SHARING THE SAN JUANS WITH THE WORLD…DAVID FRAKES DAY
“It is easy enough to start a paper—keeping it going is what exercises the inventive genius.” –Solid Muldoon editor David Frakes Day.
By Caitlin Switzer
OURAY—(January 1) He lived more than a century ago, and built his business long before the Internet and even the railroads arrived in Western Colorado. Yet the newspaper he started in Ouray in 1879 earned him worldwide fame, an audience with the Queen of England and a place in the history books.
By age 18, Ohio native David Frakes Day had already mustered out of the Union Army after three and a half years of service. Ouray County historian and author Jim Pettengill, author of The Muldoon Man: David Frakes Day (Ouray County Historical Society Magazine Vol. 3, 2005) notes that Day’s experiences as a soldier included fighting at Shiloh, Vicksburg and Atlanta, being wounded at least four times, being captured at least three times—and escaping three times—and earning a Medal of Honor. Even more important, notes Pettengill, were the reading and writing skills the young soldier acquired along the way. After the war, Day followed a beloved commanding officer to Missouri, where he worked, married, fathered five children, and began to write articles for local newspapers.
When Day’s brother Stanley struck out for the San Juans in search of mining riches, David Day and another friend, Jerrold Letcher, soon followed. According to Pettengill, “…they moved to Ouray for good on June 4, 1879. Letcher had located a printing press in Lake City, and Day walked to Lake City over Engineer Pass to buy the press and bring it to Ouray, where he and Letcher planned to open a newspaper. That paper would be The Solid Muldoon, and it would ensure David Day’s place in history.”
West Slope author and historian Sandra Dallas has called the Solid Muldoon “the most irreverent newspaper in the West.” Day was never shy about expressing opinions on any subject, from the removal of the Utes from Colorado to the expansion of Ouray’s red light district. A staunch Democrat, he and his newspaper were funded in part by a group of fellow party members, Pettengill notes. According to Fort Lewis College Professor and Colorado historian Duane A. Smith in his book, The Irrepressible David F. Day (Western Reflections, 2010), “That made him stand out in a state that in the late 1870’s and into the late 1880’s generally voted Republican.”
“Absolutely fearless,” as Smith describes him, “Partisan David took no political prisoners. Politics brought out the best and some believed the worst in the Muldoon’s Day.”
He was also not afraid to boost Ouray’s standing in comparison to other nearby locales, as a number of quotes collected by Smith from various issues of The Solid Muldoon illustrate.
“Visitors to Ouray pronounce it the cleanest and most pleasantly located camp in the state,” he wrote on June 9, 1882, “And it is.”
Montrose, by comparison, “is the most forsaken, desolate, barren looking hole in all Colorado. It is located in the midst of a vast alkali bed where greasewood and sage brush refuse to grow.”
Neighboring Silverton—occasionally referred to as the “the scourge of the San Juans,” endured seemingly endless abuse from Day.
“Silverton is now referred to as ‘the bride of the North Pole,’” he wrote on Jan. 14, 1881.
“Silverton has a heart,” he penned on April 27, 1883. “We saw it going in a few days since—three gamblers, two women and a ‘yeller dog.’”
As for Grand Junction, it was frequently referred to as “Queen Fraud of the Western Slope” by Day, notes Duane Smith, and the subject of an article entitled, “An Empire Founded on Greed, Gall and Prevarication,” that appeared in the Solid Muldoon on Jan 14, 1884.
Durango was “too far from Gunnison to ever amount to anything,” while Lake City was “too far from Ouray to ever make much of a town.”
“Gunnison to have street cars.” Day wrote on April 27, 1883. “A wind break is about what Gunnison needs.”
Even more distant communities did not escape Day’s scorn. On Dec. 12, 1884, he wrote, “The Del Norte Prospector complains of a lack of religious service in that village. Wonder if it ever occurred to the Prospector man that the average Del Norte soul was not worth saving.”
It can be hard to separate fact from fiction when it comes to Day, whom rumor had as the subject of anywhere from 42 to 47 different liable suits.
“He became famous for the saying, ‘No man’s property or life is safe while the legislature is in session.’” Notes Civil War Historian Eric Wittenberg, “Day, known nationwide for his caustic wit, honesty and bitter sarcasm, proved that his pen was as mighty as his sword had been nearly thirty years earlier. His fame even spread to England, where Queen Victoria was said to have read his paper for many years.”
Although most sources agree that Day received a portion of $40,000 for his interest in the El Mahdi in 1888 and toured Europe with the proceeds, Pettengill notes him “being presented to Queen Victoria,” and Smith states simply that he “used his profits to travel to Europe to see the sights.”
Historian Sandra Dallas questioned whether Day ever had an actual audience with the Queen as he later claimed.
“He was not above creating stories to fool his readers,” Dallas wrote in Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps (1985, University of Oklahoma Press). “On a trip to England, he sent back breathless dispatches of his meeting with Queen Victoria, who, he assured readers, was devoted to him and wept with grief when he left.”
Author and Biographer Michael David Kaplan, in his book David Frakes Day, Civil War Hero and Notorious Frontier Newspaperman (McFarland, 2011) writes that Day was presented to the Queen at Victoria Station after a tour of Buckingham Palace.
“The Monarch professed to be an admirer of his, and he later claimed that she was a longstanding subscriber to the Muldoon…in subsequent dispatches, he, with tongue in cheek, described the progress of a preposterous mock love affair between himself and the corpulent, seventy-two-year-old, withdrawn ruler…near the end of his three-month stay, he joked that the Queen was disconsolate by the prospect of his departure. At the same time he seized the opportunity to roast (Denver & Rio Grande Railroad President Dave) Moffat, who was expected to visit the British Isles in the near future:
“Queen Vic shipped her maids of honor to Scotland, anchored Buckingham Palace to the Thames Embankment, issued barbed wire hooks and eyes to the barmaids, suppressed the sale of can openers and appointed a committee of twelve policemen and two gattling guns to receive President Dave Moffat of the Denver & Rio Grande at Liverpool,” wrote Day.
Kaplan points out that Day’s last wire from England “combined the final episode of his mock romance with the Queen with another dig at Moffat: ‘The Queen promised us as we kissed her goodbye at Victoria Station that Dave Moffat would find it ‘a little chilly.’ God save the Queen.”
Moffat, a friend, had thwarted Day’s ambitions in 1886 to create a townsite called Ramona near present day Ouray, in an effort to have the Denver & Rio Grande Railway stop at Ramona, where Day had acquired and sold land to investors. If the plan had succeeded, it would have meant great profits for Day, and certain death for Ouray’s business community. Ouray locals fought back by engineering a deal with Moffat behind Day’s back, and Ramona, named for local author Helen Hunt Jackson, never came into being. The first train, however, pulled into the Ouray Depot on Dec. 15 of 1887, Pettengill notes.
The intrepid Muldoon editor certainly made many enemies—both Pettengill and Smith recall an account by Day’s wife Vic of her husband coming home and sitting down to dinner after a bullet had been fired through his hat, and tales of duels with rival publishers abound. He also made friends, however, the dearest of them none other than Railroad builder Otto Mears.
It is Mears who is suspected of penning the obituary, a portion of which appears below, that appeared when Day died at age 67 in Durango, where he had moved to open a second newspaper, The Durango Democrat, in 1892:
“As public official, journalist and private citizen he was always guided by the uniform principals of rectitude and integrity, with a mind that rose superior to fear, to selfish interest and corruption, but ever zealous for the public uplift and weal.”
The gentle humor that Day brought to his work as a journalist in the San Juans began a tradition that continues today with Kevin Haley’s brilliant San Juan Horsehoe, and can be enjoyed in its original form even now in these delightful briefs from 1884. “Tomorrow will be Arbor Day and property owners should not overlook the shrubbery,” Day wrote on April 25, 1884. On May 2 of that year, he followed up: “Arbor Day was not a howling success in this section, it is only on St. Patrick’s and Bock Beer occasions that our people enthuse.”