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Denver’s Immigrant Legacy

Toichi Ichikawa (back row, second from left) and other Japanese immigrants in front of the Colorado Times newspaper office in downtown Denver, circa 1916-20. Ichikawa was publisher and part owner of the newspaper. Courtesy of the Denver Public Library Western History Collection

One came to America on a steamship. The other arrived in the bed of a Ford pickup truck with Chihuahua plates.

Both were just teenagers, thousands of miles away from their friends and family. Neither spoke a word of English. They made their way to Denver and went straight to work, struggling to learn a foreign language and culture, coping with homesickness and discrimination. One worked his way up from employee to employer, eventually launching one successful corporation after another. The other worked hard to get his high school diploma and a college degree, ultimately starting a small business of his own. Both eventually called Denver home and became U.S. citizens.

The first was Charles Boettcher, a pioneering Denver industrialist and one of the city’s great philanthropists. Today, the Boettcher family name graces a science building at the University of Denver, college scholarships for the state’s best high school students, and spaces at the Colorado History Museum, the Denver Performing Arts Complex and a number of other venues.

The other man gives his name only as Jose. And while his life may never be recorded in history books, he trod a path very much like Boettcher’s and represents an integral part of Denver’s immigration story.

Striking similarities

Although they were born more than a century apart, both Jose and Charles Boettcher belong to the same current in American history: immigration. Virtually every U.S. citizen has a story like this one in his or her lineage — or, like Jose, in his or her direct experience.

Denver has always been a city of immigrants, but the time and place of its founding leave the city with a unique relationship to immigration — one that differs in significant respects from the nation’s larger immigrant narrative.

Denver’s founding in 1859 came amid a major wave of immigration to the United States. From 1840-70, some 8.5 million people arrived on America’s shores, predominantly from northern Europe — Germany, Scandinavia and the British Isles. Thousands of those immigrants came west in the gold rush that gave birth to Denver. Many went home after striking out in the gold fields, but a large number stayed to help build Colorado. The U.S. Census of 1870 listed more than 6,000 foreign-born persons in Colorado Territory — 15 percent of the total population.

That’s a strikingly large share when you consider the effort it took for immigrants to reach Denver. The nearest port of entry — Galveston, Texas — lay 1,100 miles distant, and the teeming docks of the Eastern Seaboard, where the vast majority of immigrants made landfall, were more than 2,000 miles away. The same distance separated Denver from San Francisco’s embarcadero, where Chinese immigrants entered the country.

One Family’s Story

Kim Na doesn’t remember any of it. Her older siblings will never forget it. For three years her family lived in hiding from the Khmer Rouge, the deadly Cambodian regime that killed more than a million of its own citizens. They finally escaped to Thailand in 1980 and reached America in 1982. Kim was born here, in Colorado, in 1984.

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Since immigrants often spent their last penny on the passage to America, few had the resources needed for further travel. So, most immigrants who could marshal the resources for the journey to Denver had already been living in the United States for months or even years.

“It wasn’t as direct a route,” says Andrew Goetz, a professor of human geography at DU. “Immigrants came into the country through the traditional gateways but usually needed some time to make their way to Denver. In many cases, it took a generation or two.”

“By the time they got to Denver, many of the immigrants had already lived on the East Coast or in Chicago or San Francisco or somewhere, so they’d had time to learn some of the language, to get acculturated and to make some money,” adds Tom Noel (BA history ’67, MA library science ’68), a history professor at the University of Colorado at Denver. “I think they generally spoke better English and had some other advantages, including financial advantages, over the people who were just off the boat at Ellis Island.”

Those who did make the overland trek to Denver came in search of the same rewards that attracted native-born pioneers — jobs and opportunity — and they often fared better in Denver than elsewhere, Noel says. Tight labor markets in the late 19th century enabled unskilled workers here to command nearly twice the wages of their counterparts in New York City, where the seemingly limitless supply of immigrant labor drove down earnings. State officials actively recruited immigrant workers, promising good jobs and affordable housing. Private employers also wooed immigrants, and not always out of pure motives.

“The business community in Colorado has always been eager to have immigrants because it lowers the cost of labor,” Noel says. “The state of Colorado in the 1870s actually set up a board of immigration to recruit workers for the mines and the railroads. The coal mines in particular were always trying to get cheap, uneducated, unorganized labor, so they deliberately brought in immigrants, people unaccustomed to the country, because they made for a more docile labor force.”

Although less heavily industrialized than eastern cities, Denver did have a few sectors with major employment needs — railroading and smelting being the two largest within the city proper. Enterprises just outside the city, especially mining and agriculture, swelled Denver’s immigrant ranks, and many others found employment in domestic service, food service, child care and transit — the same sectors that employ thousands of immigrants today.

Quite a number of immigrants made their mark not as workers but as entrepreneurs. Immigrants had already committed an entrepreneurial act, in a sense, by taking the initiative and risking everything to start life anew in a foreign land. Charles
Boettcher serves as a prime example. By the time he reached Denver in the late 1870s, he already had succeeded as a hardware merchant in Greeley, Colo. But his business took off in Denver’s much larger marketplace, making Boettcher one of the state’s wealthiest men. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, he diversified into the cement business, sugar manufacturing, ranching, insurance, public transit and numerous other ventures.

Boettcher was only the most successful of a large cohort of immigrant-entrepreneurs in Denver. Irish-born John Mullen founded the city’s largest and most profitable flour mill and, like Boettcher, ultimately spent much of his fortune on libraries, high schools, churches and other causes to benefit the public. Attorney Thomas Patterson, also from Ireland, was Colorado’s first U.S. congressman and later served in the Senate. German immigrants Adolph Coors and Adolph Zang became beer-brewing magnates, while their countryman Max Kuner made a fortune in the vegetable- and fruit-canning industry.

Denver’s roots

By 1900, Denver had grown from a frontier hamlet into a real city. Its population of approximately 200,000 included about 25,000 persons of foreign birth — roughly 12 percent of the total. The U.S. immigration stream had changed by the turn of the century, with the transplants now coming predominantly from southern and central Europe. Denver’s ethnic composition changed accordingly, as Italians, Greeks, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs and Russians all established sizable communities in Denver. Many of today’s second- and third-generation Denverites trace their local lineage to this era.

More numerous and more diverse than their predecessors, these “second wave” immigrants tended to cluster in tightly knit enclaves, permanently altering the city’s architecture and cultural weave. Italians gravitated toward northwest Denver, central
European Jews to West Colfax Avenue and Greeks to the east side of town.

The city’s ethnic enclaves evolved organically rather than by design as families settled and then were followed by friends and relatives from the old country. In this way, Old World communities reconstituted themselves here.

Although created by accident, these neighborhoods combined many elements of wise urban planning and organization — self-contained communities with discrete institutions. They offered, first and foremost, a cloak of familiarity — the language, customs and foods of the homeland. Moreover, they fostered valuable social and economic networks, helping the newest arrivals to get established quickly.

Goetz refers to this as the “pipeline” phenomenon — a conduit that conveyed immigrants between two worlds, old and new. The enclave offered both the introduction to American life and an escape from it, functioning simultaneously as inlet and outlet.

The largest ethnic neighborhood of this era, Little Italy rose on Denver’s northwest side across the South Platte River from downtown. It was a step up (both literally and figuratively) from “the Bottoms” — the ramshackle settlement along the river that was many Italians’ initial address in Denver.

Northwest Denver residents rode the streetcar downtown to jobs in the rail yards, smelters and slaughterhouses; after work they filled immigrant-owned restaurants and taverns lining 38th Avenue (the main streetcar line). Italian-Americans also grew produce just north of the city to supply neighborhood markets. Mount Carmel Church, at 36th and Navajo Streets, provided a cultural and religious anchor.

Another ethnic community developed just north of downtown, where Poles, Russians, Slavs and other central European immigrants gathered in what came to be known as Globeville. Less homogenous than Little Italy, this enclave comprised a rich stew of languages, cultures and nationalities united by employment at one of the area’s giant smelters, the largest of which — the Globe — gave the neighborhood its name. Denser and more industrial than Little Italy, Globeville had more modest homes and fewer immigrant-owned businesses; it was primarily a workers’ colony.

Russian and Central European peasants congregated west of downtown, across the river and the railroad yards. This predominantly Jewish population settled within a few blocks north and south of Colfax Avenue west of Federal Boulevard. One of Denver’s more persistent enclaves, it flourished well into the 20th century, with kosher markets and a large mikvah (the Lake Baths) dotting Colfax. Although the west side’s Jewish population thinned out after three or four generations, a small but visible population of Orthodox Jews still lives in that part of Denver.

Immigration backlash

Inevitably, as more and more immigrants poured into Denver, a backlash developed against them.

In the 19th century, the brunt of the enmity fell upon the Chinese. Though never particularly numerous, Denver’s Chinese community had long been visible. The city’s Chinatown lay along Larimer between 15th and 20th streets, a prominent placement close to the old financial district and Union Station. Sometimes derided as “Hop Alley,” this enclave rarely numbered more than 1,000 Chinese inhabitants.

The hostility toward the Chinese seems to have been based on pure racism; Denver’s Chinese community wasn’t powerful or rich enough to pose an economic or political threat, Noel explains. But Chinese immigrants’ distinctive language, dress and facial characteristics kept them from blending in, and a few of their customs — particularly the operation of opium dens — inspired widespread opprobrium. Even the state government fed hostility toward the Chinese by quantifying the number of “white persons” displaced from jobs by Chinese laborers.

In October 1880, latent hostility erupted into violence after a dispute in a poolroom between a young Chinese man and a Caucasian. Thousands of rioters descended upon Hop Alley, smashing up storefronts and setting housing blocks afire. One elderly Chinese man was beaten and then hanged to death from a lamppost.

No other group of immigrants faced violence and exclusion on this scale, but many did know hatred and hostility. During the pioneer era, signs reading “No Irish Need Apply” were a common sight; Italians, Greeks and Jews all faced prejudice. But they were confronted with few institutionalized barriers, and to some extent they could find safety in numbers. Perhaps most of all, they were protected by their indispensability — without them, the smelters and factories and railroads ceased to run, and the business of the city came to a halt.

“When economic conditions are strong and there’s a large demand for workers, that’s a time when you tend to see less hostility,” Goetz says. “When jobs are hard to come by, that’s when you tend to see a reaction.”

Sure enough, during the Great Depression — when one in four Coloradans was unemployed — the state witnessed a backlash against immigrants, this time aimed at Hispanics. The slack economy and high unemployment, combined with increasing immigration from Mexico, created such resentment that Colorado Governor Ed Johnson enacted a campaign to send Mexican immigrants back to Mexico. He went so far as to mobilize state troopers in support of this policy, which was never comprehensively enacted.

Like the Chinese at the turn of the century, Mexicans did not have a large community in Denver; it was a highly transient population, predominantly employed in the agricultural sector and prone to moving seasonally. Boulder, Adams and Weld counties all had larger Mexican populations than Denver in the early 20th century.

But the city’s Hispanic community grew rapidly. By mid century, Denver had nearly 50,000 Latin American-born residents, and that number had doubled to nearly 100,000 at the time of the 1980 U.S. Census. Between 1990 and 2000, Denver’s foreign-born population grew by more than 178 percent, and the 2000 Census showed that 17 percent of Denver residents were foreign-born, with most hailing from Latin America.

Jose’s story

Which brings us back to Jose.

His story typifies that of U.S. immigrants in the late 20th century. After a generation of restrictive immigration laws, Congress lowered the barriers in the mid 1960s, setting the stage for a new wave of immigration to the United States. It came primarily from the developing world — nations in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America. Mexico, where Jose was born, constituted the single largest source of immigrants by the end of the century.

Denver’s relative proximity to Mexico made it a natural destination. The city lay within a single day’s drive (all on interstate highways) of the Mexican border, and a natural affinity existed between Colorado and Mexico, as much of the state lay within Mexican territory until the mid 1800s. The factors that once made Denver an unlikely place for immigrants to settle — the time and expense required to travel here from the coasts — no longer mattered. A new arrival could settle in Denver about as easily as in any other U.S. city.

Jose chose Denver for the same reason that brought untold numbers of immigrants here over the years: he needed work. A couple of his relatives lived in Denver, as did a friend or two from his village back in Mexico, so he had a place to stay and a few people who could help him get acclimated to a new country, new language and new customs.

He got an after-hours job cleaning offices in a downtown high-rise. He shared a three-room apartment with up to 10 other immigrants in a classic ethnic enclave — northwest Denver. He rode public transit to and from work, heard the occasional ethnic slur, shopped and socialized and worshipped within the confines of his neighborhood — the same experience that generations of immigrants before him had shared.

And like so many of them, Jose slowly adapted and found a niche for himself as an American. He got a GED, then a junior-college degree, then a bachelor’s degree in business administration. With help from a small-business loan, Jose started his own business.

He became a U.S. citizen, but says he’s afraid to give his last name for fear of retribution.

“I came here with nothing,” he says. “Now I own a house, a car, my own company. My father and mother didn’t even finish sixth grade; they were pulled from school to help work on the farm. That’s probably where I would be working today if I had never come here.

“I think I am an example of the American Dream.”

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