The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado

—by Marshall Sprague (1909-1994)
Excerpted from “Colorado: A History”, published in 1984 by the American Association for State and Local History. Reprinted in paperback in 1996 by W.W. Norton & Company and available from

“1921 marked the start of one of the most serious aberrations in the state’s history—the rise of the Ku Klux Klan under the Grand Dragonship of a strange Denver physician Dr. John Galen Locke. Many residents of Colorado, like Americans everywhere, found themselves full of fears after World War I—fears of hard times, of the communism of Karl Marx, of Eugene Debs and his American socialism, of the Industrial Workers of the World and their violence, of spies in the land working for foreign governments.

To these fearful people, especially in the Front Range cities, Locke’s program of “One Hundred Percent Americanism” had great appeal. They found joy in Klan activities, dressing in sheets, burning crosses on Table Mountain near Golden and atop Pikes Peak, and boycotting the businesses of their opponents. They persecuted Catholics and Negroes and, especially, successful Jews such as Jesse Shwayder, the son of a Polish immigrant who had created the huge luggage firm, Samsonite Corporation.

The Klansmen took advantage of the unemployment to attack recent immigrants to Colorado from Greece and Hungary who had jobs in the Denver smelters around the Globeville section and at the C. F. & I. steel works of South Pueblo. The Klansmen advised Denverites to cease patronizing restaurants bearing “foreign” names like Pagliacci or Benito or Ciancio or Wong or Torino.

By 1924 the Klan membership was large enough to elect the state’s governor, a senator, the mayor and chief of police of Denver, and a majority in the general assembly. But within months most of these Klansmen turned out to be inept public officials. And when Locke resigned in June of 1925 as Grand Dragon after being jailed for contempt of court in an income-tax matter, the power of the Klan ended abruptly and completely.”

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B50 Note: It is difficult to imagine the amount of power and influence the Klan held in Denver and Colorado between 1920 and 1926; Mayor Ben Stapleton and Governor Clarence Morley were both members of the “Silent Empire.” Eighty years later, Colorado is the only state in the country to have both houses of its legislature headed by African-Americans (Terrance Carroll and Peter Groff).

Marshall Sprague was a author and historian, well known for his prose about the American West. Images are courtesy of The Denver Public Library Western History Collection. The definitive resource on this topic is “Hooded Empire: the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado” by Robert Alan Goldberg, published by University of Illinois Press in 1981. A review of the book (from 1987) is available on Dark Cloud’s site.

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.