Denver in the 1880's

by Robert H. Latta

I was born in Boston, Massachusetts, November 24, 1851, and was named for Robert Fulton of steamboat fame, who was a relative. In Boston I learned the printing trade, and worked for the White-Smith Company. I enjoyed singing, and belonged to the Handel and Haydn Society. I also studied for the stage, along with Georgia Cayvan, who became famous under the direction of Daniel Frohman, Edwin and Fred Maynard, Daniel Gilfeather, and others who continued in that profession.

I came to Colorado at the age of 30, following my elder brother William, who had arrived in Denver a year or two earlier. On arrival I went to Idaho Springs and secured work on the railroad. It was early in the year, and very cold. Some of my fellow workmen and I bunked in a shack made of boards lined with building-paper and heated by a small sheet-iron stove. It would often grow so hot that we would have to throw open the door to cool off, but after the fire died away for the night, the cold was bitter. I recall going to bed partly dressed, and donning one article of clothing after another as the cold grew stronger, until when it was time to get up I was fully dressed, even to my shoes and hat.

I came to Denver in June, 1881. Larimer was then the principal street. The firm of Browne and Putnam, lawyers, had an office here, and I began the study of law with them, later studying with Miller, Clough and Long (Mr. Miller afterward became County Judge) in a building on Larimer between 15th and 16th streets, opposite Charpiot's Hotel, then a popular house. I boarded at a Mrs. Rust's on Curtis, between 21st and 22nd streets. Her house was near one that was owned by Admiral George Dewey, later the hero of Manila Bay.

The law office of Stallcup, Luthe and Shafroth was between Charpiot's Hotel and 15th street. Mr. John F. Shafroth was afterward United States senator. He had in his employ a young lawyer. One day a summons and complaint was brought in against a client. Mr. Shafroth gave it to the young lawyer, who asked him what to do with it. Mr. Shafroth told him to deny everything. When the denial was given to Mr. Shafroth, he found he had been obeyed literally. The young lawyer denied the existence of the State of Colorado, of Arapahoe County, of the district court, and of the plaintiff and defendant. One day walking down the street with Senator Shafroth, I spoke of it. He laughed, and said, “Do you remember that?" The Court House was on the corner of Larimer and 15th streets, and the post office was under it. The State Capitol was on the corner of Larimer and 18th streets. The "Rocky Mountain News" office was in a grout building next to the Good Block. The present location of the capitol was then only a rough hill, where people sometimes shot jackrabbits. It was owned by Henry C. Brown, builder of Brown Palace Hotel, who gave the land to Colorado for the capitol site. Mr. Brown lived in a house on Lincoln Street between 17th and 18th avenues, which was afterward occupied by Mrs. Augusta Tabor.

How Denver became the capital of Colorado is a secret known to but a few persons. The story was told to me by Judge George W. Miller, who was a party to it, and who went to the southern part of the state as one of the committee.

Before statehood was granted Colorado, the legislature met in different cities, among them Golden and Colorado City. It was decided to have a permanent capital, to be voted on at a general election. Nearly all the cities and towns wanted it, but there was great opposition to Denver.

A number of Denver citizens of both political parties held a secret meeting. A campaign was marked out, and the state divided into sections. A committee of each party was to go to each section and work for Denver. Each committee promised the leaders of their party in each section that if they would get the votes for Denver for the capital, the committee would pay a part of the general election expenses. Denver wanted only the capital; the other state institutions would go to other cities, and Denver would help them. Denver won. A great cry was made all over the state about it; no one knew how it was brought about.

The corner of Colfax and Broadway was a pasture ground for cattle, which was later known as the "Million Dollar Pasture," because the owner still kept his cows there after the land had become very valuable.

Broadway was one of the "speedways" of Denver; it was the rule to go out Broadway slowly, but to race back. The racetrack was out in Hyde Park addition. One day a funeral was passing the track when a great hailstorm arose. The hurt and frightened horses, drawing the hearse and carriage, dashed onto the racetrack and went around a number of times before they could be controlled.

The mention of funerals reminds me of an incident that happened a few years later. I was in Cripple Creek on business. One evening I saw a crowd of miners, led by a brass band, playing "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," making the rounds of the saloons. They were "celebrating" the funeral of one of their friends, and were carrying his coffin with them. Laughing and shouting, they followed the band from one saloon to the next all the way down the street, stopping each time for a drink in honor of the deceased. It was the noisiest funeral party I ever saw.

In the early '80s the sidewalks downtown as well as elsewhere were made of planks. Water was running in the gutters, and trees grew on the sides. A hail and rain storm came and washed the sidewalks into the streets, and I saw boys using them for rafts at 16th and Curtis streets.

A man was found guilty of murder and was hung from a tree in Cherry Creek near 10th Street. A large crowd gathered, and a woman with a small child was pushed by the crowd to the front, close to the hanging man. I delayed going to the courthouse, which was then a part of the old county jail, as I did not want to see the hanging. This was the last public execution in Colorado.

One evening I heard shouts near the Opera House, and found that a mob had a murderer and was going to hang him. They did so, but I did not want to see it.

Emma Abbott opened the Tabor Opera House in September, 1881. She received an enthusiastic reception from a crowded house. I attended the opening night.

General Samuel Browne, of the firm of Browne and Putnam, one day was passing in front of the Tabor Opera House when it was being built. He stepped on a loose plank and was thrown into the basement, landing on a pile of sand. He told me he must have been there at least half an hour before he came to his senses. The scar on his forehead showed plainly all the rest of his life.

The Circle Railroad had a station the other side of Cherry Creek on Larimer Street. They had a small engine and a few cars. The road ran through South Denver. One day a train killed a man, and soon after the train broke into the station without the engineer or fireman on it. It was said that both of them saw the ghost of the dead man on the track, got scared and jumped from the engine, letting it go wild. It was as a result of the man being killed that an order was made that before any tramway car crossed the tracks, the conductor had to stop his car and get off to see if any train was in sight.

Cheesman Park was then a burial ground, and many a gravemark said, "Killed by Indians." The Federal Government afterwards gave the ground to the city, and most of the bodies were removed. The west end of it was made into a park and called Congress Park. After the death of Walter Cheesman his widow offered to build a pavilion there if the city would change the name to Cheesman Park. At the time when the land was given to the city, a man filed on it as a homestead, claiming that as it was not used as a burial ground it was open to entry.

Chain and Hardy had a book and stationery store on Arapahoe Street. Mr. Chain was caught in a typhoon on the coast of China, and he and the vessel were lost.

The First National Bank was on the corner of 16th and Larimer Streets. One day when Mr. David Moffat, the president of the bank, was there, a man went up to him and showed him a bottle, and said it contained nitro-glycerine and that if Mr. Moffat did not give him some money, he would blow up both of them, the bank and all who were in it. Mr. Moffat got the money from the paying teller, and gave it to the man, who escaped. The papers said that the bottle was afterwards found in a business building on Larimer Street, and that it contained sweet oil.

Saloons, gambling houses and houses of ill-fame were flourishing and wide open. Ed Chase was then one of the leading gamblers, and owned the Palace Theater, gambling house and saloon on Blake Street. He allowed no cheating in his house. It was reported that it was a common event for someone to be shot there, but he told me that the only time a gun was discharged there was one time a drunken man dropped a gun, and it was discharged. No hungry man applied to him in vain. One day he was told that a widow and her children were cold and hungry, with nothing but rags to keep them warm. He immediately gave a friend some money and told him to go buy everything necessary, and then to inquire into the circumstances.

Soapy Smith, a noted confidence man, who was afterwards killed at Nome, Alaska, often stood on Larimer Street near 16th Street with a raised stand. He would take a small piece of soap, wrap a large bill of money around it, enclose it in a piece of paper, and throw it on the stand in front of the crowd, and for one dollar anyone could take a piece of soap from the pile. It looked like a sure thing, but when a man picked a piece out of the pile, except when a confederate did it, it never contained money. This was due to sleight of hand.

United States Judge Moses Hallett held his court in the old Symes building, which at that time had an entrance on Champa Street. One day the elevator made so much noise as to disturb his court. He was an excellent judge, but severe, and the attorneys stood in awe of him. He ordered the elevator boy into the court, and told him the elevator must be stopped. The boy, not realizing who the judge was, said he took orders only from Mr. Hart, the custodian of the building, and that he would not stop the elevator. The lawyers present expected that the boy would be punished, but the judge ordered him to go back to work.

Frank T. Johnson, afterwards district judge, Robert W. Bonynge, afterwards member of congress, and others, including myself, met in my office in the Symes building in 1891 and organized the Denver Bar Association. I was its secretary from 1893 to 1894.

Judge Charles, for whom the Charles Block, on 15th and Curtis streets, was named, asked me to become his partner. I perhaps would have done so, except that he made the condition that I buy a half interest in his law library. I did not want to do this, so did not become his partner. The library was later burned in the Symes building fire.

Reverend Myron W. Reed of the First Congregational Church, then located on Glenarm Street back of the Kittredge building, was one of the most popular preachers in America. He was president of the Glenarm Reading Club, of which I was a member. Denver had no public library, and he notified the city that if they would not make a public library, the Glenarm Reading Club would do so. The city then made a library. The first city library was situated in the basement of the building of on the corner of Lawrence and 15th streets. It was afterward removed to the East Denver High School building, then situated where the Federal building now stands, and later to where the Civic Center is, in a low, one- story building.

I was a member of the First Congregational Church and taught Sunday School there. I arranged for the largest picnic ever to go by train out of Denver at that time, a church picnic to Lyons, Colorado. And, by the way, I was among those who got up the first free fireworks exhibition in Denver.

At the time when Myron Reed was president of the Children's Hospital, I was its first secretary. The hospital was in a building across Cherry Creek, later taken over by the Gross Medical School. Dr. Horace Hawkins was the physician.

In the early '80s I went with the Colorado Editorial Association to Texas. I was a member. General George W. West, Adjutant General of Colorado, was also a member. He had been appointed by our Governor to represent Colorado at the dedication of the state capitol at Austin, Texas. I went with him as his military aide. The first day there, Mrs. West became very ill, and it was necessary for him to take her to Corpus Christi, on the coast. Governor Ross of Texas requested of General West that I remain in Austin as the representative of Colorado and as his guest. I so admired Texas and the Texans that afterwards (1891) I went to the city of Mexia and married one of the belles of Texas—Miss Sadie Olive Myers.

One day Lieutenant Adair of the regular army was visiting Denver. I introduced him to my friend, General West. While we were in General West's office, Colonel Chivington came in, and I introduced Lieutenant Adair, who asked him about the Sand Creek fight, erroneously called a massacre. Colonel Chivington in my presence told Lieutenant Adair the whole story, and said that his action was entirely justified. Lieutenant Adair agreed.

When the Indians broke out in the western part of Colorado, the Governor called out all the companies of both the first and second regiments of the Colorado National Guard, except my company, B. Captain Folsom of Leadville, said to be a brother of Mrs. Grover Cleveland, was killed in action. General West telegraphed Brigadier General Reardon, then in command, to give them hell, and ever after was nicknamed "Give-them-hell West."

I was acquainted with Harry H. Tammen and Fred Bonfils. One day I asked Mr. Tammen how to succeed, since he had been so successful. He said, "Get in the line of success."

Judge James B. Belford, former member of Congress, and William Gilpin often visited me at my office in the Symes building and told me many interesting stories of Colorado and Washington. Unfortunately, I do not now recall them.