By: Randy Tucker
A boarded-up memory is all that remains of one of the most prominent spots on the Overland Stage Route north from Denver into Wyoming.
Established in 1862, Virginia Dale has a storied past, but as with many, once well-known mileposts of the American West, all that still stands is a decaying building with a “For Sale” sign out front.
Its wild 19th-century past is the stuff of legend, and its role in preserving the safety and sanity of more modern travelers taking Highway 287 from Ft. Collins north to Laramie is rife with legends of its own.
During the brutal blizzard of 1949, several dozen travelers took refuge in the tiny store and post office, surviving for more than a week before the roads were opened again.
Our story takes place well before the infamous winter of 1949, even before another brutal winter in 1886-87 that ended open range cattle ranching across the west.
Jack Slade managed the roadhouse at Virginia Dale. A roadhouse was the precursor to the modern roadside motel and featured a restaurant, stables for horses, and a corral with replacement teams for the weary horses that had just pulled the stage up the steep slopes from Ft. Collins and Laporte below to the edge of the high plains that led to Tie Siding, and on into Laramie and the Union Pacific railhead.
Slade was a notorious drunk, a mean one to boot. His prize possession was an 1860 Army Colt revolver that had been converted from ball and cap to handle metal cartridges. His .44 never left his side. He also carried a 10-gauge side-by-side shotgun on his many nefarious adventures.
When he wasn’t drunk or terrorizing locals that crossed him, Slade was said to be an amiable host at the little Virginia Dale community.
His habit of robbing the stagecoach he was hired to refit, and service never resulted in his arrest, though many locals knew it was Slade behind the thin bandana covering his face on repeated state coach robberies.
On the trail north from Ft. Collins, the stage route winds through a tight passage through the rocks at Owl Creek.
Slade had a regular supply of fresh, unbranded horses near the passage. These horses were acquired from unwary travelers on the trail by Slade’s less than reputable trading partners.
Slade would climb on the rocks near a ledge that was the same height as the stagecoach as it passed through. He’d jump onto the top of the stagecoach, pull his Colt, and hold up the stage, all with hand gestures so no one could hear his voice. There were several ledges over a couple of miles on the trail, so the coachmen never knew if, when, or where a bandit might strike.
After disarming the coachmen, Slade took the stage strongbox and relieved any passengers of currency, coins, and jewelry before scrambling up the rocks to his waiting horse.
As the coachmen reloaded the passengers, then began driving the team towards the Virginia Dale stop, Slade would ride at full gallop up an adjacent trail to his roadhouse. With the lathered-up horse locked away in the barn happily eating oats, Slade would sit reclining in a chair, with his feet up on the rail around the deck of the roadhouse as the stagecoach approached.
He was all ears, intent on the news of the robbery. He promised to raise a posse, set the injustice right, and find the scoundrel.
But of course, he never did.
It was a lucrative trade in robbing those he served, maybe a lesson learned by less than scrupulous modern corporations.
In later years, well past the statute of limitations, Slade admitted to stealing at least $60,000 over the years with his scheme of armed robbery and feigned innocence.
Virginia Dale remained a convenience store and post office into the early 1990s, but was eventually abandoned. The post office was closed, or “retired,” in postal terms in 1993.
The property lies four miles south of the Wyoming border, and a few miles north of a little white church and cemetery built on Deadman’s Creek in 1880.
The Virginia Dale Community Church continues to hold services each Sunday and is a favorite wedding location for young couples from Colorado State and the University of Wyoming.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.