Robert W. Speer

Mayor of Denver, 1904-1918 (3 terms, died in office)

In Memoriam

It is with a sense of disaster to Denver that we record in these pages the death of her greatest mayor, Robert W. Speer. The news fell with stunning force upon adult and child alike. It spread like a pall over the city, and left general sorrow and depression in its wake.  How else could it be? The citizen of Denver cannot step from the door without meeting everywhere evidence of his handiwork. Miles of surfaced and curbed streets, splendid parks and boulevards, the auditorium, works of art and architecture, bear the indelible imprint of his genius. He found Denver provincial and left her metropolitan. With nobler skill he wrought in the hearts of Denver citizens things that are of the spirit; ideals of civic pride, loyalty, devotion to duty. Within him were merged in perfect unison the practical man of affairs and the dreamer.  Mayor Speer gave his entire creative life to Denver. Many times he was offered positions paying double the salary of mayor, but he was content to give his best to the city that had restored his health. He preferred to build in masonry, rather than in money.  Municipal authorities in America and Europe recognized Mayor Speer as one of the ablest and best qualified executives of the day. He was grounded as thoroughly in the theory of city government as in its practice. "Solve the government of cities and you have solved all government," he once said in a public address. To the day of his death he grew in vision and mental stature, and never was so great as during the last year of his stewardship.  Denver will never see the peer of Mayor Speer as a business manager. For ten years he governed, and never once failed to return a surplus to the treasury. If all other accomplishments were eliminated, his fame would rest secure upon this achievement alone.

We turn now for a word of appreciation to those qualities and labors in which his close associates regarded him as supreme. In his social service work he builded his fairest monument.  The thing that he dreaded most in life was tears. He wanted to 'see his people happy, the humblest with the most fortunate. The countless free entertainments given by the city under his regime, the city chaplaincy, the municipal coal department and blue sky law, the bathing beaches and playgrounds, reveal a constructive statesmanship of a higher order than that which beautified Denver.

The friends of the late mayor knew of the whole-hearted interest he took in every unfortunate who crossed his path. Often persons in deep trouble, who never saw Mayor Speer, and never asked for his aid, have been helped by him. No man or woman was too poor, or too far gone in degradation, to receive personal advice or financial assistance from him.  He was a strong man, a hard fighter, but just and forgiving to those beneath him in position or power, though they had done him grievous wrong; a plausible, convincing talker, with a most winning personality. His was the kindest heart, the most masterful brain in Denver.

The war, perhaps, revealed the versatility of his mind and his deep sense of patriotism, as did no other period of his career. He originated the plans for investment of city funds in Liberty Loans, for the payment of war risk insurance premiums of citizen-soldiers, for free instruction in military drill and conversation French to selective service men, and his last words were a lament that he could not do more for his country.

On every hand now we hear these oft-recurring words: "What a pity that he should be called before his work is completed." Yet, had he lived for another century his work would still have been undone. The mind of the master builder does not run down like worn-out machinery; death alone can still its workings.

Mayor Speer's visions and constructive work were as inevitable, while life lasted, as the march of spring. Even after death his spirit will "carry on" for Denver. The optimism and faith and courage that were his have not died with his corporeal body. His dreams of Denver’s increasing greatness will come true.

Others will take up and complete his labors, inspired by his visions. This is as he would have had it. Long years hence, perhaps, another master builder will come upon and marvel at his works and, understanding the bent of the creative intellect, will read, "Carven on every timber, graven on every stone,

After me cometh a builder; tell him I, too, have known.’”

The Story of Mayor Speer

Master Builder, Who Brought Denver From Provincial to Metropolitan State,

Started as $8 a Week Clerk —One of Foremost Municipal Authorities in World

FORTY years ago a slight young man of twenty-two years stepped from a train in Denver's Union Station, a sufferer from tuberculosis, he left soon and spent two years upon a Colorado cattle ranch.  Again he returned to Denver and secured employment as a clerk in a department store at a salary of $8 a week.  On May 14 this man died mayor of Denver and one of the foremost authorities on municipal government in the world.  He was Robert W. Speer.

The story of Mayor Speer’s life and achievements forms a human interest document as captivating as a novel. His entire life was a battle to overcome obstacles of health, of temperament, of outside influences that sought to ruin him because he would not be ruled. Endowed by nature with extraordinary mental powers, he so improved and trained his mind by ceaseless study that all who met him regarded him as a man of brilliant intellectual attainments. By sane and temperate living, he reconstructed from a wrecked body a robust constitution. Mayor Speer never indulged in intoxicants; even the banquet table could not tempt him to touch liquor.  An opposition newspaper, endeavoring to depict him in as repulsive a manner as possible, often cartooned him with a cigar set at a tough angle in his mouth, and at these caricatures Mayor Speer used to laugh heartily, for he never smoked a cigar in his life. Naturally possessed of a quick temper and an aggressive personality, he so mastered himself that he became ingratiating and diplomatic to a high degree.

It required only a few months of Denver's bracing climate to bring the youthful Speer to the decision that he would live here for the remainder of his life. he returned to Pennsylvania, where he was born December 1, 1855, only long enough to marry Miss Kate Thrush, who remained his devoted wife and adviser through life. Mayor Speer's genius for politics was manifested almost immediately after taking up his residence here. In 1880 he became city clerk, he became successively postmaster of Denver, member of the fire and police board, member of the board of public works, again member of the fire and police board, and mayor of Denver.

With the adoption of the home rule charter, Mr. Speer came out as the candidate for mayor. Such was the political situation at the time that every newspaper in the city was opposed to him. This did not daunt the stout heart of Mr. Speer.  He contracted for all the billboard space available in Denver and gave his opponents as good as they sent.  The voters liked this striking evidence of courage, and they had already received evidence of his executive ability.  He was elected in a landslide.

Mayor Speer was the only man ever elected to the mayoralty of Denver three times, the only mayor who ever came back to the executive chair after his retirement to private life.

That return was the crowning political triumph of his life, and the most impressive tribute ever paid a city executive in America by his electorate.

At the close of eight years’ occupancy of the mayor’s chair, during which he had undergone extraordinary newspaper attacks from personal enemies. Mayor Speer retired without seeking to gain office again. This was in 1912.  A so-called reform movement had been built up by the constant agitation. At the time every elective office of the city and county was in the hands of the Democratic organization, but the people swept every officeholder out, even to the constables. it was a complete political reversal, probably without a parallel in the country.

The reform government lasted one year, although it had been elected for four. The people changed the charter and installed commission government. This lasted three years, when the people signified unmistakably that they had had enough.

The most influential business men of the city urged Mayor Speer to become a candidate for mayor again, and led by a desire to see certain of his constructive plans carried out, he consented to do so, provided the people would accept him on a charter amendment of his own making.

Mayor Speer believed a highly centralized form of government more efficient than diffused responsibility.  He believed in progressive ideas that yielded practical results and drew a charter amendment which embodied his ideas of what city government should be.  The experience of his whole life  was concentrated in this document.

"The character of the man," he often said, "is more important than the clothes he works in."

The Speer amendment gave the mayor more power than was ever given the mayor of an American city before. The best in the old mayor form, the commission form and the manager form was selected and incorporated. The mayor was given the appointment, without confirmation, of every city and county official, directly or indirectly, except the council of nine, the auditor and the election commission. The charter retained the initiative, referendum and recall, and the preferential system of voting as a check against an abuse of power by the mayor. The people showed their confidence in his integrity and ability by voting him this extraordinary power.

Verbatim text from the article  - layout changes only for readability.

It is illustrative of the confidence Denver citizens felt in his spoken word that they believed him when he said during his campaign that he would give a non-partisan, non-political administration. During his absence from office he had made a trip around the world to study municipal government in other places. This had so broadened his views that from a strict partisan he had become an earnest advocate of nonpartisan government for cities. Upon his election he followed his promises in letter and spirit, dividing city and county offices equally between Democrats and Republicans.

The first election of Mayor Speer to the office in which he died occurred in 1904. At that time he was animated by a great desire to make Denver the most beautiful city in the world. He looked forward to material development. During the eight crowded years that followed, he created Denver’s present extended system of parks and boulevards; installed practically the entire existing system of sewers, storm sewers, surfaced, and curbed streets; built the auditorium, the public bath house, the new library; was instrumental in the erection of the Colorado Museum of Natural History; redeemed Cherry Creek, a meandering stream, bordered by city dumps that scrawled like an ugly snake across the heart of the city; acquired and developed Inspiration Point, from which is visible the finest mountain panorama in the world; installed the present lighting system; founded the children's playground system. The walling of Cherry Creek, which he bordered by the most handsome boulevard in the city, was a work of which he was immensely proud. The boulevard was named after him by the council, but at the time of his death he was completing the creation of a forest belt, eighty feet wide, on the opposite side of the creek. This work will be finished next spring. The auditorium was the inspiration for a free entertainment program that is the wonder of other cities. Every variety of popular entertainment has been presented there. The first popular-priced municipal theater was established in the building by Mayor Speer. Free municipal band concerts every Sunday in winter, free moving picture shows of an educational nature, municipal dances, election returns, baseball returns from world series games, Christmas tree celebrations, municipal band and organ concerts, innumerable attractions have been given the people of Denver free by reason of the auditorium. His greatest improvement plan embraced the acquisition of the civic center, now under course of development.

Mayor Speer's enemies have delighted to call him a corporation man, and constantly reiterated, for a time, a charge that he was under the domination of railroad and utility corporations. There is an illuminating comparison upon this point. When Mayor Speer first became chief executive of the city, he found the courts clogged with litigation, brought by former officials, who had been trying for fifteen years to force four railroad companies to construct a viaduct across their tracks at Twentieth street. Oblivious of criticism, he dismissed the proceedings and called a meeting of the railroad presidents. On the appointed day the local agents walked into the mayor's office with the information that they had been delegated to conduct negotiations. "Then the meeting is adjourned," blandly replied the mayor. The astonished officials were dismissed without further ado, and the next day an ordinance was introduced in the council which required all incoming and outgoing trains to come to a full stop at Nineteenth street, and to await a signal to proceed. Each road was required to maintain a watchman at the point constantly. In those days city councils were supposed to be open to manipulation, and the railroad officials merely smiled. Within two weeks the bill had become a law and notice had been sent to the roads.

The railroad presidents were now only too eager to attend a meeting with the mayor.

"You wouldn't dare to tie up our train service," they stormed.

"But we will," was the stern reply, and he added, with a familiar thump of his fist on the desk. "Now you have it, plunk!”

The upshot of the matter was that the railroads paid $600,000 and the city $66,000 for the construction of the viaduct.

Contrast to this the construction of the Colfax-Larimer viaduct, started in 1912 by Mayor Speer's successor. The city agreed to pay $244,888 as against $415,222 by the railroad corporations, and to secure this concession from them, ceded to the corporations two miles of streets and alleys beneath and around the viaduct, conservatively estimated by the city and county assessor to have been worth $500,000. Until Mayor Speer took the question up, the local tramway and gas companies had never paid for use of the streets. As a result of his demand the former now pays $60,000 a year, and the latter $50,000 a year to the city, while the work now in construction on the civic center, costing $180,000, is being erected with funds paid the city for use of the streets by the local telephone company.

Mayor Speer's tenacity of purpose was strikingly illustrated by the municipal organ episode. When he left office in 1912, he left also a contract with an organ company and an appropriation of $50,000 for the installation of an organ in the auditorium. His successor nullified the contract and diverted the fund. Upon taking office in June, 1916, Mayor Speer called upon wealthy corporations and individuals to give Denver this organ as a matter of civic pride. He raised personally $20,000. The local Rotary Club then stepped in and, with the further help of the mayor, the amount was brought up to $45,000. The city paid for the installation of the organ, the total cost being $80,000. In March, 1918, it was dedicated by Miss Margaret Woodrow Wilson, and has been the most satisfying cultural advantage that Mayor Speer ever gave the city.

Mayor Speer's last term, short as it was, is generally recognized by citizens of Denver as his greatest, for he brought with him a more ripened experience and broader views. The dominant idea during these two years has been social service to the masses. To the cultural and amusement advantages given by him to the people, has been added service of a far higher type. The economic welfare of the people became his dominant idea in this administration. Through the city industrial bureau great and valuable services have been rendered to small local manufacturers. The municipal coal department, founded on business principles, was inaugurated when the war forced the price of coal upward, and last winter saved in actual cash to domestic consumers more than $40,000. With the discovery of oil in Wyoming, a flood of wild-catters entered the city and began the practice of their nefarious trade. The state was without a blue-sky law. People of very moderate means suddenly became smitten with a madness and invested their all in the wildest speculative schemes. A municipal blue-sky law was placed upon the city code and the wild-catters are now being driven from the field. A city chaplain was appointed to uplift and advise the unfortunate.

In this connection it might be well to mention that, when Mayor Speer resumed office, the cost of maintaining insane inmates at the county hospital had increased to $40,000 a year, and scores of the poor creatures were living in quarters never intended for such a purpose. They had no way to exercise, no amusements that might assist them to recover reason. The state, whose duty it is to care for all insane, would not receive them at the state institution. Mayor Speer submitted to the people an amendment to the state statutes which forced the state to enlarge its quarters and receive insane patients from all sections.

Mayor Speer became intensely interested in devising ways and means to help the national government in its prosecution of the war. The investment of city funds in Liberty Bonds, payment of premiums on $1,000 war risk insurance policies for citizen soldiers and establishment of a municipal training and French school for selective service men are too recent to need detailed description. Had he lived, he would have done much more.

When all achievements have been recounted, however, Mayor Speer's close friends still dwell with fondest recollections upon his human qualities. He loved children, although he had none himself. An official who had charge of the auditorium during a children's Christmas tree entertainment tells this story:

"I had closed the doors because the building was becoming overcrowded, when I found the mayor at a side door admitting half a dozen small boys.

" 'Boss,' I remonstrated, 'you must not do this. It is positively dangerous to let anyone  else  in.’" 'Oh, well,' he said, apologetically, ‘these are only a few little boys. They won't take up much room and they want to see that tree  so badly.' "

The interesting, personal experiences that city employes have had with Mayor Speer are legion. The general public knows nothing of this side of their mayor. Every Sunday he was at his office in city hall, and on many nights of the week. No power on earth, save sickness, could keep him away from a Sunday band concert. Night after night he toiled until 11 or 12 o'clock on city business, at home or in his office.

It was a common occurrence for the superintendent of some city institution like the county farm or municipal lodging house to discover suddenly that the mayor was in the building. By the time he had located the executive, Mayor Speer had made the rounds of the house, turned back bed covers to see that beds were well kept, poked into every corner and examined the kitchen. His long service with the city gave him a complete mastery of every department. He was familiar with the most minute details in each. Whenever he found a slacker, he called him sharply to time. Employes of the city often wondered at what they deemed his clairvoyant powers. The mayor always had one or more persons who served as confidential investigators. These individuals never came near the city hall. They were as entirely out of politics and unknown to city employes as some workman in a factory.

A certain individual frequently committed misdemeanors, or posed as a vagrant, was arrested, sentenced in the police court, served a few days in the city or county jail, was pardoned and went his way, without the officer, chief of police, police magistrate, or jailer, knowing that he was Mayor Speer’s most trusted confidential agent on a tour of inspection for the mayor.

The motto which Mayor Speer held constantly before city employes, spurring them on to improve in their work, was this: "Do something new; do it better."

"No administration that is content to run along in the rut will be successful or last,” he frequently told the members of his cabinet.

To the versatile character of Mayor Speer must be added another quality. He was a philosopher in a practical way, and had an epigrammatic power of expression.

It was his philosophy of life that gave him the idea of a Court of Honor for Civic Benefactors on the Civic Center. Briefly, the plan is to inscribe upon the columns of the double colonnade that will partially enclose the open-air theater, the names of Denver citizens, living or dead, who have given in some substantial way to the beauty or the cultural advantages of Denver. This idea appeals irresistibly to the imagination, and touches to the quick that universal love of home that is inherent in all. Mayor Speer believed that this local hall of fame would so stir the civic pride of wealthy citizens that they would give freely to their city and make it, in a decade, perhaps, the equal of those European cities that have been centuries realizing their present state of beauty and culture. The immediate effect of a speech on this subject was to bring Denver citizens to give, in eighteen months, $565,000 in gifts for fountains, gateways, statuary and monuments.

"Those who come after us care nothing for names," said Mayor Speer, "it is only the good deeds and kind acts which live and are remembered."

His disregard of money for money's sake was expressed by the late mayor better than another could express it: "Most men are so busy chasing the dollar that they neglect golden opportunities for happiness."

"Many of us have passed the summit and are sliding down the hill of life," he declared on another occasion. "It pays us at times to take an inventory of ourselves, especially when we are nearly at the end of the trail, and ask: 'What have we done to make the path easier for those who are to follow? Have we lessened any grades? Thrown out rocks? Have we built any shelter along the way? Cut out underbrush and opened up vistas, which inspire and stimulate the best side of man?"

This last paragraph, answered with an overpowering affirmative, might well be cut upon the great executive's mausoleum as an epitaph, did one not, reading further, come across these words:

"Tombs, mausoleums and shafts in cities of the dead depress, spread fear and gloom; while monumental fountains inspiring culture, educational art, music, parks and playgrounds, scattered among the people, spread sunshine and joy to future generations."

Another quaint viewpoint on life was expressed by Mayor Speer in an address to the Rotary Club. He had been asked for a talk on city affairs and responded with a lecture on  humility.

"A rabbit can outrun us, a dog can outsmell us," he said. "If we had the strength of an ant in proportion to our size, we could carry home every evening two or three tons of coal.

"We cannot swim with a duck or fly with a bird; we boast of our athletic build, but a flea can jump five hundred times its height. Few of us have the contentment of a cow, or the persistent energy of a bee. Rotarians, do not be proud."

The last great work planned by Mayor Speer, and many think the greatest of all, was the creation of a National Park from the Mt. Evans region, and the completion of a skyline drive, by the government and city, to the summit, 14,260 feet in elevation.

It seems peculiarly a child of Mayor Speer's brain. There is something akin between his inspiring ideas and lofty ideals and this project for a transcendently beautiful road, winding over mountain tops, opening suddenly upon sublime vistas, climbing steadily upward and upward until the pure air of the summit is reached. The thought gives renewed faith in the destiny of Denver to those left behind.

Besides this glowing obituary are there any other opinions about the mayor?

Why, yes! 

  1. “A 2004 report titled Honest Corruption: Mayor Robert W. Speer and Bossism in American Democracy, by University of Denver student Todd Martinez, suggests an ambivalence about simply labeling Speer a grafter. In some circumstances, he argues, the public can benefit from autocratic leadership that gets things done, even if that means making deals with the devil. A Boss, in other words, is needed in tough times, when powerful and widely disparate interests might threaten to tear the community apart if the right deals can't be struck.

  2. The point being that Speer is remembered today for being a friend to the utility barons and vice lords, but also for transforming Denver from a boomtown into an aesthetically attractive modern city, for numerous civic improvements, for raising the wages of city laborers, for installing facilities for Denver's homeless to wash, for providing cheap bread and produce to Denver's poor — which is to say simply that he loved Denver, and he made it work. You just don't want to know the details.”

The Grafters Club - Robert W. Speer

But if you do want to know, visit the The Grafters Club, a site providing information on the friends and associates of the influential Blonger Brothers, who reportedly brought corruption to Denver before Speer was mayor, and ‘owned’ Denver in the 1920s after his death in 1918. 

Gatling guns on 14th Street!

For even more details and insight into the wild wild politics in Denver around the turn of the century, visit Blonger - the City Hall Wars.