Jefferson Smith came out to Colorado when this state was booming -- the first time. He tried Creede and Leadville but discovered he could make a much better living in Denver. His specialty? Squeezing suckers.
It was in Denver, aka Suckerville, that Smith picked up the nickname "Soapy," in honor of his favorite con. He'd wrap bars of soap in tissue paper and bills -- a few of them big bills. For a buck, anyone could reach into Soapy's collection and test his luck at coming up a winner. But somehow, all of Soapy's marks went bust.
In 1889, Soapy helped fix the Denver mayoral election, paying a dollar for each vote; one fellow managed to vote 39 profitable times. But Soapy, who was working as a Republican vote-counter -- true story -- with Bat Masterson, didn't happen to notice any irregularities.
Run out of town in 1894, when Platt Rogers was elected mayor, Soapy headed up to Skagway. There his luck finally ended in 1898, when he was shot and killed at age 39.
Thus ended the infamous career of the King of the Western Con Men, who'd made his reputation not in Los Angeles, not in San Francisco, not in Phoenix, not even on a ranch outside of Austin, Texas, but in Denver.
When Denver recently announced the winners of the Mayor's Millennium Awards, Soapy Smith was not on the list.
Last New Year's Eve, while the rest of the world was celebrating, Mayor Wellington Webb and his troops were hunkered down in the city's emergency bunker, preparing for the worst that Y2K might bring. Doom, at the very least.
Never mind that by the time the clock struck twelve here, much of the globe had already survived the midnight hour and was continuing to party hearty. But even after Denver officials realized that Russian nukes wouldn't be erasing the world and that fireworks could light up the Eiffel Tower without blowing it up -- and that this city was looking like the ultimate party pooper on the national news -- they still wouldn't let loose. In fact, squad cars began closing off the streets leading to LoDo so that the folks leaving the Pepsi Center's Neil Diamond concert -- earlier touted by Webb as our contribution to the international festivities -- couldn't reach the nearly empty bars and restaurants to get that drink they no doubt needed badly by then. Throughout the evening, the cops had been stalking through LoDo like SWAT teams, rousting such suspicious characters as Donald Seawell, the octogenarian founder of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, who was walking home from a party at the ballroom named for him.
Revisionist history is a wonderful invention. For the last eleven months, the city has acted like Denver planned to be dead all along because the real millennium doesn't begin until 2001 -- a fact the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., the country's official timekeeper, could have pointed out a year ago. For expert testimony closer to home, mayoral spokesman Andrew Hudson belatedly trotted out a story from the January 1, 1901 Rocky Mountain News, which noted that Denver had celebrated the start of the new century (not the "new millennium," as the city's Web site still mistakenly suggests) on New Year's Eve 1900. Specifically, the paper reported, "Old Father Time aroused himself from a lethargy and cut in the head of his scythe a deep notch that marked the nineteenth century done."
While Father Time is not yet on the lineup for Denver's millennium celebration set for December 31, the city's still trying to make up for lost time. It's hired fireworks expert Pierre-Alain Hubert, who may not be quite as world renowned as originally promised, nor quite as responsible for Paris's big show as first touted, but still has a decent reputation and can probably be trusted not to blow the D&F tower off its pedestal. And "no tax dollars will go up in flames," promises Cara Roberts, head of the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film, which is coordinating the event.
But Denver's already scaled back on the plans announced in October, since the city's millennium fundraising team hasn't come close to scaring up the half-million dollars in donations initially envisioned. By this week, it had collected just $35,000 more than the $200,000 it started with, after co-chairs Bob Sturm and Sharon Magness each chipped in a fast $100,000. "It's a hard event to fund raise for," Roberts admits.
And the plans announced in October had been scaled back from the plans announced in July, when Webb promised a series of millennium celebrations in his State of the City speech. Soon after, Denver hosted the Party on the Platte -- a dud that didn't do much to change Denver's deadbeat image. The Platte had been the focus of another now-defunct millennium plan: Centennial Park was to feature a brick walkway engraved with the names of all of Denver's residents circa 2000. "The project was going to overtake us," Roberts explains. By the time the concept was dropped, cost estimates had topped $1 million and were heading for $2 million.
When that plan disappeared, so did Tracy Jenkins, a Webb contributor who'd been given a $50,000 contract back in February to "direct, oversee and execute activities associated with the Mayor's Millennium Commission" -- an outside deal justified because the "city does not possess requisite skills to complete this project." (Before Jenkins bowed out, her Bo-Tra Group had collected over $26,000 of the total.) By now, of course, the Mayor's arts commission has mysteriously acquired the necessary skills to take over the project.
But you don't make it to the millennium mark -- even if a city's only been around for 142 years -- without some flexibility. Back in January 1999, Wellington and Wilma Webb had hurried to D.C. to sit with Hillary Clinton during the State of the Union address, where, they'd been assured, President Bill would tout Denver as a millennium community. The honor came so fast that the city had to scramble to put together a millennium project, tapping historian Tom Noel for the job. (Noel's still featured on the city's Web site -- denvergov.org -- discussing Denver history and urging citizens to add to the time capsule of memories that will be buried December 31.) But Clinton never did mention Denver, and it wasn't until earlier this month that the city was named an official millennium community -- the last in a string of more than 550 communities so honored. "Throughout Denver's history," the Millennium Communities Program Web site proclaims, "its citizens have kept hold of the independent pioneer spirit."
That site doesn't mention Soapy Smith, either.
On December 6, the city held its second official millennium event: a reception honoring recipients of the Mayor's Millennium Awards, a total of seventeen individuals and institutions -- a nice round number expanded from the ten initially promised -- that had contributed to making the city what it is today. Culled from a roster of more than 200 nominees -- names that included everyone from Wellington and Wilma Webb to corporate bosses who'd clearly been nominated by their employees -- the final list read like a colorized, as well as whitewashed, history of Denver.
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No one had offered up the name of Mattie Silks, for example, even though the notorious madam was certainly as successful a businesswoman as winner Dana Crawford and provided a public health amenity arguably as important as did finalist Florence Sabin. The Webbs were not winners, but they'd taken themselves out of the running; Federico Peña made the cut. Among the few white male honorees -- historically, lists like these have been lousy with white guys -- was Donald Seawell, founder of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and the very fellow rousted from the streets last New Year's Eve.
The city's third, and presumably final, millennium event hits town in ten days. The festivities will culminate in a party on the 16th Street Mall, complete with musical acts (although not as many as originally envisioned back when fundraising prospects looked more promising) and street performers (in perhaps a related development, the city earlier this year banned aggressive panhandling), the debut of the World Anthem (which includes electronic snippets of 193 national anthems), and then the fireworks, which won't be quite as elaborate as Paris's. (Back in July, Webb had hoped to set the party in Mile High Stadium, which would have blown up real good.)
"And after this," Roberts says, "the city is out of the new year's business."