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Democrats Return to Denver to Celebrate Centennial of Presidential Convention

It's been 100 years since the Democratic Party met in Denver to nominate their candidate for the U.S. presidential election campaign. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, in late August [August 25-28] delegates will return to the Colorado state capital to address an agenda not that much different from the one they addressed a century ago.

Denver's history can be traced back to the Gold Rush days of 1858, when the discovery of the precious ore drew an avalanche of prospectors to the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River, in what is today downtown Denver. Few of the gold rush prospectors ever struck it rich. Many of those who stayed became farmers or provisioned the boom-and-bust mining camps.

In 1908 — a little more than 30 years after Colorado had officially become a state — Denver was chosen to host the Democratic Party's National Convention. That's the quadrennial event at which the party formally names its candidate for the U.S. presidential election, held later in the year. University of Colorado history professor Tom Noel says the city was picked because Denver mayor Robert W. Speer had the vision to make it happen. "He hoped to transform Denver into what he called, 'Paris on the Platte' or 'The City Beautiful' using Washington D.C. as a prototype."

Speer initiated a public works plan with new parks and buildings including the municipal auditorium, which was the second largest in the country next to Madison Square Garden in New York when it opened. Noel says the effort "helped attract the democrats in 1908."

Outside the municipal auditorium — in the burning summer heat — delegates were welcomed with wagons piled with snow from the nearby Rocky Mountains.

Noel says Denver celebrated its frontier heritage by bringing in 40 Apache Indians "to do a war dance and war whoops." The Rocky Mountains News reported: "It was very difficult to tell the wild Indians from the Democrats, except that the Democrats yelled all the time and wore more badges."

Security costs, which today can run to about $50 million for each convention, didn't cost that much in 1908. The event, says Noel, was covered with six Pinkerton detectives and a few off-duty Denver policemen. "They said that their only real problem was pickpockets, although there was one snowball fight where they arrested 40 people."

William Jennings Bryan headed the Democratic Party's presidential ticket in 1908. Like presumptive candidate Barack Obama, he was a charismatic public speaker. Noel says other parallels spanning the century between conventions include a troubled national economy, opposition to an unpopular foreign war, and the clamor for women's rights. "In Colorado, women had been given the right to vote in 1893, ahead of the rest of the country, so that there were actually voting women delegates at both the Democratic and Republican conventions."

Convention delegates did not endorse national women's suffrage, which didn't happen until 1919, Noel says.

In 2008, city leaders are hopeful that the $40.6 million they are spending on this political convention will help boost economic growth and increase tourism in the region. Noel says organizers had the same idea a century ago when Denver's mining industry was in the throes of collapse. "And they were beginning to promote tourism and conventions. The Denver Convention and Visitors Bureau was actually founded that same year to try to keep more conventions coming after doing such a great job with the Democrats."

While there are no plans to cart snow down from the mountains to cool off delegates this August, the 50,000 visitors to the Democratic National Convention in Denver will discover a vibrant, thriving urban community — one that celebrates its wise choice a century ago to become a convention-friendly town.

Slide Show_1908 Denver National Convention