Thursday, September 3, 2015

Denver's First Labor Day Celebration Held at Argo Park

During the 1880s, Denver was booming. The arrival of the railroads attracted manufacturing, meat packing, food processing and small businesses. That growth spurt would include the Boston and Colorado, the Omaha and Grant and the Holdenville Smelters, brickyards, Denver Rock Drill and several meat packers offering jobs to both immigrants and American-born workers. Clusters of workers settled near their jobs in rural-sounding tracts like Garden Place, Greenwood Addition, Tacoma heights, and Cranberry Place. (Globeville would not be incorporated until 1891).
Industries focused on productivity, with workers toiling 12 hours a day, six, sometimes seven days a week, in gritty factories with few safety regulations, little fresh air, sanitary facilities or breaks. Women found employment in sugar factories, cigar making, commercial laundries or as domestic servants, while children could be found in factories, mines and agriculture. Injuries and deaths were common and left families very much alone and often destitute. The only holidays were Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and Sundays, and employees were not paid if they took the time off.
Workers responded by banding together, campaigning for shorter hours, more pay, better working conditions and recognition of their right to organize. New York City was home to the first Labor Day celebration on September 5, 1882, a peaceful event organized by the Central Labor Union (CLU) promoting the notion of a 10 hour work day. By 1885, “Labor Parades” were being staged in a number of industrial cities across the U.S., and municipal ordinances recognizing the holiday emboldened workers to take part. The first statewide Labor Day law was passed by the Oregon legislature on February 21, 1887. Colorado followed suit, with the measure being put before the voters, passed by the Colorado Legislature and signed into law by pro-labor Governor Alva Adams on March 15, 1887.
The city's first Labor Day celebration was held Monday, September 5th, 1887 with Denver's labor unions deciding to hold picnics and concerts, rather than a parade, in Argo Park.
The Rocky Mountain News from September 6, 1887 described the festive celebration, reporting that around 2000 people attended, listening to a band play at the pavilion and speeches by Governor Adams and various labor leaders. 
The inaugural holiday was a celebration of a day off, as well as the contributions of workers. It would be many years, and hard-fought battles before labor won the many rights we take for granted today.

Workers pose in front of the Boston and Colorado Smelter at Argo
Photo Colorado Historical Society

Map of the area in 1887, before the appearance of the Globe Smelter 
and before Globeville is incorporated