Press "Enter" to skip to content

Saving Souls or Sanity? Leadville vs. the Salvation Army

Article by Lynda La Rocca

Local History – November 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

For me, at least, the words “Salvation Army” generate benign visions of holiday bell-ringers, donation kettles, and prim, button-downed characters like Miss Sarah Brown in the musical Guys and Dolls.

It’s hard to imagine this evangelical Christian movement, which began in England in 1865, causing a near-riot in frontier Leadville.

So what was the Salvation Army even doing in this wild and woolly silver-mining boomtown? Perhaps the Cloud City’s location relative to the firmament, juxtaposed with its population of assorted ne’er-do-wells, made it appear to be fertile ground for the conversion of sinners.

But the Army’s presence didn’t inspire remorseful citizens to enlist en masse as soldiers of the Lord. Instead, following a tradition of independence that many would say remains firmly in place today, the majority of Leadville’s residents made it clear that they preferred to be left in peace.

In terms of the Army, that meant the people of Leadville would worship — or not worship — as they saw fit. And if the Salvationists wouldn’t or couldn’t accept this, most Leadvillites wanted the proselytizing soul-savers run out of town on a rail.

Not so fast, declared a smaller, yet equally vocal, segment of the population. This contingent viewed their neighbors’ attitude as an infringement on the Salvationists’ First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

Thus the lines were drawn. But instead of an epic battle pitting good against evil, Leadville and the Salvation Army were quickly mired in a series of petty skirmishes involving egg-throwing, loud music, and runaway horses.

The ruckus began on May 18, 1888, when an advance guard of three Salvation Army enlistees held its first public meeting at the Salvation Army barracks on East Third Street.

Nearly 2,000 locals had gathered in the street and jammed into the hall for the proceedings. No sooner had the Salvationists begun singing a hymn than all hell, as it were, broke loose. After prayers were said a “soldier” attempted to speak, but by that time, the audience was completely out of control, according to the Evening Chronicle newspaper:

“… the young man made a short speech, but little of which could be heard, so great was the uproar. Once, the words, ‘do any of you love Jesus?’ drifted to the back part of the hall and the crowd taking this as a cue, repeated it, changing it according to their desire. The speaker was greeted with such observations as, ‘come off,’ ‘your whiskers leak’ and ‘Johnny get your gun.’ Some one in the audience then started [singing] ‘Hang Jeff Davis,’ etc. The refrain was taken up by others, finally spreading from the house into the street …”

Unfazed by this less than glowing reception, the Army continued its mission through the summer of 1888, despite being pelted with eggs and enduring disturbances like the one caused by a local who showed up at a meeting and “barked like a dog and mewed like a cat, beside using profane and

abusive language,” the Evening Chronicle noted.

By fall, anti-Army sentiments had reached a fever pitch. Abandoning any pretense of objectivity, a reporter for the Carbonate Chronicle went so far as to record what he described as the “ludicrous features” of recent Salvation Army services, among them references to orthodox churches as “hot-beds of spiritual death” whose preachers were no more than “… plug-hatted, chicken-guzzling, picadilly, dudy-dudy wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

Public opinion reversed itself significantly that November, however, when Salvation Army co-founder Catherine Mumford Booth came to Leadville to give a lecture. For more than 20 years, Booth and her husband, the Reverend William Booth, a.k.a. the “General,” had traveled the United States and Europe proclaiming their shared vision of an army motivated by the love of God to wage war against sin. The British-born couple exhorted people to begin new lives by enlisting in their spiritual corps, preaching the gospel of Jesus, and meeting human needs in His name.

Mrs. Booth’s pleasant manner and appearance went a long way toward creating a cessation of hostilities between Leadville and the Salvationists. This truce continued into the following spring, when melting snows permitted the Army, under the leadership of one Captain Marie Westphal, to return to the streets.

Marching up and down Leadville’s main thoroughfare of Harrison Avenue with banners streaming and drums pounding, the Salvation Army made such a racket that the community’s nerves were soon frayed once more. By April, 1889, the Salvationists were not just annoying the bejesus out of residents; they were also frightening horses. And that posed a threat to public safety which could not be ignored.

Invoking an 1885 ordinance against engaging “in any sport or exercise likely to scare horses, injure passengers, or embarrass the passage of vehicles,” the mayor and city council sent a marshal to warn Captain Westphal against continued public disturbances. Disregarding this warning, the Salvationists again broke out flags, banners, drums, cymbals, and tambourines and paraded along Harrison Avenue on May 2, 1889. Their noisy procession spooked a team of horses, which broke loose and bolted. That was the last straw. Eight “soldiers” were arrested and hauled off to spend the night in jail.

The next morning, bail was posted and the group returned to their barracks. When they appeared in court again several days later, accompanied by a throng of spectators eager to see justice done, all eight were found guilty of breaching the peace within city limits. They were fined five dollars each plus court costs.

But the matter was far from settled. That evening, a group of Leadville citizens gathered at City Hall to protest the actions of the mayor, city council, and police. The arrest of these “defenseless men and women [who] had been deprived of their free American rights for simply walking the streets … was an outrage and must not be tolerated,” one speaker declared. The next to speak was a local judge who excoriated the authorities for showing “a spirit of vindictiveness and malice,” and explained that the ordinance cited as the basis for the arrests called for penalties of fines, not imprisonment.

Before disbanding, this group passed a resolution denouncing city officials for their “unjustifiable treatment” of the Salvationists and calling upon “all liberty loving citizens to show their disapproval of this exercise of tyranny and cruelty which is contrary to the principles of free government and to the first principles of common decency.”

And how did these righteously indignant citizens pursue the matter to ensure that such tyranny would never again triumph? They didn’t. All was forgotten until later that summer, when the arrest of Salvationists responsible for a similar disturbance in the virtuous city of Colorado Springs renewed the ire of Leadville’s editorial writers.

“When the ungodly city of Leadville attempted to regulate the nuisance,” the Leadville Herald-Democrat thundered, “a howl went up all over the state that religious liberty was being trampled under foot in the wicked mining town, and some of our people went so far as to hold an indignation meeting and denounce the actions of the authorities … Colorado Springs is essentially a religious town … but the people naturally object to having the doctrine of Christ crucified hammered into them with a drumstick or rattled into their ears through a tambourine. Hence it [Colorado Springs] has decreed that the Salvationists shall work off their superfluous zeal and enthusiasm on the rock pile.”

Although a diehard band of a half-dozen Salvationists steadfastly maintained their presence in Leadville, a lack of both converts and contributions finally forced the closing of their barracks in 1893. The defeated Salvation Army left the Cloud City, never to return as a viable religious organization.

The moral of the story may be that in focusing on the battle for Leadville’s souls, the Salvation Army lost the war. Perhaps the Salvationists forgot that it’s difficult to convert others to your cause once you’ve annoyed them so mightily that they can’t stand the sight of you.

Lynda La Rocca lives in Twin Lakes, and promises she’ll put something in the kettle when she sees a Salvation Army bell-ringer this winter.