Three Short Stories about my Irish Family

— by Dennis Gallagher

Story One: William J. Gallagher, Sr.

My grandfather, William J. Gallagher, Sr., in the cab of the old 303 engine on the Rio Grande Railroad (circa 1950).
My grandfather, William J. Gallagher, Sr., in the cab of the old 303 engine on the Rio Grande Railroad (circa 1950).

My Grandfather, William Gallagher, came to America from his native Ireland in the early 1900’s. He was born in William Butler Yeats’s country, County Sligo. When he arrived on the eastcoast, he saw a lot of signs up at work places, “No Irish Need Apply.”

But he heard a rumor that in Colorado, Railroads would hire even Irish lads willing to work.

So he came here to Colorado, got to Denver and took the test for the Moffat Railroad, the old Denver and Salt Lake, later bought by the Rio Grande line which still goes through the tunnel to Winer Park. He got a 100% on the exam for engineer. Those hiring at the railroad said, “That Irishman must have cheated. He’ll have to take the test again. And this time we’ll watch him.”

So my grandfather took the test again, and they watched him, and Gallagher got 100% again. This time they said, “well maybe we need this guy afterall.”

Now because of this experience, my grandfather always lectured me: “Dennis, you have to be twice as good as the Anglo-Saxons. You have to work twice as hard as the Anglo Saxons. They will never accept you, and you have to fight for every chance offered you by this great country.” His story , his experience, his initial workplace slight, made us sensitive to the needs of others in our society who were different and not accepted by those in power.

He worked for quite a few years for the Moffat and then many years for the Rio Grande. And I thank him for this important life’s lesson. I think of him when I pass the old Moffat Station, abandoned, but still there, north on 15th Street just west of the rail tressle as you head toward My Brother’s Bar, I say an ‘Ave” for him.

Story Two: William J. Gallagher, Jr.

My father, William J Gallagher, Jr., and I in front of old Engine Company #7 at West 36th and Tejon St (circa 1975)
My father, William J Gallagher, Jr., and I in front of old Engine Company #7 at West 36th and Tejon St (circa 1975)

My father, William Gallagher, Jr., was the fourth firefighter hired in the late 30’s in a year when Denver only hired four firefighters. He was assigned to the old Barnum Neighborhood station. It was located about 7th and Knox Court. The officer in charge showed him his bed and his locker. After lunch another firefighter came up to him and told him, “Gallagher, you Irish Catholics on that side of the fire truck and we Kluxers on this side of the fire truck. Don’t come over to this side.”

During the mid-20’s Denver city government and agencies were ruled by the KKK. My dad could not believe it, that there were still Kluxers on the fire department….with enough anti-Irish Catholic residuality to be dumb enough to talk about it with folks.

After work my father met the Klansman on the way to his car in the parking lot. He engaged the Kluxer in a mopping up action for which he would most likely have been fired for today. But he told me that that guy never mentioned religion or the Klan again. A civil detente reigned after that in the Barnum firehouse.

Story Three: Nellie Flaherty

My beautiful mother, Nellie Flaherty, and I (in elephant pants) on the porch of 2825 Hooker in North Denver (circa 1944).
My beautiful mother, Nellie Flaherty, and I (in elephant pants) on porch of 2825 Hooker in North Denver (circa 1944).

My mother, Nellie Flaherty, loved music and the theatre. She had a friend who worked as the hat checker at the old Denver Auditorium Theatre, now the Ellie Caulkins. During the mid-20’s when our city was ruled by the Ku Klux Klan, she often helped her friend, Patricia Delaney, and checked coats and hats at the city auditorium. At that time John Galen Locke, Grand Dragon of the KKK, came to the auditorium, the crowd would all rise and sing “God Bless America,” as he took his seat in the Mayor’s Box.

My mom told me that Pat Delaney would laugh heartily and then say : “Nellie Flaherty, you hide here among these fur coats. We don’t want those Kluxers to see a fine Irish Catholic girl here in the check room.” The girls showed lots of chutzpah by laughing behind the backs of the Kluxers.

B50 Note: Dennis Gallagher is currently the Denver City Auditor, and is a former City Councilperson, State Senator, and State Representative. He is also Professor Emeritus from Regis University and well-known in the local community as a historian, storyteller, and man about town.

The Last Great Coffeehouse?

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The Muddy’s idea began in 1975 as the brainchild of Joe DeRose. It started as a debating club for a few graduate students from Colorado University. They found a place in an old downtown hotel that was on the lower end of its declining years. It was a marriage of convenience—cheap rates, poor students. Too soon, urban renewal broke up this union, forcing the students to scurry about fifteen blocks up into north Denver, where they reopened.

The place quickly morphed into a bookstore that couldn’t support itself. In desperation they added coffee, then pastries and sandwiches and finally an old manual lever espresso machine. Although the birth canal had been strange, what emerged was a full-fledged Coffeehouse, “Muddy Waters of the Platte Inc.” It spent the next ten years surviving on a month-to-month lease, under the mainstream radar and against all odds.

It became a wildly successful “Bistro of the night,” open from seven in the evening until four in the morning, seven days a week. Along with the bookstore-coffeehouse, it added The Slightly off Center Theater, all in the same building. Now there was a place for Music, Plays, life-drawing classes and the piece de resistance, Muddy’s “Summers of Jazz Concerts.”

Muddy’s hosted all of the governors of Colorado and all of the Mayors of Denver from when it opened until it closed its doors in 1997. However, that was only a small part of Muddy’s patina, because it also caught the tail end of the “Beat” generation. Pontifical greats like Ken Kesey and Alan Ginsburg railed against man and machine in our confines.

Jack Micheline headed a list of great poets who spoke their lyrical prose on Muddy’s stage. Both the known and the unknown poet mixed pentameter and hexameter for all who would listen and then strode out the doors leaving their ambience behind.

What made Muddy’s worth writing about was not only who came and went, but also what happened to people while in its ethereal grasp. The real importance lay in its ability to expose people to each other by gently mixing together the grist of their characters, laying bare what was and wasn’t known about each other. It forced us to look at ourselves through the eyes of our contemporaries, some of whom had dared to live outside that damned mainstream box; showing us that social oxygen exists everywhere.

-excerpted from “Muddy’s Chronicles” by Bill Stevens

Author Bill Stevens will be signing copies of his new book, “Muddy’s Chronicles: Secrets of the last Great Coffeehouse” on Sunday, Dec 21 at 2 p.m at the Mercury Café. Admission is Free.

Mercury Café
2199 California Street, Denver

Thanks, Highland Style

For the past twenty-four years, Virgil and Rosalinda Aguirre and their family have spent their Thanksgiving offering free meals to the needy people of Denver from their restaurant in the Highland neighborhood at 33rd and Tejon. This year, the family (and their numerous volunteer supporters) will serve over 2,500 meals while offering up more than 40 turkeys, 20 gallons of green chile, and three hundred pounds each of beans and rice.

As this cover from the Rocky Mountain News in 2002 shows, the Aguirre’s have received quite a bit of positive press on their positive community program over the years, but no more than they deserve. Here’s our vote of thanks for Rosalinda’s Restaurant (and for good green chile too).

Preparing Thanksgiving at Rosalindas Mexican Restaurant
Preparing Thanksgiving at Rosalinda's Mexican Restaurant