El Moro Tavern: Murder & a Colorado Mule- Nothing mixes better with a cool cocktail than a tale of murder in the wild, wild West. With a rousing history surrounding an unsolved mystery, Durango’s El Moro Tavern boasts this tall order and a gold mine of fine foods and killer libations to boot.
When local restaurateurs, Kris Oyler and Brian McEachron, leased the space at 945 Main Avenue in downtown Durango, they immediately sought out a visit with the Animas Historical Society. Turns out the to-be tavern had been a saloon in the early 1900’s when Durango was still a burgeoning railroad town full of riffraff and rivalry. Hopefuls flocked to the land of opportunity in droves, and the population exploded overnight.
While there were upstanding citizens seeking to make a life and raise families along the banks of the Animas River, derelicts also descended onto the dusty streets of Southwest Colorado’s central hub. Law enforcement struggled to keep up with increasing criminal activities, and prostitution, hangings and the highly-illegal practice of gambling reigned king in some of the more questionable establishments.
From beneath their silk-flowered hat brims, the prim-and-proper Victorian ladies demanded order and justice be brought to those who disobeyed, and Sheriff William “Big Bill” Thompson seemed to be the man for the job. A rancher from Texas, Sheriff Thompson wasn’t a goody-two-shoes by any means, for the tall-walking, gun-slinger liked his whiskey straight from glasses dwarfed by his commanding hand, often before the morning church bell had rung.
During those days, gambling was prohibited by the state of Colorado, and the Sheriff loathed the defiance of certain businessmen, who all but laughed at his efforts to shut down their profitable side enterprises usually held in the back, out of sight. They couldn’t possibly be expected to turn away all of those miners fresh out of the mountains north of town, pockets jangling with six-months pay.
But the saloon keepers had an ally: Marshal Jesse Stansel. Younger and shorter than Big Bill, Marshal Stansel was also more open-minded to the revenue potential of illicit games and despised the Sheriff’s pious stance on gambling. The Marshal even held office at one such locale called the El Moro Saloon, where he collected a fee from the prolific gambling operation held in the backroom. In fact, El Moro served as the unofficial Police Department headquarters for three years.
It was barely high noon on a January day in 1906 when Sheriff Thompson sauntered into El Moro, cigar in hand, past the bartender and straight to the backroom, where he threw out the card players and took the roulette wheel before heading out to the street. Most folks were going about their business, save one: Marshal Stansel.
The two men exchanged words mere feet apart from one another, Thompson berating Stansel for his lack of leadership in shutting down the flagrant gamblers. As the Sheriff turned to walk away, a crack rang out, followed by a dozen more shots, one striking an innocent passerby, who would end up losing his arm. When the smoke cleared, both the Sheriff and Marshal bled, but Sheriff Thompson’s lung was pierced, and the imposing figure would die within the hour. The town was left with one pressing question:
Who fired first?
Stansel was arrested and charged with murder, his bail set at $10,000 ($250,000 in 2017). After the Sheriff’s funeral, Stansel was tried in front of a jury, with 50 witnesses testifying over nine days. Due to insufficient evidence and counter facts presented by witnesses, Stansel would walk free, case closed. Life in Durango went back to normal, and El Moro kept its doors – and gambling operation – open to the public.
“We basically hit the history jackpot,” says Dave Woodruff, El Moro’s general manager. “So we decided to ride those coattails and let our cocktail and food program showcase that history.”
First things first, the crew stripped the modern-day drywall and pillars down to reveal a beautiful brick layer that sets the tone for the modern rustic decor. Iron pipes, warm woods and elegant light fixtures grace the length of the inviting eatery. In the evening hours, silent black-and-white films play on the wall up front, while the kitchen crew works tirelessly to craft some amazing dishes schemed up by El Moro’s award-winning executive chef, Sean Clark.
Besides answering the Oscars-equivalent invite to be the lead chef at the James Beard House in New York City (three times), Clark has also cooked for the Colorado Governor’s Mansion and been the featured chef at the Great American Beer Festival. His dynamic creations range from Molé Rabbit Ragout to Miso Honey Chicken Egg Roll Salad and beyond, to a tantalizing assortment of other world-class, homemade fare from a rotating seasonal menu.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, but we’re breathing life into some old dishes,” says Woodruff.
As their taste buds dance in celebration, happy customers have the unique opportunity to praise the kitchen staff with a sudsy tip: if they love their meal, they can buy a round of PBR’s for the cuisine team. Every time someone buys a round, the crew rings the ram bell, perking up the ears of other customers.
“It’s like a fajita going across the restaurant,” laughs Woodruff. “Everyone wants to know what’s sizzling and what it means. It’s like dominoes.”
Thus, other customers want in on the game, and the kitchen staff ends up pocketing between two and 10 cards a shift (obviously, rewards are cashed in off-the-clock).
While the culinary experience changes seasonally, El Moro’s stellar personnel does not – thanks in part to that genius PBR tradition. Led by Woodruff since El Moro’s opening in 2013, the team is pretty steadfast, with little turnover as the years roll by.
In fact, when El Moro had a fire that shut the restaurant down for three months between November 2016 and January 2017, the restaurant insisted on paying everyone what they were making (including tip) with the understanding that not only would they return when the business was operating again, but each team member would volunteer in the community during the downtime. When the char was finally cleared from the walls, El Moro had lost no more than four employees out of 40 to the ordeal.
“Our employee retention rate is a huge testament to what we have at El Moro,” says Woodruff. “There’s really an incredible amount of talent – just good people doing great things.”
Woodruff points out that the local food scene in Durango is also part of the equation of El Moro’s success. With more restaurants per capita than San Francisco, there’s less a sense of competition than camaraderie, says Woodruff.
“We’re inspired by each other,” he adds. “It really showcases how far we’ve come, even though we’re so far removed.”
That is, Durango is three-and-a-half hours from the nearest interstate. While Denver has grown to become one of the premier cocktail towns in America, Woodruff says that Durango’s bartenders can stand up to the high caliber set by those metropolitan areas.
“We’ve come a long ways, but there’s always room to grow,” he says.
The only direction El Moro won’t be growing is backwards to those olden days of poker and roulette wheels, considering gambling isn’t allowed where alcohol is served – not that anyone would get shot these days for such rebellion. So sidle up to the bar of one of Southwest Colorado’s most notable watering holes, and order one of their house gin-and-tonics, or summer-in-a-glass staples, like a Colorado Mule or California Waltz. Or do as Sheriff Thompson would have done: whiskey straight.
*Writer’s note: This article references the short film, Tragedy at El Moro.
Story by Joy Martin
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