William Gray Evans (1855–1924) was a Denver businessman best known as the Denver Tramway Company president. The son of Territorial Governor John Evans, he was involved in many of Denver’s early foundational enterprises and played an integral role in constructing the Moffat Tunnel. During the Progressive Era, he was plagued by accusations of political and financial corruption and eventually quit his business career. He spent the last years of his life focused on social and philanthropic interests, such as the University of Denver.
William Gray Evans was born on December 16, 1855, in Evanston, Illinois, to Margaret Patton Gray and John Evans. John Evans was a businessman, real estate and railroad investor, physician, and Methodist minister who founded many institutions, including Northwestern University. The town of Evanston, home to the university, was named for him. In 1862 Evans was named governor of Colorado Territory, and the Evans family relocated to Denver. The family resided at Fourteenth and Arapahoe Streets. After three years as governor, Evans had to resign in the wake of the Sand Creek Massacre. Still, he continued to be involved in founding Colorado Seminary (later the University of Denver) and various railroads.
As a child, William Evans attended school at the first incarnation of Colorado Seminary. However, most of his early education came via his mother or on his own while the family traveled. He also spent one school term in England. In 1873 he enrolled at Northwestern, becoming a star member of the university’s baseball team. He graduated in 1877 with his Bachelor of Science degree.
After graduation, William Evans returned to Denver. He lived with his parents and worked as a bookkeeper for his father before trying his hand at real estate and other ventures. Most notably, in 1885 he joined John Evans, William Byers, and Henry Brown in founding the Denver Electric and Cable Company. The company operated streetcars that served as public transportation before the age of the automobile. In 1886 the company was reincorporated as the Denver Tramway Company, with William Evans serving as secretary.
On December 12, 1883, Evans married Cornelia Lunt Gray in the Evans Chapel at Thirteenth and Bannock Streets in Denver. The chapel was built in memory of Evans’s sister, Josephine Evans Elbert, who had died in 1868. On September 24, 1884, William and Cornelia welcomed their first child, John II. Their second child, Josephine, was born three years later. As the family grew, in 1889 Evans bought a large house from Byers at the corner of Thirteenth and Bannock Streets, catercorner from the Evans Chapel. The Evanses had their third child, Margaret, at the end of that year. Their fourth and final child, Katharine, was born in 1894.
After John Evans died in 1897, William Evans moved his mother, Margaret, and sister, Anne, into his home at 1310 Bannock Street. Evans then knocked down his parents’ home at Fourteenth and Arapahoe, where he built a new headquarters for the Tramway Company.
Career and Controversy
In the late 1880s and 1890s, Evans continued to invest in railroad companies. At the same time, the Denver Tramway Company capitalized on its early adoption of electric streetcar lines to gobble up its competition after the Panic of 1893 left smaller companies reeling. By 1900 Denver Tramway was the only major streetcar company left in town. Evans became president of the company two years later. His rule earned him a reputation as a Napoleonic figure. He led the company to secure a thirty-year franchise in Denver and expand its regional reach as far as Golden.
In 1902, the same year that he became president of the Denver Tramway Company, Evans was also elected to the board of trustees of the University of Denver. Three years later, he was elected president of the board in 1905. At the time, the university was in financial straits, and Evans worked in conjunction with the university’s chancellor, Henry Buchtel, to correct the downward trajectory. Together, the two set up fundraising campaigns and successfully relieved the debt. Evans continued to contribute funds to the university and was noted by Buchtel as the greatest benefactor of his day.
At the same time, Evans joined forces with David Moffat to found the Denver, Northwestern & Pacific Railway Company to build a direct railroad line from Denver to Salt Lake City. A tunnel under the Continental Divide would take significant time and money to make, however, so in the meantime, the company laid a temporary route over the Divide at Rollins Pass. Progress on the tunnel stalled as cost estimates climbed, and the project faced fierce opposition from the rival Union Pacific Railroad. The company struggled to attract enough funding to complete the project, and Evans took it upon himself to secure the necessary funds through his business connections and personal contributions. This investment put him in a precarious financial position. After Moffat died in 1911, Evans succeeded him as president of the reorganized Denver & Salt Lake Railway and continued to pursue the tunnel project.
All the while, Evans was plagued by serious accusations that he stole elections and mishandled money. The story was that Evans and Mayor Robert Speer had used funds from the Tramway Company and other institutions to finance Lawrence C. Phipps’s purchase of the Denver Times. The unfavorable press led to two libel suits, spawning a complex legal situation that involved contempt charges for Evans, Speer, and The Denver Post editors who had leveled the allegations; Evans was even arrested and put on trial to determine his ownership of the Times. In the end, the charges were dropped.
Stressed by his legal situation and the ongoing Moffat Tunnel struggle, Evans had a nervous breakdown in 1913. He resigned from the Tramway Company and his many railroad positions, though he remained personally invested in the Moffat Road and was a staunch supporter of the project for the rest of his life. At the end of World War I, Evans worked with Representative Hugh R. Steele to propose a state railroad commission bill. After the bill passed, the governor appointed Evans to the commission, and he was elected its president. Thanks in part to his influence, in 1922 the Colorado legislature passed a bill to fund the tunnel, which was finally completed in 1928.
After a vacation to recuperate from his mental distress, Evans continued his involvement in the Denver community. He retained his position as president of the University of Denver board of trustees until his death. He was well connected socially and belonged to the Denver Country Club, Denver Athletic Club, and University Club. During World War I, Evans and his wife became heavily involved in the Red Cross and distributed supplies for the war effort. Evans also chaired a Denver Civic and Commercial Association committee for establishing hospitals in Denver for soldiers.
On October 21, 1924, William Gray Evans died at his house on Bannock Street. Like his father before him, Evans was a powerful business and civic leader who made many valuable contributions to the Centennial State. Also, like his father, his life was not without controversy. His leadership of the Tramway Company into a monopolized takeover of public transit dismayed many because it concentrated so much power in one company’s hands and because Evans accomplished it through his relationship with political figures such as Mayor Speer.
While Evans may have unabashedly gained and consolidated power, he put it to ends that definitively reshaped Denver. His influence can still be seen today in the University of Denver, the Tramway Building (now Hotel Teatro), the Byers-Evans House (now operated by History Colorado as the Center for Colorado Women’s History), and even the Regional Transportation District (RTD), which took over public transit in Denver after the monopolistic Tramway Company’s demise.