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October 31, 2019

The Battle of Denver City Hall

By Danielle Hollembaek

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In the 1890s, Denver, Colorado was plagued with crooked politicians and shady business dealings. A depression hit Arapahoe County like a storm causing great turmoil and loss of livelihoods for its inhabitants. As history shows, when certain circumstances cause economic stress for an area, criminal activity flourishes and political powers tend to get abused. One man made it his mission as a politician to clean up the town and expose the backdoor dealings the Denver city council had with gamblers and crooks . That man was a lawyer from Aspen named Davis H. Waite.

Electing Populist Party Candidate Davis H. Waite

Davis H. Waite

Aspen, Colorado as we know it today is a beautiful mecca for avid skiers, but in the late 1800s, it was a mining destination. Being a citizen of the town, Waite saw firsthand how the state’s economy was collapsing and the eminent decline was propelled by the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, a deal which would have made the U.S. government purchase huge amounts of silver and produce more currency. This denial of the act lead to the Panic of 1893 and was one of the leading factors that pushed Waite to seek elected office.

In Waite’s run for governor in 1892, he promoted a platform of reform and rejuvenation for the state of Colorado. He was a member of the Populist Party which in those days stood for fair wages for hard working people as well as honest prices for farmers. He believed in suffrage for women, lower wages for public and state officials, and was an advocate for silver coinage as opposed to the gold standard. Mining was a common trade of citizens in Colorado and many of the workers barely made enough money to put food on the table for their families. Waite saw the major wage gap and wanted to take a stance to right the wrong.

Cripple Creek Mining Town

Some viewed Waite as an extremist because of his beliefs in “high” wages for laborers and his want to overturn Colorado’s political system. He was a passionate man that held strong political beliefs, some so powerful that they scared people. His opposition thought he was not in the right mind to hold an elected office and that he didn’t have his priorities focused for the state. Whether they were right or not, he did win and was appointed governor of Colorado in 1893. Waite’s first battle was for the miners, but after a year as governor, he would soon find that the state had many more issues facing its prosperity.

Shortly after he was placed in office in July of 1893, 2,000 out of 2,200 miners were laid off. This tremendous crisis affected many families and struck down the state’s economy even further. The miners were fed up with the way they were being treated and they revolted against their superiors at Cripple Creek, a leading silver town. In Waite’s famous address known as the “Bloody Bridles" speech, he pointed out the unjust power structure superiors at mine created and held over the common worker. He encouraged the workers to rebel and stick up for their rights. He said,

“…if the money power shall attempt to sustain its usurpation by the strong hand we will meet the issue when it is forced upon us, for it is better infinitely better, that blood should flow to the horse’s bridles rather than our national liberties be destroyed.”

The quote was paraphrased Revelation 14:18-20 from the Bible which states,

“Take your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes from the earth’s vine, because its grapes are ripe.” The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia.”

In context, the quote was meant to call to the miners that the time has come for action; whether that be a strike, negotiations, or in the extreme case…violence. The “grapes” or issues were ripe for change and the time to act was now. Did Waite want to shock the crowd and stir up tension to create a sense of urgency? Most likely so, but it is unclear if he was opting for violence as the sole solution, so journalists took his extreme rhetoric literally and wrote that the governor wanted blood to spill. He gained his infamous and career-following nickname from this speech, Bloody Bridles Waite.

Birds Eye View of Leadville Lake County, Colo. 1879

The Conflict in Denver

As winter of 1894 slowly crept into spring, the miners in Colorado still were deep in their fight for fair wages with Waite on their side. Meanwhile in Denver, Colorado, the insatiable appetite for sin and shady dealing continued to grow and expand to levels unprecedented for the time. In March, Waite realized he needed to take action to combat the illegal activities and ordered the Denver Fire and Police board to close down establishments they knew were covers for prostitution and illegal gambling. The politicians and government employees in the city were conspiring with the criminal syndicates and had no interest in hurting their bottom line by closing down businesses so they blissfully ignored the governor’s orders. After all, what was the worst an outnumbered Populist Party politician could do? The city of Denver soon would find out Waite was no man to tempt into action.

In March 1894, Governor Waite was granted the power to both appoint local police and to excuse officials on the board, and he used that power to remove Jackson Orr and D. J. Martin, two men he believed were ring leaders in the criminality that plagued Denver. Waite also planned to excuse a few other deceitful employees at city hall in his long term restructuring plan. His strategy was to appoint two men he trusted to clean up the political system of the city and hopefully take Denver back from the criminals to get it going in the direction of legal prosperity.

As one would assume, Martin and Orr were not pleased to find out they had been fired from their positions. With the economy of the state in shambles government jobs were highly coveted positions and people were willing to do just about anything to keep their careers. In this case, that meant refusing to leave peacefully from city hall. Unfortunately for Governor Waite, the two men had friends in the city and county sheriff's department also involved with the dirty dealings. Those law enforcement officers did not want to see the two men removed. Knowing that the governor would do all he could to forcibly remove them from office, the city officials decided to barricade themselves inside City Hall in an attempt to defy the governor.

When Waite was informed that the men were not going to follow his orders and had set up a blockade, he knew he had to take serious measures. He had two options; he could call upon the Colorado Supreme Court and get them to remove the uncooperative workers from their jobs (which could take months for action), or he could confront the unruly group of men. In his typical bold and brazen manner, he chose to bring in the Colorado National Guard.

Crowds of people awaiting the fate of Denver City Hall

The dishonest Denver city officials called upon all their supporters to help protect City Hall. They didn’t know when the troops would arrive, but they knew they’d need numbers. All people who were in alliance with the politicians stood their ground in front of the hall awaiting the infantry. Arapahoe County Sheriff William K. Burchinell decided to support the Denver city officials and sent around 500 some newly appointed, sheriff deputies to fight against the National Guard. He thought it was out of line for a governor to call in the military for what he thought was such a trivial matter and one that could have been solved through proper legal channels. By March 14, the entirety of City Hall was surrounded by armed lawmen and civilians.

The National Guard marching into the city.

The Colorado National Guard arrived 10 days later. Spectators and concerned citizens alike marveled at the sight of soldiers marching into their city led by Governor Waite. The orders were to storm the building and remove the men with force. Thankfully upon arriving to Denver, Governor Waite exercised his best judgement and decided to back down the infantry forces. Some think he saw the chaos around him and thought it was better to stop the violence before it was too late, others believe citizens of Denver convinced him he was going too far. Either way, the National Guard left the town and City Hall removed its barricades. This part of the deescalation is not thoroughly documented, the barricade could have also been lifted a day later when the Supreme Court interjected themselves into the conflict or they possibly could have been taken down immediately after the National Guard left, the recorded history is not clear.

By March 25, 1894, the Supreme Court of Colorado had accelerated the case and said that Waite was within his rights to remove the two men from office, but he should have never called in military forces to extract them from the building. He was able to put in place the two men he wanted for the positions shortly thereafter. Waite ended up getting the outcome he wanted despite the delay and potential bloodshed, but the victory would prove to be at the expense of his political career.

The Aftermath


Lot 108: Historic, Documented Arapahoe County, Colorado Factory Inscribed Winchester Model 1886 Lever Action Rifle with Factory Letter. Avaliable this December

In the wake of the events that transpired on Denver, Sheriff Burchinell thought Arapahoe County needed to invest in some new guns. One can never be too careful when it comes to protecting their citizens after all. Burchinell ordered 50 Winchester Model 1886 rifles with round barrels in .40-82 caliber. All the guns were engraved with “Arapahoe County” on the receiver. In our 2019 December Premier Firearms Auction, we have one of the guns ordered by Sheriff Burchinell.

This letter is straight from Arapahoe County and explains a short summary of why so many Winchester Model 1886 rifles were ordered.

The Arapahoe Winchester rifle is in remarkably fine condition showing 85% of its original finish on the barrel and magazine. The hammer, receiver, fore end cap, and lever still retain a fair amount of their beautiful case color. The gun has standard Model 1886 markings and displays a dovetail blade front sight. The finish on the wood is still very fine and the rifle itself is mechanically excellent.

The “Arapahoe County” factory engraving is strikingly clear on the left side of the receiver and shows through gorgeously with the casehardening. A unique feature of the wooden stock is an arrow shaped, non-factory image lightly carved into it. It’s hard to predict how the arrow got there throughout the years, but it definitely adds to the tremendous character of the gun. This Winchester holds great provenance and was once a part of the astounding Larry Jones collection.

This historic rifle is extremely rare and a direct result of the Denver City Hall standoff. The conflict is one of the strangest in the state’s history and obviously made an impact on law enforcement of the day, evident in their large order of the Winchester Model 1886 shortly after the battle. This could be your chance to own a piece of unique 19th century history.

Here is the lists of serial numbers for the rifles ordered.

Colorado Moving Forward

Later that spring, Governor Waite had to put down another potentially violent uprising at Cripple Creek, the striking mining town. He was asked by local law enforcement to send in state troops to protect the mine owners and supervisor because the strike had become physical with the minor taking people hostage and showed extreme aggression. Governor Waite decided to send in forces, but he did so to protect the striking miners, not the mining superiors. This gained him more favor with the miners but less with the powers in charge of the silver towns and state officials.

After stretching his power to the limits and getting many of his proposed policies and plans passed, Governor Waite did not win his re-election bid at the end of 1894. Many attribute his Denver City Hall bust and his Bloody Bridles rhetoric to his loss in re-election this time around.

In his two years in office, he had made headway with getting fair wages for farmers and miners in the state, as well as set into motion women’s suffrage initiatives. Colorado was the second state in the Union to extend equal suffrage women enacting its policies just a few months after Wyoming declared suffrage legislation. He had also passed legislation with his party that restricted the work day to an eight hour span. The state was on the upswing with the economy showing improvements and job creation on the rise in the beginning of the 20th century. Whether Waite was the cause of the prosperity or if other factors were involved is uncertain, but it is pleasant to know that he championed the end of some of the corruption to help the state out in his short two years in office. Perhaps if he was not involved in multiple difficult battles all at once, the Populist Party could have kept a reign over Colorado politics for a while. Waite was a man who took on quite a bit of opposition in a very short time period.

Denver, Colorado circa 1898

The Arapahoe county rifles can be found in multiple museums around the state of Colorado, and of course, you have the opportunity to add one to your gun collection this December. Our December Premier Firearms Auction is the 6th through 8th with a Preview Day on December 5th. Come and explore the various rifle offerings we have up for bidding and get a closer look at the historic Arapahoe County Winchester rifle.

References

Arapahoe County, CO - official WEBSITE: Official website. (n.d.). Retrieved October 10, 2019, from https://www.arapahoegov.com/

Bueler, G. R. (1981). Colorado's colorful characters. Boulder, CO: Pruett Pub.

Davis H. Waite. (2019, January 09). Retrieved October 10, 2019, from https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/archives/davis-h-waite

History Colorado: Denver's city hall War of 1894. (2017, March 21). Retrieved October 10, 2019, from https://kdvr.com/2017/03/21/history-colorado-denvers-city-hall-war-of-1894/

Horn, :., & Name. (2014, January 21). Soapy Smith AND Denver's City Hall War. Retrieved October 10, 2019, from http://discerninghistory.com/2014/01/soapy-smith-and-denvers-city-hall-war/

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