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Was Robert Speer Denver’s Greatest Mayor???

Robert  Speer was the mayor of Denver in the early part of the twentieth century. He was arrogant, autocratic, and somewhat corrupt, but the appearance of the city today has a lot to do with his vision.

He was born in Pennsylvania in 1855, but after contracting tuberculosis there, in 1878 he moved to Denver. Following a short stint as a clerk in the Daniels and Fisher store he entered city government, first as Denver City Clerk in 1884, then as postmaster, then in 1891 as President of the Denver Fire and Police Board where by assigning patronage jobs he built a strong political base, as well as collecting graft from the Red Light district on Market Street, and after hours saloons. In 1901 he became head of the Board of Public Works, the city’s largest agency.

At that time Denver was part of Arapahoe County, but there was a strong movement for “Home Rule”. In 1902 Denver and some surrounding municipalities were merged into The City and County of Denver, and in 1904 Robert Speer became the first Mayor in a disputed election. He immediately set out to change Denver from a dusty western town into what he envisioned as “the City Beautiful”.

He more than doubled the city’s park space to 1200 acres, and ordered that there be no “Keep off the Grass’ signs in any city park, a policy which is still followed today. He had 150 miles of Denver streets paved. He expanded the City Zoo, replacing many cages with moated enclosures. In 1908 he had the Auditorium Theatre built (now the Ellie Caulkins Theatre) just in time to host the 1908 Democratic National Convention. Every year he donated young maple and elm trees to any citizen who promised to care for them, and many of these trees now shade the older residential sections of the city. Cherry Creek had become an eyesore, the original cherry trees had long been cut down and it was used as an open sewer. He ordered the Creek to be cleaned up, retaining walls to be built and trees and shrubs to be planted. In 1910 his supporters changed the name of the street that he had built along the creek from Cherry Creek Drive to Speer Boulevard. He began plans for the civic center, and began clearing the area west of the Capitol building.

By 1912 many people were tired of “Boss” Speer’s authoritarian rule, including the newspapers which charged that his administration was rife with ”cronyism, corruption and crime”. The reformers suggested a commission form of city government. Speer said that would never work, but seeing the mood of the citizens he decided not to run for re-election, but ran for the Senate instead, a race which he lost.

Speer’s prediction turned out to be true, the commission did nothing to beautify the city, although they did shut down the Red Light district in 1913. The mood of the city changed, and when Speer ran again for mayor in 1916 he won in a landslide. He immediately picked up where he had left off, including planning for Civic Center Park, and a large City and County Building.

Unfortunately he never saw these plans come to fruition. In 1918 he came down with a cold which developed into pneumonia, and he died on May 14th. Over 10,000 people attended his funeral, held at the Auditorium Theater, and he is buried in Block 24 at Fairmount Cemetery. His vision of Civic Center Park was completed by succeeding mayors, and his wife Kate donated the bell and the clock on the City and County Building in his memory.

By Tom Morton

Oliver “The Ghost” Marcelle

Oliver Marcelle
(1897-1949)

Riverside Cemetery is the final resting place of Ollie “The Ghost” Marcelle, one of the greatest African-American baseball players. He is credited with
integrating professional baseball in Denver 13 years before Jackie Robinson officially integrated major league baseball in 1947.

Ollie was just a decent hitter, but he was an outstanding third baseman. He snared hit baseballs that the average infielder would have missed.
His nickname “The Ghost” came from his lightning-fast reflexes at third base. He was only 18 when he joined the Negro Leagues with the Brooklyn Royal Giants. He
later played for another black team in New York City, plus teams in Atlantic City, Detroit and Baltimore.

Unfortunately his violent temper erupted one time in 1929 when he and a teammate got into a
fight over a card game. In this fight his opponent bit off Ollie’s nose, causing him to wear a patch over his missing nose for the rest of his life.
After playing some more ball while enduring derogatory comments by opposing crowds, he left professional baseball and ended up here in Denver as a house
painter and handyman (playing occasional semi- pro ball).

In 1934 Ollie persuaded the promoter of the then-popular Denver Post baseball tournament to invite the Kansas City Monarchs to come here and play against a
traveling team called the House of David. The latter team was all white, while the Monarchs were one of the finest-ever African-American baseball teams.
Thousands of people came to watch these two teams play.

When Ollie Marcelle died here of a heart attack in 1949, he was alone and indigent. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the middle of Riverside’s Block 29. His
grave remained unmarked until 1991, when Fairmount and Riverside Cemeteries along with local sports historian Jay Sanford unveiled the current flat marker to “The
Ghost”. The marker bears the words of his Negro League friend Buck O’Neil:
“Baseball’s best third baseman brought black professional baseball to
Colorado.”

By Garry O’Hara

The NISEI Memorial at Fairmount

Niesi-Monument-2-300x200In Block 35, along the east of Fairmount is the beautiful Nisei Memorial. During World War II many people from the west coast of Japanese ancestry were interned in detention camps, including Camp Amache, in southeastern Colorado. Many of those who were born in the U.S. of Japanese immigrants (Nisei) volunteered for U.S. Army service. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team comprised of these Nisei was the most decorated unit in the Army for its size and duration of action in World War II. This memorial was erected in 1963. It lists the names of soldiers of Japanese ancestry who were killed in combat as well as the names of those who were later killed in Korea or Viet Nam.

One of those memorialized is Private First Class Kiyoshi Muranaga, who was posthumously awarded

Kiyoshi_K_Muranaga-218x300the Medal of Honor. His citation reads, in part: “… Muranaga distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action on 26 June, 1944, near Suverto, Italy.” His mortar squad was pinned down by a German 88mm gun, and all except he withdrew; he manned the mortar himself and fired at the enemy. When the Germans saw where the fire was coming from they fired back, killing him instantly, but then they abandoned their position. … Private Muranaga’s extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service….” (Read the full citation here).  Kiyoshi Muranaga is buried in California.Near this memorial, in the northeast corner of Block 34, are the graves of many Nisei veterans who survived the war and settled in Colorado, including three soldiers of the 442 Regimental Combat Team:

  • KENNETH SHIBATA: Awarded the Bronze Star medal posthumously “for heroic achievement in action on 16 July 1944 in Italy”
  • JOSEPH ISAO MORISHIGE: Killed during action at Castelpoggio, Italy, April 14, 1945
  • SHIGARO MORISHIGE: Later became a two-time commander of American Legion Nisei Post No. 185 and a member of the Disabled American Veterans.

Photo of PVT 1 CL Muranaga courtesy of 442nd Regimental Combat Team Historical Society; for more information about the 442nd visit:

442nd Regimental Combat Team Historical Society

Never to Sail Again

Life journeys some time take us to places we never expected to go. It was fully expected that Maine born Timothy Reirdan Stinson would spend his life at sea, sailing from port to port and always at a distance from his family. It is no surprise to find “Mariner” next to his name in the 1850 Federal census. Nor is it a surprise two years later, despite his youthful 31 years, to find him in the position as Captain of the newly built packet ship William and Mary.

With a cargo of hay and herring, her maiden voyage from Bath, ME to Charleston, SC must have felt like a cruise to the tropics. The January, 1853, eastbound sail with a load of upland cotton destined for Liverpool, England, was more challenging, as any winter voyage would expect to be. But Stinson’s real test as Captain came on his return voyage. With the William and Mary fully loaded, her steerage with 208 emigrants and her cargo hold with tons of railroad iron and crockery, she sailed low and slow, experiencing one storm after another en route to New Orleans. Some 20 passengers died on the crossing. With food and water supplies dangerously low during their seventh week at sea, everyone was elated on May 3rd when they began seeing evidence they were nearing land. Later that night while passing through the Northwest Providence Channel in the Bahamas, the Captain prematurely changed course, running the ship onto a pile of submerged rock, and puncturing her wooden hull. Immediate the ship began taking on water, alarming both passengers and crew. All through the night, passengers manned the ship’s two pumps and kept the ship afloat. But early the next morning, the Captain did the unthinkable. With a lifeboat stocked with water and food supplies, the Captain, his 2 officers, and several of the crew rowed away from their ship and its deckfull of horrified passengers. Unable to manuever the ship, the passengers did all they could do—they prayed and they pumped. Finally, after two days and just at the point of giving up, a small schooner appeared on the horizon. Although it was manned by Bahamian wreckers, those who make their living salvaging sinking ships, they first moved all the women and children to the western shore of Grand Bahama Island. Next they returned for the men and likewise delivered them to the beach. Eventually the travelers were moved on to Nassau, then to New Orleans, and finally up the Mississippi to become part of the American fabric.

The Captain’s life also changed. The press of 1853 showed no mercy toward Stinson and he quickly disappeared into the western landscape. The 1860 Federal census shows him living in central Illinois; in 1872 he is found in Denver, many miles from the sea, and self-employed as a house painter. The following year, it would appear that he found peace in what had to be a troubling 20 years; he began attending one of the churches in downtown Denver, made public profession of his faith in Christ, and became a member of the church family. Over the next two decades he spent his days painting many of the homes in Denver, and each night went home to his wife. He never returned to the sea. On March 24, 1894, he died of heart failure and was laid to rest in Block 5, Lot 50 in Riverside Cemetery. A large white marble stone, the upper portion somewhat resembling the mast of a ship, now marks his grave and that of his wife and son.

Written by Kenneth A. Schaaf, a retired staff member of the Library of Congress, who lives with his wife near the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.
Photo by Mark DeNooy, Denver

Frances Wisebart Jacobs, Colorado’s Mother of Charities

Frances Wisebart Jacobs (1843-1892) has been called Colorado’s “Mother of Charities.”  Born in Kentucky, she married Abraham Jacobs and came with him to Colorado in 1862.  Abraham and Frances’ brother opened a clothing store in Central City.  When fire destroyed their shop, they moved to Denver and opened a new store.  Frances and Abraham had three children, one of whom died in childhood.

Always deeply concerned with the well-being of poor and sick people, Frances became President of the Hebrew Ladies’ Benevolent Society.  Her calling in life soon became caring for the growing number of Jewish immigrants coming to the Denver area with tuberculosis.   (Then called consumption, “TB” was the nation’s major fatal disease at the time; many “lungers” came to the high and dry air of Colorado as a cure for the disease.)  Frances regularly visited the squalid shacks of consumptives, many of whom were poor Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.  She brought them medicines and bandaged their wounds, even though they carried many diseases and lived in high-crime areas.  She quickly realized that others besides Jewish immigrants needed her services, so in 1874 she helped found the non-denominational Ladies’ Relief Society with herself as vice-president.  She was called upon to address many groups and discovered that she was an excellent public speaker.  Frances became the spokesperson for many of Denver’s charities.  In 1887, through her efforts and those of four religious leaders from other faiths, several of Denver’s charity groups were consolidated under the Charity Organization Society (COS).  The interfaith COS soon became the fundraising organization for 23 charities, and Frances was its secretary.  By 1922 the COS evolved into the Community Chest, and many credit it with eventually becoming the United Way.

Frances organized the Denver Free Kindergarten Association and opened Denver’s first free kindergarten for the children of indigent parents.  

In 1892 she worked with the Jewish Hospital Association to start a free hospital for tuberculosis patients in Denver.  It was named the Frances Jacobs Hospital for Consumptives.  However, she died of pneumonia less than a month before the hospital was to be dedicated; she was only 49 years old.  The institution eventually became National Jewish Hospital, and it is still at its original location at Colfax Avenue and Colorado Boulevard.  A sculpture of Ms. Jacobs still graces the entrance to hospital, which did not charge fees for most services until many years later. 

In 1900 sixteen Colorado pioneers were chosen to have stained glass windows of their likenesses displayed in the state capitol rotunda; Frances was one of these, and she was the only woman to be chosen.   A city park at Quebec Street and Tennessee Avenue was named for her, and in 1994 she was installed in The National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.   She was buried in the Emmanuel Cemetery, the Jewish burial area just west of the main part of Fairmount Cemetery. 

According to the National Jewish Hospital website, “No one ever did more to create Colorado’s humanitarian healthcare tradition than Frances Wisebart Jacobs.” 

By Garry O’Hara

 

Omar D. Blair-Black History at Fairmount

Omar Blair was born in Texas in 1918, and attended high school in Albuquerque where, as one of six black students, he was not allowed to sit with the other students at graduation. But in 1979  he was named the most distinguished graduate of the same school! Growing up he wanted to become  a pilot, however at that time  the United States Army Air Corps was not accepting Black candidates for pilot training. In 1940 he enrolled at UCLA, and during his second year there the USAAC relaxed its colored restriction, and after passing the required tests he was sent to Tuskegee, a small college town in Alabama to become one of the first Black pilots. Whereas white cadets progressed through their training at different bases, the black pilots did all their training (Basic, Primary, and Advanced) at Tuskegee at different fields around the town, and they became known as “the Tuskegee Airmen”. In 2012 a movie,“Red Tails”, was made about their exploits, starring Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrance Howard, and Bryan Cranston.

Blair proceeded with this 332nd Fighter Group to Italy, where they entered combat, originally flying P-40 airplanes, but later the most advanced US fighter, the P-51 Mustang. Their record for escorting bombers to the war zone was exemplary, and though not 100% true, they claimed that no bomber they were escorting was ever shot down. As well Blair became known as “the Great Train Robber”. When their base was running short of fuel he organized a convoy to hijack a train bound for another base and take the fuel tanks it was transporting to his base!

Following the war he spent some time in Albuquerque, but moved to Denver in 1951 where until 1969  he worked at The Rocky Mountain Arsenal, while remaining in the Air Force Reserve from which he retired in 1985 as a Major. In 1970 he moved to Lowry Air Force Base as the Equal Opportunity Officer, and while there in 1973 he ran for and was elected to the Denver Board of Education, where he served until his retirement in 1985. In 1975 he became vice president of the Board, and two years later he became its first Black president, serving until 1981. It was during this period that Denver was required by a US Supreme Court decision of 1973 to integrate its schools and begin busing of students to achieve this, although several of the buses were bombed during this time.

Blair had also served as Commissioner of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority during the time that they initiated the Sixteenth Street Mall. In 1984 he received an Honorary Doctorate from Metro State College as a “Doctor of Public Service” for his many years of service to education. In 2003 the Blair-Caldwell African American Library at 2401 Welton Street was dedicated to him and Elvin Caldwell, the first Black member of the Denver City Council, and a manager of the Denver Department of Safety. In 2004 the Edison Charter School in Green Valley Ranch was renamed the Omar D. Blair Charter School, also honoring Blair’s work in education.

Omar Blair died in 2004, and is buried near the center of Block 121 of Fairmount Cemetery.

By Tom Morton

An Upper Class Cat Fight | The Endless Family Feud

It’s between Helen and May Bonfils. Well, they were the heiresses to the Denver Post fortune. Frederick Bonfils, was the founder, publisher and editor of The Denver Post and he was a very strict guy. He never would let his girls go to any of the ice cream socials or dances or anything. They, they had to stay home and lead these very Catholic, quiet lives. Well, the older daughter, Mae did what all teenage girls do under such conditions -she went out her bedroom window and eloped with the first guy she found, who happened to be a piano salesman.

Frederick Bonfils was so upset and so angry at Mae for doing that, that he put it in his will that if she would divorce him, she could inherit all his millions. Well, he dies. The will is read, and May says,

“I’m gonna take it to court.”

She took it to court, and the judge ruled in her favor because it is immoral to require somebody to get a divorce just to inherit money. So, she got to inherit all her millions of dollars.

Now, the sister, Helen Bonfils, was not so happy about that. She had made it a point to always be the good girl, the good daughter.  As the years went by, she took care of her mother, Belle Bonfils.  When Belle Bonfils dies, the will is read, and Mae discovers that she had been disinherited again!  After some investigation it turns out that the will had been changed just a few months before Belle’s death under suspect circumstances.  Mae takes it to court again.

As the two sisters were at their seats in the courtroom, and the judge was tidying up the proceedings, and one sister said something to the other. Nobody heard what it was, but she said something, and the other sister replied, and the next thing you know, the two sisters were screaming at each other in court, and the judge is pounding his gavel, and he says,

“Stop it. I’ll throw you both out!”

So, after that trial, you could never have a social event in Denver and invite both Mae and Helen. You could invite one or the other, but not both. The judge ruled in May’s favor yet again because of the timing of the change of the will being so close to Belle’s date of death.

Indiana Sopris Cushman Denver’s first woman schoolteacher.

Indiana Sopris Cushman was Denver’s first woman schoolteacher and one of the city’s very early pioneers.  She was born in 1839 in Indiana; some say she was the namesake not of the state but of a riverboat (named the “Indiana”) that her father worked on in his youth.  She arrived here in a covered wagon in 1860 with her parents and some of her seven siblings.  Since there were few young women here at that time, she and her sister Irene were very popular.  She later wrote that when she got to Denver, “We found some very pleasant people here, but not very many families, mostly men, very few young ladies; my sister and I and half a dozen other young ladies were all there were in Denver.  Of course, we were all belles then.”

On May 7, 1860, when she was only 21 years old, Indiana opened a private school and later taught in the first public school in Denver.  She was also one of the organizers of the First Congregational Church and its Sunday school.  She married businessman Samuel Cushman in 1866.

She later wrote about an incident in Denver in 1864:  “One night we had a very bad scare.  A man came in and told us that a great body of Indians were coming, so the alarm was sounded….  A family I happen to know, a man and wife, were down town on F street eating ice cream at a restaurant and when the scare came the gentleman said, ‘Let’s go down to the Fillmore Block.’  The wife replied, ‘Oh, let’s go home and get the baby.’  ‘Oh, he said, ‘God will take care of the baby; let us save ourselves.’  That really happened.”  (The Indians never came.)

Her father Richard Sopris was one of the most prominent of Colorado’s early pioneers.  He came here ahead of his family in 1859 and was one of the first Gold Rush prospectors and an original shareholder of the town of Auraria.  He was elected to the Territorial Legislature of Kansas representing Arapahoe County (which was then the westernmost county of Kansas).  He became a captain in the First Colorado Infantry and a year later was chosen to be the first president of the Colorado Agricultural Society.  In 1862 Richard Sopris was elected sheriff of Arapahoe County.  He served as president of the Colorado Pioneer Association and was mayor of Denver from 1878 to 1881, after which he was the city’s parks commissioner.  Mount Sopris is named for him.

Indiana’s mother Elizabeth was considered the oldest of Denver’s pioneers when she died in 1911 at the age of 96.  A descendant of Ethan Allen, she was widely known as the “Grand Old Woman of the Ladies’ Aid Society.”

Indiana Sopris Cushman died in 1925 at age 86 and is buried at Riverside Cemetery with her parents and several other family members in Block 1.

Find out more about Riverside Cemetery tours and events here.

Learn more about the amazing Fairmount Heritage Foundation here.

By Garry O’Hara

John Iliff: The Man Who Died Once, But Was Buried Twice.

Audio: John Iliff The Man Who Died Once, But Was Buried Twice

John Wesley Iliff was a pioneer. He was a cattle baron. When the pioneers were coming to Colorado, they thought there was something magic in coffee beans because, as they came across the plains they noticed that anybody who drank coffee did not get this terrible condition called dysentery.

Well, apparently Mr. Iliff did not get that memo, because he drank some bad water and died.  His wife, Elizabeth, she was so heartbroken, she bought the biggest, best plot at Riverside for him, and then she ordered from Maine a $15,000, 65 ton granite monument. It took six flat railroad cars to transport the 30-foot high monument, and then 10 teams of horses to haul it to Riverside Cemetery, where he laid in state.

Well, April 13th, 1920, his daughter said Riverside is not the place for father any longer. No, no, no, no. We want to move him to the better, the nicer, the fairer Fairmount Cemetery.

So, they hired a team and brought John Wesley Iliff and his 65 ton monument to Fairmount Cemetery.  His plot over at Riverside is still empty. When I tell this story  I have a little poem I conclude it with, which is:

 Here is the story. It’s about an amazing plot, for as you can see, it’s pretty much an empty lot. Mr. John Iliff had more wealth than health. In fact, being buried twice is his honor, but despite the move, he’s still a goner.

GENTLEMAN, SCHOLAR, AIRMAN, HERO CAPT. OMAR D. BLAIR (1918 – 2004)

When Omar Blair graduated Albuquerque High School in New Mexico, 1936, the school board insisted that he and five other black graduates sit behind their 600 white classmates in the auditorium. As diplomas were doled out, white students go to walk through a spotlight toward the podium where they received their diplomas. The black students walked in darkness so that no one would notice them.

By all accounts, Omar Blair walked proudly to the podium when his name was called. In darkness or light, he knew who he was, and he knew what he had accomplished. He was a straight A student, proud of his hard work and proud of his education.

Prior to joining the Army Air Corps, Omar attended the University of California at Los Angeles for two years. World War II was about to pull the United States head on into armed conflict. Omar became a Captain in the all-black 332nd Fighter Squadron, better known as the Tuskegee Airmen. His men soon came to know him as a man of uncommon daring.

For instance at one point, Omar’s fighter squadron was tasked to escort a bombing raid over the German central command in Berlin. Omar knew that his squadron’s planes could not make this run outfitted as they were; their fuel tanks were too small to go the distance with the bombers. As it happened, he learned that some larger fuel tanks were on an Army train bound from Naples. So Omar organized his own convoy, halted the train (one might say “held the train up”), commandeered the tanks (one might say “stole them”), and had them fitted to the aircraft in his squadron. After that, the mission to escort the bombers went off perfectly.

In the early 1950s, Omar and his wife Jeweldine moved to Denver where he soon became a leading progressive voice in community affairs. The father of three children, he nonetheless found time to run for and get elected to Denver’s Board of Education where he served from 1972 to 1984. He spent four years as board president and was the first African-American ever to do so.

Omar’s tenure as president was arguably one of the stormiest in Denver’s history. The city was working hard to desegregate its school system. Racial tensions swung wildly out of control and, during the tumult, 37 school buses were bombed.

Through it all, Omar never wavered on his commitment to civil rights for all. “The kids are what it’s all about,” he said on many occasions.

He cared less about having black and white students sit with one another, more about creating the foundation for true equality in education — that all children, regardless of race, creed, or color could receive new textbooks, trained teachers, lasting respect, and the hope of a life where they were in charge of their own destinies.

In 1979, 43 years after he graduated Albuquerque High School, Omar was named that institution’s “Most Distinguished Graduate of the Past 100 Years.” Not long after that, in 1984, Omar was awarded an honorary “Doctorate of Public Service” from the Metropolitan State College of Denver in commemoration of his leadership and unwavering commitment to equality for all.

Among his many other accolades, Omar counted the American-Israel Friendship League’s Partners in Education Award and the U.S. Department of Justice Award for Outstanding Community Service. His church, Shorter Community AME, dedicated its community room in his name.

In 2003, the City and County of Denver named the $16.5 million Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library in recognition of Omar’s lifetime of service to our community. The Caldwell co-honored in the facility’s title is Elvin Caldwell, Sr., the first African-American member of Denver’s City Council.

When asked the secret to his immense success and unwavering moral compass, Omar attributed everything to his 52 years of marriage to Jeweldine. “You can put this in big bold letters,” he told a local reporter. “Without her I would not be half the person I am and I know that.”

The Omar D. Blair Charter School on Cathay Street was named in Omar’s honor.

In this life full of conflict, injustice, and inequality, we cherish those souls who refuse to walk any path but the path of justice. For this reason, and in honor of his life and many accomplishments, we at Fairmount Cemetery proudly safeguard the mortal remains of Denver’s own Omar D. Blair.