Lewis B. France (1833–1907) was a nationally renowned nature writer in the late 1800s and early 1900s, best known for his works on fly-fishing. France represented an emerging trend in the American West—the melding of natural resource utilization, tourism, and boosterism to create the industry known as ecotourism. As Colorado’s first recognized outdoor writer, he told engaging tales of fly-fishing and outlined concerns about sporting ethics and the protection of fish and game species. From the 1880s until his death in 1907, France’s outdoor articles appeared frequently in national sporting journals such as American Angler and Outdoor Life. Today, France’s legacy is visible in Colorado’s fish and game conservancy laws, and his writings still appear regularly in outdoor periodicals.
Lewis B. France was born in Baltimore on August 8, 1833, and he came with his wife, Rowena, to the Colorado Territory from Illinois in 1861, just as the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59 was experiencing a slowdown. A graduate of Georgetown University, the scholarly, soft-spoken France was an attorney by profession, and the couple quickly settled into a log cabin near the center of town at Fifteenth and Larimer Streets. France’s affinity for the outdoor life soon became evident; he spent part of a winter constructing an early fly rod from a buggy whip handle and a slender cedar shaft. That project would provide fodder for yet another of France’s articles.
France was elected as the first prosecuting attorney of Arapahoe County, a responsibility he held until 1865. Thereafter, in private law practice, from 1876 to 1889, he also served as reporter to the Colorado Supreme Court. Additionally, he developed a career as a newspaper writer and editor. Though overshadowed in the populous East by well-known contemporaries such as George Dawson, George “Nessmuk” Sears, and the well-known fly-fishing writer Theodore Gordon, France’s works introduced the white public to Colorado’s mountains, canyons, trout streams, and high mountain lakes. Before France, the sporting literature of Colorado consisted of newspaper accounts of how many fish were “brought into town yesterday” from distant points unknown or how many game animals were slaughtered.
Nationally, but particularly in the East, the genre of outdoor sportswriting was undergoing great changes during the decade following the Civil War. Emerging from a long period of elitist attitudes promulgated mainly by British sporting journalists, an American outdoor literary tradition was just beginning to emerge. The American Sportsman magazine appeared in 1871, followed by the influential Forest and Stream in 1873 and The American Field in 1874. Other periodicals quickly followed. By the late nineteenth century, American sporting literature shifted from instructing the reader in elements of outdoor sports to entertainment and even fond recollections of adventures afield. The focus in these publications shifted from “How to fish?” to “Why fish?” The philosopher in Lewis France was well suited to this emerging outdoor writing style.
On a spring morning in 1868, France packed his buckboard with camping gear and a bamboo fishing rod and embarked up the South Platte River canyon from Denver on a weeklong outing. Traveling the river’s north fork to the present vicinity of Pine Junction, France pitched his tent and went fishing. At one point he cast a line into the water, and a large trout immediately devoured it. He documented this incident and other successful results of the trip in his 1884 book, With Rod and Line in Colorado Waters, the first book devoted to outdoor sporting in a state that quickly became renowned for such activities.
France was in the forefront of acquainting readers with the waters of the South Platte and the Colorado (then known as the Grand River) and their tributaries. Trappers Lake, east of Meeker, became a favorite subject of France’s writings in the late 1890s and later attracted famous sportsmen writers such as Zane Grey and Ray Bergman. Two of France’s books did more to make readers aware of Colorado fishing than any publication to that time. With Rod and Line in Colorado Waters is considered to be a regional classic. Mountain Trails and Parks in Colorado (1887) is similar but perhaps does more to reveal France’s love of nature and the outdoor life that transcended mere camping, fishing, and hunting. In the early decades of the 1900s, these two books, profusely illustrated with photographs of huge trout, effectively lured sports enthusiasts to the state in droves.
Although France’s prose is long and overblown for most modern sensibilities, he was a product of Civil War–era romanticism, and his style was received favorably by many of his readers. Writing for Outdoor Life in 1901, for instance, France concluded the tale of camping beside a crystal alpine lake on a lazy August day with this benediction: “Darkness steals on apace, the lake becomes fretted with brilliant gems in miniature rivalry of the overhanging vault, but the gentle hostess. Peace still reigns--the undisputed mistress of the night.”
The principal goals of Lewis France were not lengthy, enamored descriptions of mountain scenery, the magnitude of Colorado’s wildlife, or hours-long battles with big fish. Rather, he was interested in people and in beckoning them to the emerging American West. His article titles ran the gamut from “Camping with Ladies and the Baby” to an essay called “Egotism and Rods.” So concerned was France with the relationship between sport, nature, and the human condition that the Denver Times called him the “Poet Chronicler of the Rockies.”
Although he remained dedicated to his beloved fly-fishing, France extended his literary and journalistic talent to matters other than sporting and the outdoors. Even after France’s death, his true tales, as well as his fiction about western living, appeared regularly in Western World, a Denver booster periodical slanted toward tourists and sportsmen. France often wrote a column for the publication under the pen name Bourgeois. The column, titled Scraps, was later published as a book of the same name alongside several nonfiction angling essays. Though France practiced the sport of fishing like most anglers of his time, one is left with the impression that the overall tone of the western booster press disturbed him. By the turn of the century, his articles began to include assessments of current fish and game laws and the need for Colorado wildlife protection. When asked to evaluate fishing waters for the railroads, France included his opinions regarding necessary regulation as well as a synopsis of current fish and game laws.
In his later years, France carried this concern for regulation a step farther, often inviting guests and friends to the spacious parlor of his Denver home, where he would read aloud from his various books about the ethics of fishing and hunting as well as sportsmanlike behavior. France used his influence in the courts to interpret Colorado’s fish and game laws that were perhaps the most progressive in the West. Colorado, for instance, was among the first western states to establish bag limits on fish. With legal minds such as France’s in the corner of conservation, Colorado’s fish and game resources had a concerned ally.
At the beginning of each fishing season, Colorado newspapers would call on France to assess the season’s prospects in various rivers and lakes and advise on bait, tackle, and technique. Like many of his fly-fishing colleagues, France preferred to use Gray Hackle, Coachman or Royal Coachman flies. He was fascinated with imitating the insects that were the fish’s natural food and trying to outfox the wily trout.
Some of France’s home waters are familiar to anglers in the modern era—the South Platte, the Colorado, the Arkansas, South Boulder Creek, the North and South St. Vrains, and Black Lake. Soon after France’s death, Western World republished one of his earliest stories, the 1862 tale in which he described how he fashioned a fly rod by firelight in his gold rush cabin. It was a rough-hewn work that his wife proclaimed to be “the finest rod in Colorado Territory.” France finished his days using a manufactured split bamboo rod that he described as “the next best thing to a new baby.” The experiences about which he wrote those many years chart his life from frontiersman to urbane sportsman and author. They are a fitting eulogy for the man who told the outdoor sporting world about Colorado.
Lewis B. France died in Denver on June 7, 1907, of the effects of an earlier stroke. His wife, Rowena, and daughter, Elizabeth Rice, preceded him in death. He was survived by his son, Talbot H. France, a mining engineer who made his fortunes in Mexico City.
Adapted from John Monnett, “Lewis B. France: Pioneer Outdoor Writer of Colorado,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 13, no. 3 (1993).