By TERRY PUGH
Cy Warman had a way with words.
The man for whom the City of Warman was named was one of the most influential writers of his era. A prolific journalist, novelist, and poet, Warman’s books were consistent best-sellers and his articles in leading newspapers and magazines were scooped up by eager readers across North America as soon as they hit the newsstands.
A contemporary of Mark Twain, Jack London, and Stephen Crane, Warman’s novels were realistic depictions of life on the western frontier that celebrated the heroism and struggles of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. His stories were always based on real events. Whether it was a gunfight in a saloon in a western mining camp or a locomotive speeding blindly down the track in a prairie blizzard – his writing style brought the words on the page to life and left lasting images in the reader’s mind.
When he passed away in Chicago on April 11, 1914, just a few months shy of his 59th birthday, his obituary appeared in leading newspapers around the globe. In the 98 years that have elapsed, his star has faded, but his influence remains. Among his legacy are his books, his family, and the community that bears his name.
His life story reads a lot like one of his novels. Cyrus Clarence Warman was born in Greenup, Illinois, USA on June 22, 1855. The grandson of Wilson Warman, and son of John and Nancy Askew Warman, Cy grew up on a small farm that was homesteaded by his father. John Warman was a veteran of the American-Mexican war who received a land grant from the American government in payment for his service in the army.
While Cy’s formal schooling was limited, he was a voracious reader and was largely self-taught. He gradually developed a poetic tendency, and reportedly astonished his schoolmates on “commencement day” by reading an original poem entitled “The Last Day of School.”
He married Ida Blanche Hays of St. Jacob, Illinois, in 1879, and tried his hand as a wheat broker after the newly-married couple moved to Pochahontas, Illinois. He invested $1,000 in a single deal, but the market wasn’t kind to him, and he lost all but 50 cents when the market crashed. Looking to make a new start, Cy and Ida headed west to the new territory of Colorado in 1880, where the silver mining boom was in full swing and railroad lines were being built through the Rocky Mountains to haul out the valuable ore. Boom towns were springing up virtually overnight as new discoveries were made.
After helping to plant an orchard in Canon City, Cy Warman then took a job in a silver smelter where he worked 12-hour shifts doing back-breaking labour. Cy and Ida moved to Denver, where he was hired by the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad as a “wiper” where he worked to keep the engines clean. He learned the trade on the job and progressed quickly up the ranks to fireman and eventually became a locomotive engineer. He loved the railroad life and was good at his job, but his health wasn’t the best, and the long hours and hard work took its toll. He made the decision to leave the engineer’s trade after an incident one night in which he had fallen asleep at the throttle of his engine, with the train rushing along at full speed. He woke up with a start and realized that he had unintentionally endangered the lives of everyone on board the train, and vowed not to let that happen again.
During his time with the railroad, Cy and Ida had one daughter, Charlotte, who later grew to adulthood and moved to Alabama where she married a man named Joseph Mcveigh. Cy Warman always maintained contact with Charlotte throughout his life, and she was with him at his bedside when he passed away in Chicago in 1914.
Sadly, in 1887, his young wife, Ida, died in childbirth. The baby also died. Cy Warman made a new start by taking on the editorship of a magazine called the Western Railway in 1888. The publication, owned by investors from three railroad companies, was one of the leading magazines in its field at the time. In March, 1892, Cy Warman sold his interest in the Western Railway magazine and moved to Creede, Colorado where he and two partners, Charles A. Johnson of Alamosa, Colorado and Harry P. Tabor of Creede, established a daily newspaper called the Creede Chronicle. Warman became the editor while another newspaper man from Denver, William Millburn, was hired as general manager.
The move to Creede was a momentous one for Cy Warman.
He arrived at the very beginning of one of the biggest silver mine discoveries in the history of the state and quickly made a name for himself and his newspaper in a town that was one of the wildest on the American frontier. The discovery of silver in the “Holy Moses” mine along the banks of Willow Creek by prospector Nicholas Creede in 1891 quickly led to a massive influx of prospectors, speculators, gamblers, saloon-keepers and outlaws. The little mining camp went from a dozen souls to 10,000 people in a matter of weeks and a railroad was quickly built into the town where the mines – and the saloons – were kept humming 24-hours a day.
The biggest businessmen in Creede at the height of the boom were also the most notorious outlaws. Bob Ford, a member of Jesse James’ gang, who gained notoriety by shooting Jesse James in the back a decade earlier, owned the busiest saloon in Creede at the time.
Meanwhile, Jefferson “Soapy” Smith and his gang of thugs controlled many businesses through threats and coercion.
Cy Warman recounted in one of his stories that Bob Ford was one of the first men he met when he arrived in Creede, and Ford showed him around the camp. Ford had a habit of never sitting with his back to the door. When he was in a saloon with a mirror along the bar he always positioned himself so that he had a full view of everyone behind him. Ford was forever anticipating that one of his enemies would shoot him in the back the same way he had shot Jesse James. Cy Warman asked Ford one day: “Are you expecting someone?” To which Ford replied, with a hint of bitterness: “I’m always expecting someone.”
Despite setting up shop in a virtually-lawless town, Cy Warman proceeded to put out a newspaper that stuck to the facts and didn’t pull any punches. He was critical of the gangsters and advocated the need for law enforcement and justice. Ford personally vowed on several occasions to kill the entire staff of the Chronicle, including the editor, but was himself gunned down in his own saloon before he followed through on the threat. Ironically, Cy Warman was one of the first on the scene of Ford’s murder, and wrote an eyewitness account of the incident in his newspaper.
Soapy Smith, on the other hand, had a grudging respect for Cy Warman and actually protected the newspaper editor on occasion. Smith was eventually shot in a gunfight on the docks of Skagway, Alaska by a group of vigilantes who were intent on putting an end to Smith’s corrupt control of the town during the Klondike gold rush in the late 1890s.
Cy Warman was well-liked and respected in Creede while he ran the newspaper, despite the fact that he “perpetrated poetry” on a rough-and-tumble audience. The miners and cowboys in Creede jokingly referred to him as their “Poet Lariat.”
In 1892, when he was still living in Creede, Cy Warman travelled to Denver, where he met his future wife, Myrtle Marie Jones. A young and pretty woman, Marie had been educated at the Sacred Heart Catholic school in London, Ontario. It was during his courtship of Marie that Cy wrote his famous poem, “Sweet Marie”, which was first published in the Creede Chronicle. The lyrics of the poem were later put to music by Raymon Moore in 1893 and the song became a worldwide smash hit, selling a million copies in a few months.
Cy and Marie were married on May 17, 1892 in Denver, Colorado. They took up residence in Creede.
Cy’s newspaper, the Chronicle, was losing money and the town of Creede itself was experiencing a bust as the price of silver dropped dramatically in late 1892 and early 1893. Cy and Marie Warman left Creede and moved to Colorado Springs, where he worked briefly as a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News.
During this time, Cy Warman wrote a landmark short story about a marathon ride from New York to Chicago on a series of locomotives, entitled “A Thousand Miles in a Night” for McClure’s magazine. The story established Warman’s reputation as the best writer of railroad stories in America and set the standard for that type of fiction for years to come. He had also submitted a number of poems to the New York Sun, the most influential daily newspaper of its day. Charles Dana, the newspaper’s celebrated editor, was so impressed he devoted an entire page in one issue to Warman’s poems, and christened him “The Poet of the Rockies”. One of Warman’s poems, entitled “Creede”, captured the spirit of the silver boom perfectly. It is still widely quoted in the town of Creede’s tourist brochures and he holds a special place in the folklore of the community.
With offers from several major eastern publishers and magazines, Cy and Marie Warman left Colorado and moved to New York. From there they travelled extensively into Europe and Asia where Cy Warman wrote his first book, Mountain Melodies, and contributed travel articles about European railways to North American magazines. He sold copies of Mountain Melodies on trains, at news stands and tourist stops for 50 cents a copy. He wrote another book, “Tales of an Engineer” in Paris, and found a ready market for his work.
During this period they also travelled to Alaska, where Cy Warman wrote a landmark history of the building of the White Pass railway during the dying days of the Klondike Gold Rush.
RAISING A FAMILY
The couple returned to the United States and settled in Washington, DC, where their first son, Dana Cy, was born in 1894. The boy was named after Charles Dana of the New York Sun, a close friend of Cy Warman. Their second son, Bryan, was born in 1896, and was named after William Jennings Bryan, also a friend of Cy’s. A third son, Robert Burr, came along a year later. In 1899, the family moved to London, Ontario, where their daughter, Vonda Marie was born. The house they built near the campus of the University of Western Ontario is now deemed a heritage site and is a popular tourist attraction.
Cy Warman was a popular speaker and he made many appearances in cities across eastern Canada and the US. Much of his popularity as a speaker came from his one-liners and jokes. He served at least one term as President of the American Association of Press Humorists and possessed what his contemporaries called “a rare and delicate sense of humor. He had the faculty of making many friends – and keeping them. He was, too, a lover of nature and therein lay much of his fine descriptive power.”
LIFE IN CANADA
During his years in London, Cy Warman wrote extensively of the railway building boom in western Canada and his work attracted the attention of the owners of the Grand Trunk Railway. They hired him as a publicity writer. He reported to only one superior – the president of the company – and commuted between his home in London and the company’s headquarters in Montreal. Warman also cultivated his political connections in Ottawa and was a close friend of Frank Oliver, a federal Liberal Cabinet Minister. Around 1904, a railway building boom was underway in western Canada and the Canadian Northern rail line was being built across the western territories.
By 1905, the federal government wanted to boost immigration to the newly-created provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta and the Western Canada Immigration Association was given funds to hire Cy Warman as a staff writer.
Warman also spent some time in 1906 chronicling the construction of the Canadian Northern main line. In appreciation for his work, the CNR named stations in Saskatchewan for both him and his daughter. The City of Warman, originally incorporated in 1906, is named after Cy Warman and the village of Vonda is named after Vonda Marie Warman.
THE FINAL HOURS
Cy Warman passed away at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, on April 7, 1914 of paralysis brought on by a sudden stroke. He was in a coma for three weeks prior to his death. He suffered the stroke while having tea with a group of friends at the Congress Hotel in Chicago. According to a report in the Chicago Evening Post of March 30, 1914: “He suddenly felt ill, and jumping up, he pressed his hands to his head and exclaimed: ‘My God!’ Friends took him to his rooms at the hotel and a few days later his condition was so critical that physicians had him removed to the hospital. There, no one but his doctors and his wife, Mrs. Marie Warman, is permitted to see him. The poet’s true character was best displayed at the time he was stricken. He had several engagements and had also started to write some verses for Donald Brian, entitled ‘Heart of the Rose.’ Realizing his illness would prevent him from keeping his engagements and from finishing the poetry, he exclaimed: ‘I can’t be sick. I can’t break my promises’.”
His wife, Marie Warman, was notified of his illness and she travelled as quickly as possible to be at his bedside, where she remained until he passed away.
After a memorial service in Chicago that was attended by hundreds of newspapermen, publishers, railroad workers and railroad owners, his body was taken to London, Ontario, where another funeral service was held and his body interred. His obituary and news of his death appeared in newspapers across the continent.
Some years later, Cy Warman’s body was moved from London to a cemetery in Anne Arbor, Michigan.
The family continued to live in Ontario and the three Warman brothers all inherited the creative writing gene from their father and went into the advertising and copywriting business. Their sister, Vonda Marie Warman, died of a ruptured appendix about 1930. Cy and Marie Warman had six grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and 24 great-great-grandchildren.
Cy Warman’s books are
still available online and in print.