Moffat County History: The last of the bad good guys
The stories of Craig and Moffat County’s history written for this series in 2009 are made possible through a generous grant from the Kenneth Kendall King Foundation to the Museum of Northwest Colorado.
The earliest settlers of the West went without a lot of things as they worked to build a new life. Apart from the lack of material goods and comforts, they also frequently found themselves living in a country where there were no laws, and outlaws and bullying neighbors were able to run roughshod over anyone who happened to get in their way.
Cattle rustlers and horse thieves often shared a drink at the bar with cattle barons and men who wanted things done their way. As law enforcement officers were introduced into areas, it often was difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys.
When Tom Horn went to work for the large cattle ranchers in far northwestern Colorado, he was nothing more than a hired gun, with little or no conscience. He already had killed more than one man and had a reputation as someone who would shoot a man for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Horn’s methods worked for a while, but the homesteaders soon grew tired of being bullied, and it became apparent that a more equitable system of law enforcement was necessary.
It couldn’t happen overnight, but it did have to happen.
Robert “Bob” Meldrum was a man who stood on both sides of the law at various times in his life – often pushing that law to or beyond its limits.
Born to career British infantryman Alexander Meldrum and his wife, Margaret, in 1866 at South Camp Aldershott, England, Bob Meldrum spent his youth moving from one home to another as his father was reassigned.
When he was a teenager, the family came to the United States, where Meldrum would make a name for himself, one way or the other.
Meldrum came west and made the open spaces with few laws his territory. If he needed a horse, he took one, and in 1894 this habit landed him in a jail in Montana.
He served his sentence until 1896 and then moved on to other endeavors.
The first mention of Meldrum in Northwest Colorado was 1899, when he took a job as a saddlemaker in Charley Perkins’ shop in Dixon, Wyo.
He always was on the lookout for another money-making opportunity, and he didn’t care how legal the prospect was. He was a skilled craftsman and a gifted artist with an eye for detail, but those talents often were offset by his fierce temper and willingness to kill at the drop of a hat.
He made headlines in 1900, when he recognized Texas fugitive Noah Wilkerson from a wanted poster. Meldrum promptly shot Wilkerson where he stood and then collected the $200 reward.
By 1902, Meldrum had drifted up to the mine fields of Telluride, where he was hired as a mine guard and deputy sheriff.
He remained in the Telluride area for several years, winning praise from mine owners and derision from others.
He was instrumental in breaking up the first union-organized mining strike in Colorado. He worked as a night watchman for the Tomboy mine and made a threatening presence.
Meldrum would shoot anyone he saw as a threat, and he added notches to the handle of his working gun after each shooting.
He usually managed to justify the killings, so he walked free to kill again. After killing unarmed Olaf Thissal in 1904, the charges against Meldrum were dropped, and he returned to the Tomboy.
In May 1904, Tomboy Mine officials presented Meldrum with a beautifully engraved Colt .45 pistol.
The intricate gold inlay over the entire surface of the gun made it a one-of-a-kind weapon. He was presented with a similar pistol a few weeks earlier, although it didn’t exhibit the same quality engraving as the first.
In November 1907, Meldrum shot and killed David Lambert. Lambert had killed another man in a quarrel, and Meldrum was sent to arrest him, but he shot him instead.
A jury found Meldrum not guilty. (Telluride Journal, January 25, 1908)
By the end of 1908, Meldrum decided to move his family from Telluride. He was hired by the Snake River Stock Association for $250 a month to “exterminate the cattle thieves” who had been running wild throughout the area.
He also was appointed a deputy sheriff for Carbon County, Wyo., and was nominated for the same position in Routt County, but the public outcry stopped that motion.
Meldrum later would receive the appointment as Routt County deputy but resigned it soon afterward, citing the need to attend to his personal affairs. It is possible that he could see the tide of public opinion turning and knew that his freedom to kill randomly was coming to an end.
He was in and out of court several times in the ensuing years, always for shooting a man and usually with the same results.
His luck changed, however, when he shot local cowboy Chick Bowen on the main street of Baggs, Wyo., in January 1912. It took three trials in four years, but Meldrum was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 5 to 7 years in the Wyoming Penitentiary.
Meldrum was paroled in 1917.
He went back to ranch work and opened up his own saddle shop. He seemed to quiet down during those years, or at least no record of additional killings are found.
A fire destroyed the shop in 1926, and Bob Meldrum disappeared.
He represented the end of an era in the West. He was the last of the “bad good guys” who worked both sides of the law in a time when the laws were in their infancy.
The Museum of Northwest Colorado will display some of Bob Meldrum’s line drawings as part of the upcoming “The Passing of the Old West” Western Art & Artifact exhibit.
The pistol given to him by the Tomboy Mine also will be on display. His work will join numerous works by artists of the old West. The exhibit will open May 24 and run through the summer.
For those history buffs who like to do field work, the Museum has a standing reward of $500 to the person who can locate the final resting place of Bob Meldrum.
That discovery will allow a closing to one of the intriguing stories of early Northwestern Colorado.
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