Perhaps it’s best we didn’t celebrate our barbaric past

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The official celebration of the sesquicentennial of the founding of Colorado City during 1859 came and went without much fuss.

Thanks to scores of neighborhood volunteers, a monument was erected, ice cream was eaten and the band played on.

It was as homey and unpretentious as Colorado City itself, once the sort-of state capital, now the sort-of capital of the west side.

The greater community scarcely noticed.

The media paid less attention to it than they did to the hokey re-enactment of the funeral of Colorado Springs founder Gen. William Palmer (who, like Generalissimo Francisco Franco, is still dead).

If ours were a rational community, we would have seized upon the occasion to celebrate the 150th anniversary of our city. Colorado City was the region’s first incorporated city and first development. Colorado Springs, founded 12 years later, was just a rival development, albeit a more successful one with a better story.

In real estate development, as in war, the victors’ version of history prevails.

Wasn’t Colorado City just a raggedy little red-light district, peopled only by drunks, gamblers and prostitutes? No wonder the great and genteel Gen. Palmer chose to build his sparkling new city on the verdant banks of Monument Creek, rather than endure such neighbors!!

Our city’s historian, the late Marshall Sprague, helped sustain this convenient myth 50 years ago, when he wrote “Newport in the Rockies.”

Look up “General Palmer” in the book’s index, and you find entries such as “town builder,” “town benefactions,” “as patriarch” and “early gifts.” Look up “Colorado City” and you find “crime,” “red-light district,” “mill strike” and “alleged capitol.”

The real history of Colorado City, and the westside neighborhoods which surround it, conflicts with our basic community narrative. We weren’t, it appears, such a peaceful, bucolic little burg after all.

The 1903 “mill strike,” to which Sprague devoted a single sentence, was organized by the Western Federation of Miners, who also struck the gold mines in Cripple Creek. Their demands — an eight-hour day and a daily wage of $3 — were fiercely resisted by the mill and mine owners, many of whom lived in Colorado Springs.

Aided by the Colorado National Guard and Gov. James Peabody, the owners broke the strike, during which scores of men died, most in Cripple Creek and Victor.

It was one of the bloodiest labor-management disputes in the nation’s history. It’s a story which pits tough predatory capitalists from Colorado Springs against tough, desperate workers from Colorado City, Cripple Creek and Victor. It’s not the story of a civilized dispute — it’s that of the Pikes Peak region as Iraq, complete with murderous gangs, lethal IEDs and daily acts of terrorism.

For decades after, WFM militants were blamed both for inciting the strike and for much of the consequent violence. Nowadays, historians blame both sides, citing the brutal tactics of management and the National Guard, whose salaries were paid by the mine owners.

Guard commander Sherman Bell declared war upon the strikers, saying that “military necessity recognizes no laws, either civil or social.”

Nowadays, we pretend that a high minded unity of purpose, whether it involves the arts, religion, social policy or local governance, is both achievable and desirable — and even something that once defined Colorado Springs.

Like it or not, our city was founded not upon amity but upon conflict, not cooperation but competition.

A century ago, the mining enterprises which provided work for the residents of Colorado City, and wealth for many Colorado Springs residents were the source of conflict. Today, our conflicts are less sanguinary and less intractable.

Don’t like the Dougs, either Bruce or Lamborn? Think that the mayor’s a little shady? Still mad at Focus? Can’t believe that those Democrat scoundrels have taken over our fair state?

Let’s be grateful that our leaders are no longer cut in the mold of Gen. Bell, who, after having arrested dozens of strikers, was informed that a lawyer for the men had filed a habeas corpus petition.

Bell swept aside arguments that the men had been arrested without warrants and were being held without formal charges. “Habeas corpus, hell!” he said. “We’ll give ’em post mortems.”

So even though we might view local history through rose-colored glasses, we’ve made progress.

Instead of Sherman Bell, WFM leader Big Bill Heywood and Harry Orchard (who killed 13 non-union workers when he dynamited the railroad station at Independence), we have Larry Small, Jim Bensberg and Sallie Clark. Instead of warrantless arrests and mass murder, we have polite disagreement about how best to fund our mildly strapped municipality.

We’re just the city that Gen. Palmer dreamed of — polite, civilized, urbane and non-violent. We’ve left our vicious, lawless past behind. We have elections instead of martial law, debates instead of dynamite.

Not that we’re all joining hands and singing “Kumbaya.”

Here in Colorado City, we have better things to do, like hanging out in bars, gambling and consorting with women of dubious virtue …

John Hazlehurst can be reached at John Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.

One Response to Perhaps it’s best we didn’t celebrate our barbaric past

  1. “Women of dubious virtue?”

    Dick Burns
    August 14, 2009 at 11:08 am