The Progressive Era (1900–20) was a national period of social and political reform in which grassroots activists and their political allies sought the power of government and science to address pressing public problems. In Colorado, Progressives brought significant political and social changes to the state, including the creation of statewide initiatives and referenda, an eight-hour workday for miners and women, a minimum wage, child labor laws, juvenile courts, and alcohol prohibition. Meanwhile, Progressive impulses at the federal level targeted Colorado’s public lands and water resources, resulting in the creation of national forests, national parks, and large-scale irrigation projects.
Part of a National Movement
Beginning around 1900, many middle- and working-class Americans organized publicly to call out a range of problems across the nation. Political party machines dominated elections and often corrupted the voting process. Many women expressed frustration with their exclusion from public life and threats to the common welfare. Newly emerging monopolies in business constrained worker freedom and consumer choice. Rapidly growing cities struggled to accommodate a swelling influx of immigrants and rural migrants. Journalists exposed housing and hygiene crises as well as economic injustices.
In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that the Progressive Era began in earnest with an act of working-class discontent: In 1901 a disgruntled steel worker-turned-anarchist assassinated President William McKinley, putting reformist Vice President Theodore Roosevelt in office. Progressives helped elect Roosevelt in 1904, and in 1906 the president called for the nation’s reformers to focus their “movement of agitation . . . to punish the authors of evil, whether in industry or politics.”
Progressivism was a national movement, but it took on unique characteristics in the young state of Colorado, which was experiencing rapid urbanization, economic uncertainty, and industrial unrest. As the state capital and financial hub, Denver grew dramatically after the first stirrings of gold rush excitement in 1858. By 1900 male and female Progressive reformers in the Mile High City expressed urgent concerns about political corruption; abuses of power by railroad, utility, mining, and financial corporations; alcohol abuse; prostitution; the treatment of juveniles accused of crimes; high taxes; and the best path forward for development. In mining towns such as Central City, Leadville, Cripple Creek, and Telluride, business consolidation and cycles of boom and bust created uncertainty in the lives of wage earners, retailers, saloonkeepers, and landlords.
Dimensions of Colorado Progressivism
Progressive Era reformers typically began with exposés of wrongdoing. During the 1904 campaign to elect the city’s mayor, for example, The Denver Post printed a remarkable cartoon drawn by artist Wilbur Steele.
It portrayed Democratic Party “Boss” (and 1904 mayoral candidate) Robert Speer standing with a giant foot planted on the chest of a prostrate young woman labeled “honest elections.” The violence suggested by Speer’s stance was reinforced by the smoking gun of a city detective also identified as a “thug.” As the gun smoke wafted upward, it transformed into a banner announcing: “We do things to the honest voter!” The aggressively masculine position of Speer threatening to trample the feminine voter signaled an urgent concern for Progressive reformers in early twentieth-century Colorado. From this perspective, Speer represented the evils of a political party system that distorted masculinity and threatened election integrity.
Female reformers played a central role in the movement to clean up elections and redefine women’s citizenship. One of the most urgent reforms for Progressives nationwide was women’s right to vote, also known as suffrage. Colorado’s male voters had approved the franchise for women much earlier than in other states. Effective campaigning by female activists combined with a sympathetic Populist movement of male miners and farmers to approve women’s suffrage in 1893—nearly thirty years before women in Mississippi or Massachusetts could vote. By 1900 Colorado women had decades of experience with campaigning and voting, and a few women had been elected to the state legislature. Yet while the main political parties remained male dominated, there was little enthusiasm for a separate women’s party. Lobbying chiefly through a network of women’s clubs, female activists promoted political reforms to make elections and parties honest and more democratic.
In addition, Colorado’s female Progressives forged coalitions with male activists to advance a broader agenda on behalf of women and children. Among their most important male allies was Judge Benjamin Barr Lindsey, who achieved national recognition as an advocate for a newly created juvenile court system in Denver. Together the juvenile judge and clubwomen secured an early form of welfare for widowed mothers, new rules to make juvenile courts the place to judge wrongdoing by male and female minors, child labor restrictions, and modest public health programs to assist mothers and infants. Colorado’s first female state senator, Helen Ring Robinson, labeled this effort “the maternal in politics,” which suggested a public role for mothers as activists, voters, and elected officials. Thus, the state’s early embrace of women’s suffrage made female Progressives into municipal housekeepers.
Democratic and Republican Party corruption and patronage became frequent targets for female and male Progressives alike. Their activism resulted in key democratic changes: the direct primary to weaken the influence of party bosses; the creation of initiative, referendum, and recall processes to allow voters to bypass the party-dominated state legislature; and the direct election of senators. Some state leaders, such as Democratic Governor John Shafroth (1909–13), embraced these reforms, which reflected the agitation of movement activists in Colorado. Mayor Robert Speer, elected with the help of fraudulent voting in 1904, ran a much cleaner campaign for reelection in 1908 as a result of Progressive vigilance. Speer’s City Beautiful initiatives also reflected the vision of Progressive urbanites, creating new sewage and sanitation systems, professionally designed public parks, and paved, well-lit streets.
Reformers did encounter important limits to political change. Activist attorney Edward Costigan ran twice for governor of Colorado at the head of a separate Progressive Party, but he was unable to break the party loyalty of most Democratic and Republican voters and lost both elections. The new Progressive Party achieved few electoral wins.
Costigan’s campaigns also revealed another feature of Progressivism: Leaders often framed their appeals for Progressive reform in the language of Protestant Christianity. After Costigan cofounded an “honest” voter’s league to challenge the party machines in 1905, he sought the “sanction and baptism” of the churches. The Denver Christian Citizenship Union, a group of religious leaders in the city, sought to waken “Christian people . . . to the standard of good citizenship.” For Protestant Progressives “vice” especially meant saloons, gambling halls, and prostitution.
Newspaper reporters and cartoonists worked to incite the indignation of Christian voters. Rocky Mountain News editor Edward Keating and reporter Ellis Meredith, muckraking journalists Harvey O’Higgins and George Creel, and Post cartoonist Steele exposed corruption, corporate manipulation, worker injustices, and dangers to women and children in rapidly urbanizing, industrial communities in Colorado. They shaped a fearful vision of an endangered feminine public at the mercy of male political bosses, selfish business owners, and wicked saloonkeepers.
Often linked with political corruption in the minds of Colorado Progressives was the saloon. A workingman’s social club in the nineteenth century, the saloon represented a host of evils in the minds of twentieth-century Progressives, as depicted in the 1904 cartoon “The Modern Devil Fish.”
This cartoon showed the idealistic hopes of a small Prohibition Party and many more Progressives who prayed that a vote to ban alcohol would shut down the saloon and its connections to gambling, prostitution, and political party organizing. Proposals to allow neighborhood saloon bans and prohibit alcohol outright appeared regularly between 1900 and 1914. In 1914 a majority of Colorado voters finally enacted Prohibition by initiative, six years before the rest of the nation went dry. As in other states, this social experiment did reduce alcohol consumption among Colorado men during the 1920s. But women, who had rarely entered saloons, became regular patrons at speakeasies across the state, and bootlegging operations routinely flouted the law. The chaos of Prohibition eroded Progressive hopes for a broad social and political transformation.
Business Regulation and Labor Warfare
More effective over the long term were Progressive reforms to curb the overwhelming power of big businesses. Male and female activists lobbied together until voters in 1912 approved an eight-hour day for female workers and male miners. A minimum wage law for women followed soon after. But here, too, Progressives fell short of their goal. They could not get the state to declare coal mining and smelting as businesses subject to “the public interest,” which would have empowered the legislature to pass a range of health and safety regulations for workers.
Indeed, industrial strife and labor violence were among the most intractable problems that Colorado Progressives confronted. Major mining strikes in the state often degenerated into violence and death, such as at Telluride in 1901–3, Cripple Creek in 1904, and Ludlow in 1914. These bitter conflicts generated intense pressure by workers for economic change.
A new group of Progressive reformers responded. These were typically lawyers who promoted first investigation and then mediation of workplace disputes in the hope of averting violent strikes. In 1915 Colorado legislators created the Colorado Industrial Commission, the nation’s first state board with powers to ban strikes and lockouts in industries with a public interest, pending an investigation by labor-management experts. The commission, however, largely acted to protect the consuming public and prevent violence, not to protect workers.
Some female workers did benefit from the commission’s interventions during World War I. But in the 1920s, the commission did not side with coal miners and meatpackers in their quest to end National Guard harassment, unjust working conditions, and low wages. This failure ultimately led to new violence in the mining industry, such as in the 1927 strike at the Columbine Mine in Lafayette.
The creation of the Colorado Industrial Commission highlights another Progressive Era trend: at all levels, government increasingly turned to panels of experts to address problems that Progressives called attention to. Taken from increasingly professionalized fields such as engineering, medicine, the natural sciences, and the social sciences, these experts advised policymakers on everything from labor mediation to dam construction.
Natural Resources in the Progressive Era
At the federal level, perhaps no “expert” was more important to Colorado’s Progressive Era than Gifford Pinchot, the nation’s first expert forest manager. With Pinchot’s help, President Roosevelt, an ardent conservationist himself, established the US Forest Service and the modern national forest system in 1905. Across Colorado’s five national forests, Pinchot’s Forest Service became a model Progressive entity, relying on data from research stations and a staff of trained, vetted rangers to help manage and protect an important public resource. Some Coloradans resented this outside interference. Indeed, national forests became “the lightning rod of federal management,” the historian Richard White has noted, “enrag[ing] those who still envisioned the West as a region where opportunity was synonymous with unrestricted access to resources.” Despite opposition and even arson, the US Forest Service established its authority by the 1910s and now manages eleven national forests in Colorado.
Like the creation of Denver’s Mountain Parks at the same time, the establishment of Mesa Verde National Park in 1906 and Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915 reflected the Progressive impulse to protect natural areas for scientific study and the benefit and enjoyment of the public—instead of leaving them vulnerable to the whims of capital and industry. The Antiquities Act of 1906 and the creation of the National Park Service in 1916 epitomized this aspect of federal Progressivism. In Colorado the National Park Service now administers four national parks and five national monuments (established under the Antiquities Act), as well as a national recreation area and a handful of national historic sites and trails.
Federal Progressivism also helped stimulate Colorado agriculture. In 1902, with the support of Colorado Progressives such as John Shafroth (then a US Representative), the Roosevelt Administration created the Bureau of Reclamation to help irrigate the arid West. Staffed with experts in engineering and hydrology, the bureau completed one of its first five irrigation projects—the Gunnison Tunnel—in western Colorado’s Uncompahgre Valley. The Bureau of Reclamation would go on to complete sixteen water development projects in the state, allowing Colorado to become an agricultural powerhouse in the twentieth century.
As these federal initiatives show, Progressivism in Colorado meant more than fighting political corruption, building cleaner cities, or protecting workers; it also brought a new era of federal land management and water resource development that continues today and underwrites important state industries such as agriculture, recreation, and tourism.
Waning of the Progressive Movement
Many Progressives lost enthusiasm for political reform after World War I, which exposed underlying tensions in American politics and society. For many of Colorado’s working-class Progressives, the coercive power of state government under the Industrial Commission and National Guard proved more dangerous and less amenable to reform than they had hoped. The war also unleashed a flood of xenophobic nationalism that promoted suspicion of immigrants, especially Germans.
Capitalizing on the hyperpatriotism of the war years and anti-immigrant sentiment, the Colorado Ku Klux Klan enrolled more than 30,000 members between 1923 and 1925. While Ben Lindsey and others fought with the Klan openly, the hooded order nonetheless managed to capture the state Republican Party in the election of 1924. Klan leaders in state government targeted the nascent maternal bureaucracy that female Progressives had worked painstakingly to create. The power of the Klan in office ended up being checked not by Progressives in Colorado, who were largely in retreat, but instead by antistatist conservatives.
Nonetheless, between 1900 and 1920 Progressives had relied on the exposé to cast light on political party corruption and corporate manipulation of politics. They had placed their faith in an expanded role of government to address a range of social, economic, environmental, and political problems. In many cases, from alcohol prohibition to workers’ rights, forest conservation, and city sanitation, their faith was rewarded. Female reformers demanded that state efforts protect mothers and children with new initiatives. The reform movement energized many Colorado women who assumed new roles in public life. The rise of the Klan and its capture of the Republican Party reminded voters again of the dangers of party machines. Some Progressive activists did challenge the Klan, but their influence was limited. Despite their accomplishments, reform crusades had become passé or too constricting. It would take the New Deal in the 1930s to revive the belief that government intervention could address economic injustice and promote social welfare.