The Jerkwater Train and Lafayette’s First Black Residents

Two Denver & Interurban trollies, left, share tracks with a Colorado & Southern locomotive that originated in Lafayette, Colorado circa 1918. The location is confirmed as Louisville, Colorado although the original caption for the image describes it as “Louisville Junction” which was about 3 miles south of Louisville.

The local Colorado and Southern (C & S) train depot was a beehive of activity in the 1920s, as hundreds of daily commuters hopped on the “Jerkwater Train” to make their connection to trollies headed to Denver.

The “Jerkwater Train” ran 3.5 miles each way between Lafayette and Louisville. Once in Louisville, commuters transferred to the Denver & Interurban (D & I) passenger trolley.

Colorado & Southern’s main business was transporting coal, but the company also ran passenger service. The depot was located at today’s Finch Avenue just north of Cannon Street. A second depot serving the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad was located at Burlington Avenue and E. Geneseo

“Jerkwater” is a term used to describe a small town in a remote location. Its railroad derivation came from steam locomotives serving remote towns having to be refilled a pail at a time using bucket brigades.

C & S owned the Denver & Interurban Railroad Company, a heavy passenger trolley known as “The Kite Route” that was powered by overhead electrical lines powered by Lafayette’s Interurban Power Plant at Waneka Lake. Starting in 1908, the D & I made 18 daily round trips between Denver and Boulder, through Louisville, on C & S tracks. In later years, the D & I ran every two hours from 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. The transit company was closed in 1932.

Until about 1930, traveling to Denver by rail was easy, inexpensive and reliable. Unlike today’s paved roadways and freeways, roads in those days were indirect and difficult to navigate. One local resident who took an occasional automobile excursion to Denver said that a driver’s best friend was a patch kit — it was not unusual to have several flat tires on the way to Denver and several on the way back.

Compare and contrast to the rail service, which got daily commuters to Denver and back in matter of a few hours.

Likely daily commuters on the C & S / D & I line were Jesse Reynolds, Ellis Bee Thomas and James Jackson, Lafayette’s earliest known Black residents. We don’t know the exact address of their residency, but all three registered for the 1918 WW I draft in Lafayette and listed their house address as “Lafayette, Colo.” They were among 559 area men (all residing in what is today’s 80026 ZIP code) who filled out draft registration cards that asked for age, race, place of birth and vocation. The bulk of local registrants were white, either naturalized citizens or born in the United States. One hundred thirty four were recent immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe, 15 were from Japan and only 12 had Latino surnames (and composed of both native-born citizens from New Mexico and southern Colorado and recent immigrants from Mexico and Spain).

Federal census records show that Lafayette had an almost exclusively white Anglo-Saxon population until 1910 when the Long Strike started. After that, our Latino population did grow, but individual census records through 1940 don’t show any Black residents.

The 1918 WW I draft registration cards show that Reynolds, Thomas and Jackson listed their employers as “State of Colorado.” Jackson and Thomas indicated that they worked as “State Guards.” Since there weren’t any state facilities near Lafayette (the I know of), this meant that they would have commuted daily to work in Denver via the Denver & Interurban Railroad. Jesse Reynolds is mentioned in a June 14, 1918 Lafayette Leader as one of “twenty-three Lafayette boys who have become of age since June 5, 1917, and who are subject to call to fighting forces of Uncle Sam.” Reynolds shows up again in 1920 Federal census records as residing in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He also registered for the WW II draft in 1943 and listed his home address as Denver and his vocation as an employee of the U.S. Mint.

Historically (and unfortunately), Lafayette doesn’t have a lot to celebrate (locally) when it comes to Black History Month. Our city’s history of hate and racism goes back to 1893 when the Boulder Daily Camera congratulated an angry mob for assaulting and chasing a man of Chinese descent out of Lafayette. The overt racism was largely fostered by union coal miners, which subsided when Latino coal miners were allowed to join the union during the Long Strike of 1910 to 1914. The 1920s and 1930s, when the local KKK Klavern prided itself as having the most active KKK membership in the state, were by far the worst decades for persons of color.

Acknowledging those decades of hate has been a long time coming. It was always swept under the rug. And one can only imagine how difficult it would have been for Reynolds, Thomas and Jackson to live in a place they weren’t welcomed. Today, Lafayette’s at about 22 percent persons of color, and our city council is a model of diversity. Great strides, but let’s keep moving forward.