The 1890s, A Time For Change
Northeastern Colorado enjoyed a period of continual economic expansion from 1858 until the early 1890s. Yet there were breaks like the Civil War years, and the Panic of 1873. The twenty years after 1873 witnessed changes, from statehood to the closing of the frontier. During the 1890s, into the 1900s, the "boom" ended and residents began a period of evaluation to find ways to cope with the changed situation and to solve problems that were neglected when times were good. In turn, citizens called for reforms. The nineties was the decade of Populists, a plains agrarian movement demanding social change. The Progressives followed, during the 1910s, in hopes of a new order. Their greatest influence came between 1900 and 1917.
Both groups were parts of larger national movements that profoundly altered America's thinking about the plight of humanity. Each found its acceptance eased by the 1893 economic upheaval.  The late 1880s saw northeastern Colorado's business boom. This lasted from 1887 until 1893. During the late 1880s ranchers were recovering from disastrous winters as market prices for cattle stabilized, then rose slightly. The blizzards that crippled ranching on the open range proved the beginning of a series of "wet years" on the plains. Rainy spells convinced settlers that the climate had permanently changed because of plowing the land. This concept was called "pluviculture". Settlers poured into the region and reported the land fertile and water plentiful. This caused even more people to relocate. Hope that prosperity was "here to stay" abounded and thousands developed false expectations for the future. These desires were also shared by both miners and mine owners because of artificially high gold and silver prices in the world also market. This optimism was furthered in 1890 when Congress passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act obligating the Treasury Department to annually purchase millions of dollars worth of silver at a fixed price. This gave Colorado silver operators a guaranteed market. As the nineties dawned, everyone in the region proclaimed a new era of wealth. 
The bubble started to break the next year. Rapid expansion on the high plains led to a glut on the grain market and prices subsequently fell. Further, the rains of previous years failed to come as farmers watched their crops wither in the fields. 1892 was a repeat of the previous arid year. Those away from water systems and dependent upon natural precipitation faced another summer of trying to get by. Ranchers had the same problem as drought limited forage production while more areas of range were plowed into dryland fields. Beef prices also fell. Difficulties on the plains had little impact on events in the high country. As government continued to buy metals at inflated prices, everything indicated prosperity would remain well into the future. 
The final semblances of prosperity were swept away in 1893. The precipitating causes were a glut on the world silver market and fears by President Grover Cleveland that the United States government's gold reserves were being depleted by silver purchases. He suspended silver buying and in doing so created a panic. Silver mines closed almost immediately. Cleveland's actions led to a rash of bank failures and other financial problems. In an effort to keep their doors open, lending institutions called in loans to farmers, ranchers and mine owners. This forced producers to dump what inventories they had onto oversupplied markets. Those who could not raise cash to meet their obligations were forced to declare bankruptcy or sell their land. In some cases lands reverted to the Federal government because homesteads taken up during the late 1880s were not patented when the Panic of 1893 began. For ranchers the situation was much the same, but rather than go out of business they took up sheep raising to replace lost cattle revenues. Wool and mutton prices proved more stable than beef at the time. Despite adjustments ranchers still quit and left the region. Years later, when remembering the period, those who stayed said that anyone who could afford to do so moved from farms and ranches in northeast Colorado. 
Townsfolk fared little better during the Panic of 1893. With farmers, miners and workers either out of work or broke, small businessmen lost customers. Bankers, pressed by depositors worried about their funds, experienced runs on their institutions. Some had to close and this led to a crisis of confidence in banks throughout the region. Runs continued through the summer of 1893 and into 1894. At times the moneychangers resorted to dramatics like pouring bags of coins into their windowsills to "encourage" depositor faith. Behind the scenes less calm prevailed as funds were shifted and new methods were attempted to avert total disaster. Despite these efforts, many northeastern Colorado banks found themselves unable to meet fund demands and they suspended operations. More than one banker sneaked out of town at night to avoid the wrath of his depositors. Among those most affected by monetary problems were shopkeepers of the region's towns.  Often merchants borrowed from banks to stock their stores. When farmers stopped buying and then could not pay their accounts stores, in turn, could not service their debts to the banks. Also, lack of credit made it difficult to re-stock their shelves. This led to increased unemployment, store failures and a huge burden for local charities. Welfare, during the 1890s, was a private matter for church groups not government unless dire emergencies required immediate action. As the Panic struck every segment of the area's economy, private funds disappeared and charities were unable to keep up with growing demand. Since the troubles were nation-wide it was quite impossible to get donations from other parts of the country as earlier, during the drought years. Within a short time, those out of work became drifters looking for a hand-out or a few days of labor. Both in the mountains and on the plains ghost towns came into being as mines closed and farmers abandoned their lands. Homesteaders simply packed up and moved out, deserting what they had built. 
Northeastern Colorado's transportation network did not escape the economic catastrophe of 1893. Tight credit and a rapid decrease in traffic put railroads in an especially precarious predicament. To heighten their troubles, most railways were heavily in debt from rapid expansion during the 1880s. As less revenue came in, the companies were unable to service these obligations. Creditors turned to the courts and forced rail companies into receivership. One by one, the Denver and Rio Grande, the Union Pacific, the Colorado Midland, the DSP&P and others were forced, by bankruptcy judges, into the hands of receivers. Expansion projects halted. Workers were laid off or forced to accept pay reductions. Service was trimmed back. Some of the smaller branchlines were abandoned or sold to larger roads if they could afford the expense. For most of the remainder of the decade judges and receivers formed new organizations. The Union Pacific Railroad and its subsidiaries were sold at public auction to satisfy debts. 
It took little time for northeastern Coloradans to realize what a disaster the Panic of 1893 really was. They sought remedies almost as soon as the first shockwaves of depression were felt. This led to an increase in the popularity of the Peoples' Party, also called Populists. The movement was a response to alleged abuses of farmers by "the system." The movement had its beginnings in the 1880s as part of a grassroots organization known as the Farmers' Alliance. These members felt they suffered unduly from high freight rates on the railroads and usurious mortgages at banks. Their primary support during the 1880s came from the eastern Great Plains and the deep South. Coloradans enjoyed good times and had no sympathy for their farm brethren elsewhere.  During the late 1880s and early 1890s farmers voiced their opinions to Colorado's Republican and Democratic parties. Some of their complaints were negated by passage of an anti-royalty law for water companies. Minor concessions did not satisfy farmers who sought more sweeping reforms. It appeared that the major parties were spending time on minor problems or dead issues. The state's Republicans still waved the "bloody shirt" at each election, thereby reminding voters that Democrats had "caused" the Civil War. In reply the opposition accused the G.O.P. of corruption and of being the tool of business. Such arguments did little to satisfy anyone's grievances. 
At the same time, farmers experienced hard times and sought change. Many who moved to northeast Colorado during the 1880s, believing promises of rich lands, found reality much harsher. They had high expectations thanks to booster literature, but these hopes were unfulfilled. Thinking that they had done everything humanly possible for success, farmers looked to others as the cause of their woes.  Once the bubble burst during the dry years of the early 1890s, northeastern Colorado's agricultural population took a more serious look at reform proposals of the Farmers' Alliance. At the same time Alliance members were in the process of organizing themselves for political action as the Peoples Party. In Colorado they had little trouble in finding targets for their wrath. The Alliance saw railroads and bankers as two of the greatest public enemies not to mention water companies. Populists felt those three evils needed regulation and in some cases punishment by the government. Denver bankers, because of control they had over financial affairs in the state were shown as examples of exploiters of hard working common men. High interest rates and foreclosures led to hatred. Soon after the Panic of 1893 began, as deposits were lost when financial institutions failed, farmers became further frustrated.  Populist criticism of money interests appealed to settlers in northeastern Colorado because most of these producers were debtors. Those farming irrigated lands borrowed to pay for new water systems and/or expansion and because the price of land was high, their obligations were extensive. Drylanders were the later arrivals who took out loans to get their farms started and then went further in debt during the boom of the late eighties by expanding their farms. As the market fell, loan obligations took more and more of their income. The farmers felt that a cure was forced inflation and the best way to get that was to drop limitations on the coinage of silver. 
But even before the Panic, Populists had made their presence felt in Colorado. In the elections of 1892, as the national Peoples' Party nominated General James B. Weaver for the Presidency, Colorado's groups offered voters a ticket for state offices. Weaver fell to defeat but in this state Populists elected Davis H. Waite, Governor along with several members of the legislature. Waite, of Aspen, was one of the party's local founders and a long-time advocate of labor reform. His victory came from support by miners, laborers, and farmers.  Once in office, Waite tried to put Populist philosophy into action through state law. However, the legislature did not agree, making Waite an ineffective governor. He became embroiled in small matters and lost credibility. One plan was to make Mexican silver dollars legal tender in Colorado. This scheme drew fire from the press and businessmen who called it the "Fandango Dollar" fiasco. In Denver, Waite appeared foolish thanks to the "City Hall War." During the 1890s the "Queen City" did not have home rule and the Governor appointed both the Police and Fire boards. Waite sought to replace the incumbent in these positions with his own men. However, the commissioners refused to vacate their offices. Backed by the police and fire departments, they barricaded themselves in city hall. Waite then called out the state militia to remove the board members by force. For a time it looked as if violence would take place in Colorado's capitol city as each side refused to budge. Finally a compromise was agreed upon and bloodshed was averted. This episode seriously damaged Waite's image as a leader. As the Panic of 1893 worsened during the governor's second year the Populist Party attracted new followers. 
Farmers remained with the party as did miners. Support increased as prohibitionists in Weld and Larimer Counties saw the new party as the best way to accomplish their goals. After the Panic of 1893 and the collapse of the silver market, the Peoples' Party gained more strength from mineowners, bankers and other businessmen. These groups did not seek labor reform or control of the railroads but rather were attracted by the "free" silver part of Populist philosophy. Free silver meant that the U.S. Treasury should coin silver and put it into circulation without artificial limits as to the amount of specie available to the public. Silver's value was to be set at a fixed ratio of 16 to 1 with gold. Calls for the free and unlimited coinage of silver resounded throughout northeastern Colorado during 1894.  That same year Waite faced re-election. Despite increased popularity of the silver issue, Waite found little support as the Republican Party captured the Governor's office running on a promise to save the state from "Populist misrule." No doubt Waite's mishandling of his office led to defeat in November. 
This setback did nothing to halt growing unease over silver became an issue that united various factions of the Populist party and lead to the creation of "Silver Republicans" and "Silver Democrats," that is, members of the regular parties that sought immediate monetary reform. As preparations were made for the campaign of 1896, silver forces looked about for a leader to defeat "Gold Bug" Democrat Grover Cleveland and whomever the Republicans nominated. William Jenning Bryan of Nebraska finally emerged as spokesman of a consolidated free. silver movement. As a nominal Democrat he stirred that party's convention and some hardline Democrats took up silver as their cause. They also gave Bryan the Democratic nomination. A few weeks later, the Populist meeting gave its approval to the Nebraskan's candidacy as part of a coalition with Democrats. Free Silver became Bryan's only issue and the campaign was bitterly fought until election day. Bryan visited Colorado several times with rousing receptions on each occasion. Despite his considerable popularity in the West, Bryan was on the short end of the tally when the votes were counted in November. After the election, Populism lost most of supporters in northeast Colorado, but issues raised refused to disappear.  Bryan's defeat, combined with a gradual return to prosperity in 1896, led to political change. The frontier era was over and settlers realized moving to different lands for a new start was no longer possible. Instead, they would have to modify where they lived. This led to serious changes throughout the region.
Populism caused people to consider social problems of the times. While "causes" like prohibition or women's sufferage were part of the Peoples' Party platform they became lost in the silver controversy. After 1896, these issues were only partially resolved. That which was accomplished was due to support from urban dwellers not from rural Populists. City folks, after getting women's sufferage in Colorado during 1893, started looking at other problems. In doing so northeastern Colorado's citizens were in step with their counter-parts elsewhere in the United States. However, it was only after 1900 that urban reformers looked beyond their own regions and debated the national situation. At that point the movement became known as Progressivism.  Progressives took up issues raised during the Populist ere but they saw them in a different light. This was especially true in northeastern Colorado. Populism was basically a "backward looking" philosophy that sought return of an imaginary "yeoman farmer," while Progressivism saw into the future to a day when social problems could be alleviated and mankind would not suffer. They also believed humanity was innately good and that difficulties arose not because of moral defects in mankind but rather from the human environment. Therefore Progressive programs were aimed at improving man's physical surroundings and fostering a spirit of justice. Progressives were confident that this social approach would be successful rather than strict government regulation. Political bodies did, however, need to make rules that would uplift civilization. 
The first appearance of Progressivism came in the 1890s. Anti-saloon leagues, voting reform proposals and urban clean-up campaigns were among the manifestations. Towns across northeastern Colorado felt the presence of social uplifters as local reform parties carried city elections and worked to close bars or ban gambling. Newly enfranchised female voters supported these efforts. A good example of change was the Sterling, Colorado reform party, working to close local beer gardens. Throughout the 1890s momentum grew as reformers from around the region met and exchanged ideas. By the early twentieth century, northeast Colorado held an unquestioned leadership position in a growing statewide movement for drastic social change. This was due, in large part to the role Denver played in Colorado politics.
By the 1890s Colorado's capitol city was as squalid and congested as any metropolitan area in the nation. Smelters and other industries polluted both air and water. Residential segregation, exemplified by the Chinese neighborhood,, Hop Alley, led to overcrowding and unhealthy social tensions. City government appeared infested with corruption and without home rule there seemed to be little that could be done. As the depression of 1893 deepened, unemployed workers from across the state filtered into Denver looking for work, but generally depended on charity to survive. This caused even greater problems for local welfare agencies. Children roamed the streets and alleys searching for food or odd jobs. They often broke the law and when caught they were treated as adults. To help families make ends meet youngsters were sent to work. Such problems gave reformers a wide variety of issues. The 1893 depression caused the social situation to be brought to the public's eye.  One of Colorado's foremost reformers came from Denver. He gained a national reputation for his work with juveniles. Judge Ben Lindsay as a magistrate in the city's court system saw and heard the cases of child offenders. He noticed that there were repeat criminals and he questioned a judicial system that failed to rehabilitate youth. Lindsay came to the conclusion that little was gained by putting children in prison with adults where crime was reinforced. The judge began, during the early 1900s to look for alternative forms of punishment that would rehabilitate rather than permanently scar youth offenders. Lindsay publicized his ideas. In 1907, Denver adopted a program to handle juveniles separately from adults. During the next few years similar needs were heard in the state legislature. After extensive debate, the General Assembly passed laws that became the foundation of this state's modern juvenile connections program. Concern for youth spread from the area of crime. Steps were taken, in Colorado, to regulate child labor thanks to efforts by Progressives.
Another segment of government where reformers sought change was the relationship between state government and cities, particularly Denver. Progressives felt that corruption in the capitol city could only be removed if the state gave up control of local affairs. The "City Hall War" of Davis Waite's administration highlighted the problem. Reformers began a campaign for home rule (local control) during the 1890s. They accomplished this in 1902 when the state constitution was amended to allow Denver home rule.  During those same years, the city gained its own political "boss"Robert W. Speer. A Democrat and longtime Denver booster, he worked his way into positions of power with the Police and Fire Board during the 1890s. From there he controlled large numbers of votes and dozens of patronage jobs. His men ruled the town's vice operations and demanded protection pay-offs, part of which were turned over to Democratic party war chests. In 1901 Speer was appointed to the Denver Public Works Board; he controlled slightly more than half of the city's budget. Speer survived the troubled nineties because of his willingness to work with Denver business sector including the owners of the Tramway, the Denver Union Water Company and those in the public utilities sector. When the city was given home rule in 1902, Speer did not oppose it per se, but rather he feared reformers would create a new city charter thus ending his career as "Boss Speer." Living up to Speer's worst expectations, the new city charter, drawn up by Progressives, had a distinct anti-utility tone. To stop change Speer became a power broker. He sought help from businessmen and vice czar Ed Chase. With these combined forces, along with votes from municipal workers, Speer defeated the charter in 1903. The next year a similar document was put before the voters, but it was not as hard on the utilities and it gave the Mayor considerable power. Under this charter, Speer was elected Denver's Mayor. 
With the new city government in operation, reformers renewed their attacks on utility companies and local vice operators. The publicity these efforts received in local papers and the leadership role that Denver's newspapers had in northeast Colorado meant that events were widely followed. Progressives in other towns worked on the elimination of social evils. Public ownership of utilities became one of their main goals. Denver and Colorado Springs made arrangements for the sale of private utility companies to these cities. Final transfers, however, were not completed until after 1910 in most cases. The sales led to creation of new agencies like the Denver Board of Water Commissioners and a municipal power authority at Colorado Springs.  Since many towns did not have large utility companies they could only take tentative steps similar to those of larger cities toward municipal ownership and control of public utility corporations. However, all communities joined together in their demand that a general moral uplift was needed. Gambling establishments and houses of ill repute became two of the most obvious targets for local Progressives. Laws concerning vice were usually in place but they were only loosely enforced. Pressures on city councils and local officials led to stricter interpretations of vice laws and this caused closure of most of the illicit houses. In Denver no one escaped the law, from the pleasure palaces of Market (Holladay) Street to filthy Chinese cribs. What to do with the inmates of these facilities became such a problem that concerned citizens began a rehabilitation program for Denver's "soiled doves." By 1916 the morality clean-up was all but complete in northeast Colorado. 
The use and abuse of alcohol was an evil that Progressives closely associated with gambling and prostitution. To stop the local liquor trade, reformers went to the state legislature and used temperance towns like early-day Greeley as examples of moral living. In 1907 Colorado's General Assembly yielded to pressure and passed a law that allowed each town to create local option prohibition ordinances. At first, this new legislation pleased Progressives, however, it soon became apparent that saloon owners used every means to see that local elections went favorably. Equally if voters chose to close the bars, thirsty citizens quickly found other ways, like bootlegging, to get around the law. Unhappy with this turn of events, prohibitionists began a new drive to strengthen state law. Members of the Womens' Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) travelled around northeast Colorado lecturing on the evils of "demon rum" in order to encourage support for stronger legislation. Beyond that listeners were urged to give up drink and demand a total ban on liquor sales throughout the state. Celebrities like Carrie Nation, "The little lady with the axe" who went around breaking up saloons toured the region to support the cause. In 1916 their work bore fruit when on January 1st, all Colorado went dry. Residents of the northeast region again led the way in setting policy for the entire state. This law caused rummers to take up bootlegging or to make their own illegal liquor. After all, the legislature could not stop thirst.  Colorado's Progressives were pleased with the General Assembly and as a national movement for prohibition grew, they wholeheartedly supported it. In 1919 the United States Constitution was amended to outlaw the manufacture and sale of alcohol. In 1920 the nation went "dry" in accordance with the provisions of the Volstead Act. Northeastern Colorado reformers felt they had played a significant role in this change because of the state's earlier experiments in prohibition. They were equally proud that the national constitution was amended in 1920, to give women the vote, again because the Colorado example was used to convince skeptics that female suffrage was positive. These changes not only affected the way government operated, but they were also seen as bettering mankind. 
Other citizens of this period also interested in civil betterment felt that steps like outlawing liquor sales only one type of environmental improvement and that to fully accomplish progressive goals, something had to be done to alter physical surroundings. This was known as the "City Beautiful" movement and was an outgrowth of a planned city at the 1893 Chicago's Worlds Fair. The most ambitious program of this nature in northeastern Colorado was led by Mayor Speer in Denver. The clean-up and channeling of Cherry Creek, along with construction of Speer Boulevard next to that waterway, were first steps in this direction. The second phase was construction of a civic center and park near the state capitol building to provide open space. In Boulder, the city hired Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. to design its first parks, while towns throughout this region joined in the craze to create recreation areas to improve urban conditions. 
Reformers felt that improvements in government, society and physical surroundings would be wasted if people were not well educated. This fear, combined with a sense of urgency to "Americanize" foreign immigrants led to creation of adult education programs. Denver, with its large Italian, German and other foreign populations, led the way. Progressives, including Emily Griffith, founded schools to train both adults and immigrants in useable work skills and to gain fundamentals in the "3Rs." Her Opportunity School became a model for other similar operations in the nation. Hand in hand, with new educational facilities, came the spread of public libraries. In numerous northeast Colorado towns, these citadels of learning were aided by grants from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation. That organization gave money to build libraries and also supplied them with books. Many of these structures still stand, either as libraries or for other purposes. 
Populist and later Progressive changes affected the future of northeast Colorado. They came about in response to economic troubles of the early 1890s. The Populist movement was the last concerted effort by rural folks to successfully manipulate events in the region. The nineties, further, marked a closing of the frontier in northeast Colorado. From 1900 forward urban areas became dominate forces, both politically and economically. Social and governmental developments were only small parts of a greater change that took place in activity between 1890 and 1920.
1Robert G. Athearn, The Coloradans, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976), pp. 214-216, hereafter cited: Athearn, Coloradans, and James Edward Wright, The Politics of Populism, Dissent in Colorado, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), pp. 34, 40-41, 255-257, hereafter cited: Wright, Politics.
2Helen Slater interview, "Yuma," Civil Works Administration, Colorado State Historical Society, Volume 352, hereafter cited: CWA, CSHS; S.E. Pantzer interview, vol. 350 CWA, CSHS, and Forest L. White, "The Panic of 1893 in Colorado," (M.A. Thesis; University of Colorado, 1932), p. 102, here after cited: White, "1893."
4Irving L. Barker interview, vol. 352, CWA, CSHS, and Leila S. Walters letters, vol. 350, CWA, CSHS; White, "1893," pp. 25-33, and Ora B. Peake, The Colorado Range Cattle Industry, (Glendale, CA.: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1937), pp. 275-277, hereafter cited: Peake, Range.
20"Incorporation of Sterling," vol. 341, CWA, CSHS, and Nell Brown Propst, Forgotten People, A History of the South Platte Trail, (Boulder: Pruett, 1979), pp. 178-180, hereafter cited: Propst, Forgotten.
28Evadene A. B. Swanson, Fort Collins Yesterdays, (Ft. Collins: Swanson, 1975), p. 70; F. Johnson, CWA, CSHS; No Author, "The Progressive Party in 1914," in A Colorado Reader, edited by Carl Ubbelohde, (Boulder: Pruett, 1962), pp. 288-290, hereafter cited: No Author, "1914.", and Athearn, Coloradans, pp. 228-230.
Last Updated: 20-Nov-2008