Fire + Murder Started What Was Known as the Lake County War
Gunfire, flames and much shouting punctuated the morning air on June 17, 1874, to mark the beginning of the Lake County War.
The "war" began when George and Mary Harrington were driven from their home by arsonists who had set an outbuilding on fire. Upon seeing George silhouetted against the flames, they shot and killed him. The deed was witnessed by their infant son and George's younger sister and started what became known as the Lake County War.
While no one was certain, the fire and subsequent murder were thought to have been started by a neighbor, Elijah Gibbs, who had argued with Harrington about irrigation ditch rights. However, Gibbs was acquitted of the murder in a Denver court. Those who believed he was guilty disagreed with the judge and decided to take the law into their own hands.
Gibbs returned to Lake County and his home. 15 men, including lawmen, surrounded Gibbs cabin and demanded he come out to be lynched. Gibbs, of course, refused and they tried to set his home on fire, with him and his family inside. Gunfire soon followed and the men departed, which allowed Gibbs and his family to escape with their lives.
Reforming as the "Committee of Safety" the mob began rounding up anyone sympathetic to Gibbs, in part because they believed he was a member of an outlaw group calling themselves "The Regulators" and began torturing and lynching them, led by lawmen who had tried to get Gibbs the first time.
Judge Elias Dyer was gunned down when he issued warrants for the 28 members of the committee. The Governor of Colorado sent a detective to see what was going on and report back, but he saw nothing substantive, so the lawlessness continued until 1881 when the final murder took place. The death toll was estimated to possibly be in the hundreds, but some put that number far lower.
Eventually, the anger subsided, as did the murders and the area returned to some semblance of peace. But none ever forgot the time in Colorado's past when lawlessness and vigilante justice ruled in Central Colorado.