Throwback Thursday: Colorado’s 1918 Election

by Patti Dahlberg

By November 1918, Europe had been at war for four years, the United States had been involved for a little over a year, and Colorado was benefiting from increased wartime demand for agricultural and mining goods. Coal production reached a new high of 12,500,000 tons, and new fields were plowed to produce more wheat. The state industriously mined molybdenum and tungsten, both needed to make high-grade steel armaments for the troops. The Climax mine in Lake and Summit counties was the nation’s greatest source of molybdenum.

Although mining and wheat production dominated Colorado’s economy during the war years, some local manufacturing of steel—in Pueblo—and agricultural products such as sugar beets, alfalfa, livestock, and other grains had begun to take hold. Railroads provided access for Colorado products to markets across the country and even helped an emerging tourism industry. Still there was the war, and in spite of high mining and agricultural production, Colorado like the rest of the country, experienced rising food and fuel prices and supply limits on sugar and wheat. Across the state, Coloradans planted gardens to supplement food supply, with some towns turning playgrounds into gardens. Denver even created a city-owned coal company to try to curb rising coal prices.

Photo courtesy of Denver Public Library Western History/Genealogy Dept.

America’s involvement in World War I (WWI) officially began with its declaration of war on April 6, 1917. Coloradans stepped up through the purchase of Liberty Bonds to lend the U.S. government more than $150 million dollars to help finance the war and sent 42,000 of their citizens to serve in the military. Around 1,500 Coloradans volunteered for military service, and another 4,500 volunteer soldiers came from the recently federalized National Guard. But, as in the rest of the country, the volunteer numbers were not enough, and an additional 36,000 Coloradans were drafted to join the rest of the 2.3 million Americans drafted into military service. Colorado’s population had been just shy of 800,000 in the 1910 census.

There was also the Spanish flu epidemic. The Denver Post first reported a death due to influenza on September 27, 1918. By early 1919, the flu epidemic had killed more than 7,700 people in our state, compared to 1,000 to 1,100 Coloradans who were killed in the war. Most likely, the disease originated in crowded military bases in the United States or France in early 1918. Because of the war, any reports of healthy young service men and women becoming sick and dying from the flu were kept secret. In May, Spain became the first country to report flu deaths and so became the disease’s namesake.

Photo courtesy of Denver Public Library Western History/Genealogy Dept.

In October, Denver quickly ordered schools, churches, and places of amusement closed. Within a couple of weeks, Denver’s Board of Health also banned all meetings indoors or out, social gatherings in homes, and public funerals. The flu spread across Colorado and hit many small towns hard. It’s estimated that 675,000 Americans died of the Spanish Flu. Worldwide, 50 million people or roughly 1 in 30 infected died from the deadly virus. The ensuing large number of claims against life insurance policies skyrocketed, causing many small businesses to go bankrupt and disrupting the economy even further.

Soldiers returning from overseas found warm welcomes but scarce jobs as wartime demand for Colorado products started slowing down. The prices of food and other goods began to rise, but wages did not keep pace with the rising inflation.

The 1918 elections

As the country marched toward the Tuesday, November 5, 1918, mid-term elections, WWI appeared to be winding down and the deadly influenza pandemic was ramping up. Earlier in the year, national campaigns agreed to downplay partisan differences in order to present a unified political front to the world, but these agreements were unraveling. The social climate of the war and loyalty perceptions may have played a significant role in some election results. The two Colorado incumbent Congressmen who voted against the 1917 war declaration were defeated, playing a part in flipping Congress to a Republican majority.

There were three ballot proposals initiated by the citizens of Colorado:

  • Bone dry prohibition law. Colorado actually became a “dry” state—no alcohol allowed—in 1916, three years before the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution regarding prohibition was ratified. In 1918, this initiated measure proposed to take prohibition a step further by closing certain loopholes that allowed liquor to be used for medicinal or religious purposes. Prohibitionists were successful in tying support for the additional restrictions to patriotism by condemning the use of the country’s precious grain supplies for the manufacture of alcohol instead of for the war effort. The statutory amendment passed 63% to 36%.
  • Placing state civil service in the Constitution. Colorado enacted its civil service laws and established a civil services commission in statute in 1907. This initiated measure amended the civil service laws and moved them to the state Constitution. The constitutional amendment passed 64% to 35%.
  • Relief of adult blind. This initiated measure established a blind benefit commission and a means to provide financial support for needy adults certified as blind. The statutory proposal passed 93% to 6%.

Also, the General Assembly referred two Constitutional amendments to the people for approval:

On the Monday following the election, November 11, 1918, the warring powers signed an armistice treaty to end the fighting in WWI. That morning, Denver health officials lifted the public meeting bans due to the deadly flu epidemic while thousands jammed downtown streets in celebration of Armistice Day. That evening, more than 8,000 people gathered in the municipal auditorium to sing together and listen to speeches. Movie and live theaters reopened that night to huge crowds. Eleven days later, 18 more flu sufferers died and public meetings, religious services, and private parties were once again banned, theaters were closed, and new rules now required people wear gauze masks while shopping.

The Twenty-second Session of the Colorado General Assembly convened at noon on Wednesday, January 1, 1919, to a state in mourning, preparing to care for sick and injured returning soldiers and ready to address lingering public health concerns, increase employment, strengthen the state economy, and pay its debts.