Probable site of John Asmussén's Saloon
Like most of the anti-Chinese riots and violence that occurred in the 1880's, what happened in Denver was preceded by weeks of xenophobic editorials and articles in the local press. On October 23rd, 1880, the Rocky Mountain News noted that "The Pest of the Pacific Coast...is invading the state, forcing men into starvation and women into prostitution." It went on to say "California is already in ruin through Chinese labor...and now Colorado is threatened with the same disaster."
The newspaper's diatribes set the background for violence to happen, and one week later, on Halloween, a major riot erupted. There are several accounts of how it started, but most historians agree that it began when a group of three or four drunken white men attacked two Chinese who were playing pool at John Asmussén's saloon on Wazee Street. One Chinese man was hit with a board, but apparently both men escaped due to Asmussén's intervention.
This seemingly minor incident had the effect of striking a match to a box of dynamite. There is some speculation that politically motivated labor organizers had planned a public incident to further throw support behind their candidate, Winfield Scott, in the upcoming November Presidential election.
About a week prior to the saloon fight a letter supposedly written by Presidential candidate James A. Garfield had caused an uproar among labor advocates in Denver. In the letter, Garfield implied that he favored unrestricted Chinese immigration at a time when the Chinese were already being falsely accused of taking away jobs from white men.
Just before the election Garfield proved the letter was a forgery, and he went on to become President. But the facts made little difference to the hard-pressed laborers of Denver who were looking for someone to blame for their woes, especially when weeks of racist newspaper stories had already escalated the conflict.
Within minutes after the initial attack on the Chinese, dozens and then hundreds of men filled the streets around the saloon, and the stage was set for the biggest mob violence the City had ever seen.
Sources: Wortman, Zhu, local newspapers
About this site: John Asmussén's Saloon is listed in the 1880 Denver City Directory at 403 Wazee Street. The 1887 Sanborn Fire Map, which was the first map of Denver that included reliable street addresses, shows a stable at where 403 Wazee Street should be. However, an 1880 artist's rendering of an aerial view of the city, published by E.S. Mills Insurance, shows a two-story building at the same location and several other buildings along 16th Street. It seems likely that between 1880 and 1887 a fire or other disaster destroyed several buildings in that block. The 1887 Sanborn map also noted that the system of street addresses in Denver had been recently revised, but it provided both the old and new addresses for most buildings. The site where 403 Wazee Street would have been in 1880 is now a parking lot.