One hundred and sixty years ago, European-Americans flooded west of the Mississippi for the first time, to the Pikes Peak Gold Rush. They established Denver and fed the fleeting myth of the West as a place where any and every man could make a fortune with nothing more than a pickax and sweat. Whether that was honest labor would soon come into doubt.
Tons more Colorado metals and minerals were extracted after the ’59 rush, but not immediately. By the mid-1860s, prospectors had exhausted the shallow veins which held the free gold. They could not reach the deeper ores. Capital, machinery and immigrant labor were needed – and they arrived from the East like bears drawn to honey.
By 1890, a group of men who had grown rich from mining directly or indirectly spent $13 million in today’s money to put up a building in Denver, to house the Colorado Mining Stock Exchange. Among them were John Evans, the first governor of Colorado; C.B. Kountze, founder of the Colorado National Bank; Brown Palace Hotel owner Henry C. Brown; W.N. Byers, owner and publisher of The Rocky Mountain News; Horace Tabor, “The Bonanza King of Leadville”; D.R.C. Brown Sr., the Aspen silver mogul, whose son would pioneer the ski industry; and Walter S. Cheesman, the water man, listed simply as a capitalist.
The seven-story building at the corner of 15th and Arapahoe streets was a stone-faced Victorian-Romanesque pile. What it lacked in charm, it made up with bulk and excessive decoration. It had a tower and atop that, a 12-foot statue of a prospector.
The prospector was commissioned, for $1,000, from the W.H. Mullins company of Salem, Ohio. Alphonse Pelzer, a German immigrant, was the Mullins furnace man and sculptor. He modeled the prospector after a photo of “Colonel” John W. Straughn, a Hoosier and Civil War veteran who spent a spell in Dodge City as one of Bat Masterson’s deputies in the 1870s before fetching up as a prospector and blacksmith in Colorado. In Pelzer’s hands and sheet copper, Straughn is a lushly bearded figure leaning on a pick with one outstretched palm holding a mammoth hunk of gold.
The building opened in 1901. One of its first occupants, in the four-room Suite 625, was the Western Federation of Miners. The labor union was founded in 1893 to aid miners and smelter workers in the struggle against becoming the wage slaves of the sorts of men who put up the mining exchange.
The WFM grew steadily more radical, calling for socialist revolution. In 1903, violent strikes by its coal and metal miners, who earned a penurious subsistence, spread across Colorado from Cripple Creek to Telluride. Rarely in the country’s history had labor and capital clashed so bloodily.
“If the United States has ever approached outright class war, it was probably in Colorado during the first years of this century,” writes J. Anthony Lukas in “Big Trouble.”
One of the WFM leaders, “Big Bill” Haywood, said his men fought the capitalists because the money men “did not find the gold, they did not mine the gold, they did not mill the gold, but by some weird alchemy all the gold belonged to them!”
The WFM was evicted by the mining exchange and proved short lived. Some of its successors turned to communism. The exchange succumbed to urban renewal in 1963, when it was razed, then replaced by Denver’s first downtown high-rise apartment building.
Pelzer returned to Germany, where he died in 1904. The only other statues attributed to him in North America are a Montreal likeness of Jean-Olivier Chénier, a martyred hero of the Patriots’ War, and a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Middlesex, New Jersey.
And there is the prospector. He was removed when the exchange was torn down and placed on a plinth on the south side of Denver’s 15th Street, where he still stands, proffering his leafed and lacquered rock, saluting anyone who will buy free gold.