William “Cement Bill” Williams (1868–1945) was a prominent contractor, political agitator, and personality in Golden during the early 1900s. Williams’s tireless campaigning brought crucial road construction to Golden, much of which he built himself. Today, Williams’s legacy as a businessman and the larger-than-life stories from his career in cement contracting persist, as do the roads and dams he built throughout the Front Range.
Bill Williams was born in East Orange, New Jersey, on October 31, 1868. As a young man, he found his way to Deadwood, South Dakota, where he worked in a smelter and did some small-scale placer gold mining. In 1901 he moved to Golden, where he got a job operating a blast furnace in the Golden Smelter. After about a year of smelter work, he quit to get into the cement contracting business. At the time, Golden had virtually no sidewalks, and Williams saw an opportunity. Soon he was making a good living as a cement contractor, pouring the concrete for most of the sidewalks in the growing town. People started calling him “Cement Bill” when local hardware stores could not keep enough cement on hand for his burgeoning business. He began to buy his cement by the boxcar-load directly from the Portland Cement Company rather than going through local suppliers. Williams ended up taking the name of Cement Bill as his own because, as he later explained it, “there was another William Williams who had a wife Nellie, as I did.” Their phone bills and mail were always getting mixed up, so Bill gave himself the middle name of Cement and “that fixed everything up.”
Williams put the Cement Bill moniker on his letterhead, his business cards, and his car. This not only solved his problems with mixed-up mail but brought name recognition to his business. He earned a reputation as “a wizard in building things out of concrete.” Williams was a hard-boiled man, “known to cuss and take a drink once in a while,” and seemingly as durable as his adopted name. On one of his early contracting projects, a workman accidentally smashed Williams’s finger with a twenty-pound hammer. He famously lost the finger, but not a day’s work.
Road through Golden
Another opportunity came along in 1911. The Colorado & Southern Railroad decided to discontinue one of its two daily trains to Clear Creek County from Denver. The people of Idaho Springs decided it was time to build a road suitable for automobiles and trucks to their town from Denver via Floyd Hill. The existing roads over the steep down-and-up route of Floyd Hill, where stages and wagons had once brought freight into Idaho Springs, were not suitable for motorized vehicles. It would take a new, high-standard road for cars and trucks to haul goods into Clear Creek County. At the same time the citizens of Idaho Springs were demanding a road, Denver was planning to establish a series of mountain parks west of town and therefore had an interest in roads being built into the mountains. Denver officials deemed that if a road were built, the best place for it was Mount Vernon Canyon, several miles south of Golden. That route would have completely bypassed Golden, and Williams was determined that this not be the case.
Williams began a campaign among Golden’s merchants to raise road-building funds, but it met with little success. He plugged away at a new campaign, touting the road as a great attraction that would draw tourists and boost Golden’s economy. He also appealed to the state highway commission and the legislature that passed an act authorizing the road as State Highway 27. When Williams tried to draw funds for the road, it became apparent that the act was an entirely empty gesture—the legislature had authorized the road without providing any money for it. Again, Williams turned adversity into opportunity. He did his own survey using a panoramic map of Lookout Mountain, scaling the grades with a ruler. He then placed flags on rocks and trees as markers and started building a section of the road by himself with a donation of Portland cement from millionaire industrialist Charles Boettcher and some pipe donated from the Denver Sewer Pipe Company. Other companies donated tools and a ditcher. With this support, Williams constructed a two-foot-wide trail along what would be the roadbed in order to demonstrate that the road was feasible and that he was qualified to build it. According to The Denver Post, the state highway commission’s engineer examined Cement Bill’s survey and found that it was indeed the best route.
For two years—from 1911–13—Williams attempted to get state funding to secure rights-of-way and backing from key local figures. Adolph Coors donated $1,000 to the cause, and other Golden merchants chipped in. But this support only went so far, and Williams spent a great deal of his own money in order to keep the project alive. Williams told the Post that by 1913, he was out $10,000 in addition to losing income from his contracting business that he had set aside to focus on building the road.
In 1913 fortunes changed when the legislature appropriated $15,000 from the state highway fund. At the same time, $7,500 was forthcoming from the Denver City Park Fund, allowing construction to begin in earnest. It took Williams only three months to widen the trail he had already made into a first-class auto road to the summit of Lookout Mountain. He continued work on the road until it connected to Floyd Hill and Idaho Springs. With the road complete, he decided to make the most out of the route he built and opened a commercial automobile transportation company, taking passengers back and forth from Golden to Idaho Springs in a fleet of Stanley Steamers. He charged $1.50 one-way and $2.50 round-trip.
Feud with Denver
Following a period of legal conflict with the city of Denver over money Cement Bill believed it owed him, in 1915 the city started taking credit for building the road. A January 1 piece in the Post about the road failed to mention him at all and also asserted that “no spadeful of earth was turned and no pick was sunk into the hard soil on any of this civic improvement until May of 1913,” ignoring his early labors entirely. The hard feelings between Cement Bill and the city of Denver persisted. In 1917, when William “Buffalo Bill” Cody was buried atop Lookout Mountain, the city forced Cement Bill to sell them Buffalo Bill’s plot.
Eventually, relations improved between the two parties. In 1919 the Colorado Legislature reimbursed Cement Bill over $6,000 for his expenses and labor, and on March 30 of that year, the Post finally acknowledged the work he had undertaken. By this time, he had earned a reputation as a man of dogged determination, who never quit until he accomplished what he started. In late April 1920, the area west of the Continental Divide from Berthoud Pass was completely snowed in and impassable. The entire region was cut off from the rest of Colorado. Cattle were dying of starvation and food stocks for the area were getting dangerously low. Laughing off the newspapers’ visions of doom and gloom, Cement Bill and his crew cleared Berthoud Pass from the Empire side and soon had it open once again.
In the 1920s, Cement Bill continued to expand his cement contracting business, pouring concrete for sidewalks, laying sewer pipe, and building dams and bridges. Throughout his life, he also campaigned for civic improvement. In 1924 he spearheaded an effort to obtain the Beaverbrook watershed for Golden in order to ensure an ample water supply for the city. The effort took him to Washington, DC, to convince government officials of the need to cede the mountain watershed, which lay on government land, to the city of Golden. That same year, Congress passed a bill ceding the watershed to the city. In the 1930s, he built two dams for the upper and lower reservoirs at Beaverbrook.
In Golden, Cement Bill Williams was regarded as an idealist and a visionary. He advocated a city manager form of government for the city that later became a reality. Throughout his life he was active in local Republican Party politics, although he never ran for public office. Williams never contemplated retirement and worked at his contracting business until the end of his life. In his twilight years he worked on projects such as the headgates for the High Line Canal, the dam at Lookout Mountain, road building in Sedalia, and the Smith Reservoir south of Lakewood. He died in his sleep on May 17, 1945.
Adapted from Robert Sorgenfrei, “Cement Bill Williams: Builder of the Lariat Trail Road,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 23, no. 2 (2003).