Socialist candidate made stop in Glenwood Springs in 1908
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
“I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough. Money constitutes no proper basis of civilization. The time has come to regenerate society ” we are on the eve of a universal change.”
” Eugene V. Debs, 1897
Prior to 1908, Glenwood Springs had her fair share of famous visitors. The hot springs lured numerous rich and socially prominent tourists to relax and recreate. In 1891, Benjamin Harrison became the first United States president to visit the town. He was followed in 1905 by beloved President Theodore Roosevelt.
However, extreme curiosity and skepticism greeted the announcement that socialist leader Eugene Victor Debs had scheduled a campaign stop in Glenwood Springs in behalf of his 1908 bid for the presidency of the United States.
Born in 1855 in Indiana, Debs was a railroad worker, grocery clerk and union leader. At the age of 29, he was elected on the Democratic ticket to a single term to the Indiana General Assembly. In 1893, he organized the American Railway Union, forming the strongest railroad brotherhood in the country. While jailed for his participation in the Pullman strike, Debs studied the works of Karl Marx. As a result, he threw off his capitalist beliefs. In Debs’ mind, the way to true social reform and the uplifting of the common worker was through socialism.
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As a prominent founder of the Socialist Democratic Party, Debs’ popularity garnered him the party’s nomination for president of the United States in 1900. He spoke eloquently and with the passion and cadence of a minister. His easy mid-western manner resonated with the average worker. He received fewer than 100,000 votes for the presidency. But Debs had no illusions about winning the office. His mission was not to lead, but to educate and to motivate workers to organize to in order to bring change.
The election of 1908 was Debs’ third run for the presidency. Now running as the nominee chosen by the Socialist Party of America, Debs decided the best way to educate and gather support was to take his message directly to the people. On Aug. 31, 1908, Debs’ train, the Red Special, consisting of a locomotive, a baggage car and a combination sleeper/observation/dining car, left Chicago headed west.
On Sept. 4, 1908, the Red Special arrived in Denver. Before his scheduled appearance at the Denver Coliseum, Debs dined with Channing Sweet, a prominent socialist leader in Colorado and the West. Sweet, an attorney, had lived in Colorado for nearly 30 years. Part of his time had been spent in Glenwood Springs in the 1880s, where he helped build the town by constructing some of its early buildings.
From Denver, Debs traveled to Leadville on the rails of the Colorado Midland Railway. After delivering speeches along the route, Debs headed for Glenwood Springs. The Glenwood Post newspaper of Sept. 6, 1908, announced his anticipated visit on its front page. The Avalanche Echo newspaper gave the scheduled visit no mention at all. Neither newspaper embraced the socialist cause. The Glenwood Post editorialized, “Eugene is a very mild man but his social philosophy is red hot. Harmless, however, when it gets cold.”
The bunting-covered Red Special arrived in Glenwood Springs on Sunday, Sept. 7. Debs was taken by the beauty of the town, and took some time to relax at the Hot Springs Pool. By 2 o’clock in the afternoon, an estimated 200 people had gathered to hear Debs deliver his speech. During his oration, he noted Glenwood Springs was a luxury provided by nature and only a small percentage of people could enjoy it. He declared “that when socialism prevails millions will be able to reach the beauty spots that dot the earth, evidently put there by nature for the benefit of all human beings.” Ironically, he delivered his speech on the Glenwood Hot Springs grounds, a place created by the capitalist system.
Debs lost his bid for the presidency in 1908, but did gather close to 500,000 votes nationwide, partly due to the Red Special. In the years to follow, Debs ran again for the presidency, once in 1912 and again in 1920. With his 1920 bid, he ran his campaign from prison, having been convicted of sedition during World War I.
The ideas of the Socialist Party were never embraced by a majority of the population of Glenwood Springs and Garfield County, despite Debs’ 1908 visit. However, socialist Channing Sweet of Denver continued to contribute to Colorado politics. He personally ran for several offices under the socialist banner into the 1920s. His son, William Sweet, a Democrat, became Colorado’s 23rd governor.
Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Frontier Historical Society and Museum. “Frontier Diary” is provided to the Post Independent by the museum, 1001 Colorado Ave., Glenwood Springs. Winter hours are 1-4 p.m. Monday and Thursday through Saturday. For more information, call 945-4448. “Frontier Diary” appears the first Tuesday of every month.
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