Sopris carried out desire to create a better Colorado
Special to the Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
“The history of the world is full of men who rose to leadership, by sheer force of self confidence, bravery and tenacity.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
In mid-July 1860, a group of prospectors from Black Hawk, gazed upon the land which would be the Roaring Fork Valley. Since starting their exploration some three weeks previous, they had moved westward, scouring for gold from South Park, to the current location of Breckenridge, down the Blue River, to Ten Mile Creek, to the Eagle River. This new view however, gave their leader, Capt. Richard Sopris, pause.
That view was of a mountain, 13,000 feet high, beautifully formed. It lured Captain Sopris, and invited him for a visit. Sopris was so taken with the mountain that his group began calling the peak “Capt’n Sopris’s Mountain.” Hence Mount Sopris was now on the map.
Capt. Richard Sopris, captivated by the gold rush, came in 1859 to what was then the Kansas Territory. Born July 26, 1813, in Pennsylvania, Sopris had worked as a carpenter in Indiana, and had been a canal contractor. Later he captained an Ohio River steamship, and contracted the construction of railroads.
After coming to the Kansas Territory, he was instrumental in the formation of the town of Auraria and the development of mining at Black Hawk. His vision and leadership abilities won him a seat in the Kansas Territorial Legislature in the fall of 1859.
This allowed him to lobby for the formation of the Colorado Territory. So confident in the future of his new home, he brought his wife and eight children to permanently settle near Denver.
With the start of the Civil War in 1861, Sopris was commissioned as captain of Company C of the First Colorado Infantry, fighting for the Union in battles in New Mexico and Texas.
He returned to Denver in 1862, and was elected to the second Colorado Territorial Legislature. He was elected Arapahoe County sheriff and served as deputy sheriff. From 1869 to 1873, he assisted in the building of the Kansas Pacific, Denver Pacific, and Denver and Rio Grande railroads.
Sopris perhaps encountered the greatest challenge of his life in his second year as Denver’s mayor. In autumn of 1880, Denver’s political air buzzed with anti-Chinese sentiment. The Chinese were perceived by Democratic supporters as taking jobs from whites.
The unrest reached crescendo on Oct. 31, 1880, when four Chinese saloon patrons were attacked by drunken white patrons. An anti-Chinese mob grew to 2,000 people. With Denver’s police force undermanned on that day, Mayor Sopris ordered all saloons closed and arrived at the scene with the fire department.
Sopris tried to reason with the crowd, but with unsuccessful results. He then ordered the fire department to turn their hoses upon the mob. This resulted in a riot that destroyed property in Denver’s Chinatown. Sopris, however, was not faulted by the press or the Chinese community for his efforts.
From 1881 to his death, Sopris served as Denver’s parks commissioner, creating Denver’s City Park and planting many of the park’s new trees with his own hands.
In May 1891, Sopris spent two weeks in Glenwood Springs, his first in 30 years. He recounted his expedition and marveled at the town growing from frontier. To the south remained the mountain bearing his name, a testament to a man with a broad vision, diverse interests, and a high desire to create a better Colorado.
Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Frontier Historical Society and Museum. “Frontier Diary,” which appears every month, is provided to the Post Independent by the museum, 1001 Colorado Ave., Glenwood Springs. Fall, winter and spring hours are 1-4 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. For more information, call 945-4448.
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