that paper over the complexity and drain the real color away from a place in time and the people who were there.
But a trip to Redstone is an invitation to envision the people of the past, not so different from Stacie or me (or, I’d guess, you), navigating the complexities of life and work in the way that seemed best to them on any given day. Sometimes in ways that inspire, befuddle, or infuriate those of us who come after.
In our histories, and in our contemporary lives, we often long for our heroes to be pure of heart: “Pecturo Puro” as John Cleveland Osgood inscribed in the stone crest over the central hearth of his great manor house. We want the past to offer us clear lessons. And it’s tempting to think of historians as something akin to journalists of the past, simply reporting events as they happened and describing their self-evident meaning.
But events of the past often lead us to multifaceted and sometimes contradictory takeaways in the present. The better analogy for historical practice is detective work, investigating the past through an array of methods and a range of sources (sometimes contradictory sources) to carefully parse what they can tell us in order to develop a clearer understanding of how we got to now and how we can continue to move toward a more just society.
Every place has a story. The quiet, contemplative sites around Redstone in the winter invite us to imagine ourselves as part of Colorado’s unfolding story. Sometimes those stories are more complicated or not the ones we wish they were. Perhaps it seems increasingly so to some of us. But, for places as for people, history is not destiny. Each generation looks to the past for instruction, insight, or inspiration, and then applies those lessons to create our lives and, ultimately, our shared future.
For Further Reading
Those who want to delve deeper into the intertwined stories of Redstone, John Cleveland Osgood, and the Ludlow Massacre have a number of excellent options for further reading. Sylvia Ruland’s biography, The Lion of Redstone, offers a well-researched portrait of Osgood. H. Lee Scamehorn’s work on the history of the CF&I enriches that portrait with Pioneer Steelmaker in the West: The Colorado Fuel and Iron Company 1872-1903, Mill and Mine: The CF&I in the Twentieth Century, and “John C. Osgood and the Western Steel Industry,” Arizona and the West 15:2 (Summer 1973), 133-48. Additionally, Scamehorn’s High Altitude Energy: A History of Fossil Fuels in Colorado offers wider context on the coal industry that CF&I was a part of. Thomas G. Andrews focuses on the factors that lead to the violence at Ludlow in Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War, while F. Darrell Munsell tracks Osgood’s relationship to unions in From Redstone to Ludlow: John Cleveland Osgood’s Struggle Against the United Mine Workers of America. F. Darrell Munsell and Jane R. Munsell also teamed up for a history of the Osgood’s at Cleveholm in Redstone: John Cleveland Osgood’s “Ruby of the Rockies.” Brian Clason and Jonathan Rees investigated how eugenic theory influenced CF&I policy in “Dr. Richard Corwin and Colorado’s Changing Racial Divide,” in Making an American Workforce: The Rockefellers and the Legacy of Ludlow, edited by Fawn-Amber Montoya (University Press of Colorado, 2014), reprinted in The Colorado Magazine, Winter 2020-21, 8-15. The New York Times, which seemed particularly interested in Redstone and Osgood, makes its archives available online.
The Hart Research Center at History Colorado contains numerous helpful sources, including the John Cleveland Osgood manuscript collection (those that Lucille Osgood didn’t burn), Alma Osgood’s sheet music for the “Redstone Waltz” and a recording of it, historic newspapers including the Crystal River Current, Norma Kenny’s manuscript The Hidden Place: Redstone, and Alvin Foote’s The Fabulous Valley as an example of mid-twentieth-century efforts to develop the region’s tourism industry. The National Register of Historic Places nominations for Cleveholm and the Redstone Historic District are wealths of information and also available through History Colorado. Finally, the Steelworks Center of the West, an archive located in CF&I’s former headquarters in Pueblo, has helpfully digitized the full run of Camp and Plant.
Finally, anyone interested in considering the nature of history work—and its power to play a constructive role in our polarized society—will benefit from exploring the American Association for State and Local History’s Reframing History report, which informed my thoughts about the conclusion of this essay.
Every happy traveler owes a debt of gratitude to those they meet along the way and those who make the trip possible in the first place. My gratitude extends to the staff of the Redstone Inn for ensuring that the snow storm did not intrude on a comfortable stay, to April and Steve Carver for their gracious hospitality in opening up Cleveholm for a special winter tour, Victoria Miller of the Steelworks Center of the West for research assistance, the staff of the Hart Research Center and the Curatorial Services department at History Colorado for their multifaceted assistance, Stacie Hanson for her skillful camerawork despite frozen fingers, and Vaughn and Carolyn Hanson for taking care of our children while we were on this journey.