The end of the story — at least the Hollywood version — is the stuff of legend: Butch Cassidy and his partner-in-crime the Sundance Kid, frozen in time, charging headlong into a hail of gunfire near the Bolivian town of San Vicente.
The beginning of the story, however, took place a little closer to home: on Telluride’s main street.
On the morning of June 24, 1889, Robert LeRoy Parker, who would soon become the notorious train and bank robber known by his alias Butch Cassidy, and his accomplice Matt Warner walked into the San Miguel Valley Bank, at the site of what is now the Mahr Building, at 129/131 W. Colorado Ave. Warner pulled the teller over his desk, threatening him with death as Parker filled a bag with cash, eventually calculated to be $20,750, more than half a million dollars in today’s currency when adjusted for inflation.
Butch Cassidy had just committed his first bank robbery, launching his career as a notorious Old West outlaw that would span two decades until his 1908 death in Bolivia. (Some historians, professional and amateur, claim Cassidy didn’t die in Bolivia, but rather survived into the 1920s or ’30s, and returned to the United States in disguise).
Warner, Parker and one or two other accomplices then headed west out of Telluride on horseback, urging their horses into a gallop and firing their revolvers as a warning to any would-be pursuers as they left town. The group crested Keystone Hill, a few miles west of Telluride, where a horse relay was awaiting them, one of several relay points manned by friends who were given a share of the stolen money in exchange for their assistance in the getaway.
A posse, led by Sheriff J.A. Beattie, pursued the bandits out of town, but Telluride Town Marshall Jim Clark was conspicuously missing from the group. Apparently, Clark had pressing business and was away that day, though rumors later swirled that he was in on the holdup.
According to Wilson Rockwell’s book “Doc Shores: Memoirs of a Lawman,” a compilation and republication of the memoirs of Shores, the Gunnison County Sheriff at the time, Clark admitted the robbers had left him $2,200 of the take under a log along their getaway route in exchange for his timely out-of-town trip.
“The fellers who held up the bank were friends of mine. They told me their plans and said that if I made a point of being out of town at the time of the robbery they would give me a fair share of the take,” Clark told Shores, according to the memoirs.
Clark was later involved in another infamous Telluride story when the town marshal was shot and killed in 1895 at the corner of Colorado Avenue and Spruce Street, now the site of the pocket park between restaurants The Butcher & Baker and Honga’s Lotus Petal. He was likely assassinated because of his involvement in the labor battles going on in Telluride at the time, possibly on the orders of a Telluride town councilman.
Parker (a.k.a. Cassidy) wasn’t a stranger to Telluride when he rode into town and robbed the San Miguel Valley Bank in 1889. Just after his 18th birthday in 1884, Parker left his family’s ranch in southern Utah and headed to find work in Telluride’s mines.
The young man who would become Butch Cassidy was hired to pack ore onto mules and bring the valuable materials from the mines high in the mountains around Telluride down to the mills.
Parker was keeping a colt of his on a local rancher’s property, and eventually he decided to remove it from the ranch. After Parker took his colt from the property, the ranch owner accused him of stealing the animal, and he was arrested and tried for the crime in Montrose. He was eventually acquitted but left Telluride to find work on ranches around Wyoming and Montana, until he returned to the box canyon a few years later to begin his life of crime.
Parker’s horse skills were legendary, and when he returned to Telluride for a second time in 1888, a year before the bank robbery, he started racing horses for money with his new friend and future accomplice Matt Warner.
The two men, along with Tom McCarty, began racing horses around the region and raking in winnings, which were typically blown in Telluride’s brothels and saloons soon after they were won. Eventually, the three began to struggle to find race horses and opponents and took up work on a nearby ranch, which was not quite up to their standard of excitement. Finding themselves bored (and probably poorer) with their new lives as ranch hands in comparison to their horseracing days, the three returned to Telluride and decided to rob the San Miguel Valley Bank, a decision that would bequeath upon history one of its most infamous outlaws.
Though the finer details about Cassidy’s first foray into lawlessness are up for debate, you can visit some of the sites from his first bank robbery still today. The San Miguel Valley Bank, before it burned down a couple of years after the holdup, was located at what is now the Mahr Building, at 129/131 W. Colorado Ave. A small plaque on the outside of the building, which is now home to Apotheca Integrative Pharmacy, commemorates the site’s place in Old West history. The U.S. Forest Service maintains an interpretive site at Keystone Hill, near Cassidy’s first relay point on his escape route. The turnoff is along Highway 145, just west of Telluride.
Photographs of main street Telluride from the end of the 19th century reveal a town that mostly looked the same as it does now, with pavement substituted for dirt roads and Subarus for vintage horsepower. But the main outline looks virtually identical, with the San Miguel County Courthouse and other major buildings along the road preserving a general stasis in Telluride’s skyline. Next time you’re heading down Colorado Avenue and pass Apotheca, imagine Butch Cassidy, 126 years ago this June, walking right where you are, hauling a sack full of stolen cash, and riding off into the western horizon toward a career as one of the most wanted men in both North and South America.