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The calaboose, a mighty fine place to keep out of

Some local historians say the calaboose still stands in Fort Collins. Others say it came down years ago. They’re not sure because, despite numerous newspaper accounts, the only address we have for it is a tiny square marked “calaboose” on an old insurance map.

I’ll give you the map. And if you’re an urban hiker type, you’ll want to go out to the site and decide for yourself if it’s still there or not.

But first, let me tell you why anyone even cares about this 20×20-foot  dump of a place on an alley in Old Town.

Calaboose is from the Spanish word for dungeon and was common slang for a local jail 100 years ago. We built ours in 1879, and a dungeon it was. The Rocky Mountain News noted, in 1882, “there could not be a much dirtier or filthier place.”

Who got to stay there? Drunks mostly. But also:

Tex Lindville, in 1881, after he was charged in Fort Collins’ first murder. The shooting took place in what the paper described as, “one of the vilest of vile dens of infamy” on Meldrum street–a whorehouse run by a “dark fallen angel ” (i.e., a black woman). The victim was  a dishwasher named Albert Sherwood, also black.  As such, Lindville’s charge was reduced to carrying a concealed weapon and he soon went free.

Then there were the two black bootleggers, Burnside and Martin. They escaped the calaboose in the middle of the night. The paper said they were helped out as the “outside door was found unlocked and the inner door broken.”  The Fort Collins Courier concludes, “If they …never return … the city is to be congratulated.”

Hm.  Two black men disappear in the middle of the night and nobody bothers to look for them. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

There were other stories– prisoners digging out, nasty fights, resentful guards who had to go out in the rain to fetch dinner for the bad guys. The calaboose was, as early  accounts put it, “a mighty fine place to keep out of.”

[By the way, it wasn’t our only jail at the time. In 1888,  James Howe went to the county jail at the W.Oak courthouse when he killed his wife with a  pocket knife in broad daylight at a stone house on Walnut Street–I’m imagining somewhere between the Wright Life and LeRoy’s Locksafe. In the descriptions of her killing,  she stumbles out of the house and crawls about 10 feet to the curb on Walnut, trying to make her way to Linden, 1/2 block away.

The county jail was probably more secure and appropriate for serious criminals like Howe. Of course,  that mattered little to the local mob who cut the lights and chiseled him out of his cell just hours after the murder. They hung him from a construction crane right across the street from the courthouse. But back to the calaboose…]

I’m telling you all these dark stories because it makes it more fun to go see what’s there now. So, asphalt explorers, get out your walking shoes and a ruler (or dial up Google Maps).  Here is the old Sanborn map that shows the location of the calaboose.

Calaboose map. Click through for large size.

Calaboose map. Click through for large size.

For a very large version, click here.

And here’s a hint…don’t confuse streets with alleys. The alleys are always much narrower. The scale is accurate.

Tell me what you find, and in a week or so, I’ll show you what I found.


Carol Tunner, icon of local history and preservation,  gave me her newspaper research on the calaboose and inspired this story.

Pat at the Local History Archives helped me find the Sanborn map, which wasn’t easy. Thank you very much!


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3 comments to The calaboose, a mighty fine place to keep out of

  • noë

    Sure wish I could go look for it.

  • sgltrak

    Went down there last night and looked around. Didn’t have your plat map with us, but went from memory. I think we found the spot. There was a fenced off section of grass and weeds next to a low concrete building with low doors. There were a couple of characters from a nearby haunted house hangning out in the alley, adding to the creepiness.

  • rob

    Pretty interesting history. I won’t spoil the fun by saying where it is for sure but it’s definitely still there. It’s called the ‘drunk tank’ for a few reasons. The main being what you described. Also, bands now practice there, mine being one of them. On any given day there’s an overflowing trash can full of Coors light bottle and PBR cans. The place smells of stale beer and sweat. In the summer is blistering hot, in the winter just as unbearably cold. There are no windows, there’s carpeting on the walls to drown out the sounds from the bands.
    The moniker is correct ” a mighty fine place to keep out of”. It’s a little gross to be honest. But it’s authentic Fort Collins, it has a lot or character and I wouldn’t have it any other way.