Denver's City Hall War of 1894
Denver police and city officials prepare to do battle with the Colorado Infantry during a conflict between the governor and city officials.
Colorado militia at 15th and Lawrence Street during their march to to Denver's City Hall, March 15, 1894.
View of Larimer Street looking west from City Hall, March 15, 1894.
Rocky Mountain News, March 18, 1894. The "thug" with dynamite is a reference to Smith, who reportedly climbed to the bell tower waiving a stick of dynamite and threatening to destroy the entire building.
This historic marker includes the last remaining piece of the former city hall-the bell from the tower.
Backstory and Context
Smith's criminal network expanded far beyond short cons to operating saloons and gambling houses. By the late 1880s, the city's newspapers reported tales of bribery and corruption between Smith and city officials-especially those who operated the city's fire and police board. Smith fled the city temporarily but returned and by 1892, he was able to secure contracts and jobs for his network of supporters as well as lax enforcement of laws against gambling, prostitution, and narcotics.
Elected on the Populist ticket pledging progressive reform and an end to corruption in 1893, Governor Davis Hanson Waite took on Denver's notoriously corrupt city administration that was known to have connections to Smith's growing criminal empire. As the city's growing middle class became less willing to tolerate Denver's gambling, prostitution, and narcotics, politicians like Waite gained control of the state legislature and pledged reform.
In 1893, the state legislature revised Denver's charter in a manner that removed the mayor's control over two of the six city commissioners. In the future, the governor would appoint the commissioners who headed the city's police and fire boards. In the past, control over these boards provided an important source of patronage and that allowed the political machine to provide jobs to their supporters. In return, these men kicked money back to the machine and followed their orders to allow Smith's criminal activities to go unpunished. If the governor could control these city offices, Soapy Smith and his supporters recognized that Waite could appoint men might take action against their illicit business activities.
In the spring of 1894, the governor used this power to remove members of the fire and police board. Rather than accept the decision, Denver's political machine challenged the governor's authority in the courts and threatened armed conflict. The Governor responded to the challenge by threatening to send the state militia-an action he took when members of the machine turned City Hall into an arsenal. Members of the police and fire boards, together with other city officials and dozens of Smith's men barricaded themselves inside the building in March of 1894. One local paper reported that every criminal in the city who was not in jail was employed as a deputy sheriff.