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Charles Kelly Wielded Power with Political 'Ring'
By Joshua Ryan Colby
“El Paso’s mayoral bloodline is as colorful as the city’s Wild West past,” wrote Charles K. Wilson in a June 2003 issue of the El Paso Times, “from pistol-wielding politicians holding City Hall to power-driven men of the early 1900s who saw the mayor’s chair as a path to bigger arenas, the residents of El Paso have been served by 52 men and one woman, each with a vision for the direction the city should take.”
Mayor from 1910-1915, Charles Edgar Kelly was a no-nonsense man of action. While his means of achieving desired outcomes might be seen as shady, he nonetheless initiated the building of Scenic Drive and stood steadfast against the notorious Pancho Villa , while improving living conditions in the growing city.
Image caption: Charles E. "Henry" Kelly was mayor of E Paso from 1910 to 1915. Photo courtesy of the University of Texas at El Paso Library Special Collections Department .
He was born to William H. and Mary Kelly, on June 11, 1863, in Jefferson County, Mississippi. Growing up during Reconstruction, young Kelly lacked any early formal education. However, he had a keen memory that allowed him to become a registered pharmacist at the Sisters of Charity Hospital in New Orleans.
Poor health brought the young pharmacist to arid El Paso in 1883. C. L. Sonnichsen, author of Pass of the North wrote that upon regaining his health, Kelly began filling prescriptions at the Rio Grande Pharmacy. In 1893, he merged his own pharmacy with that of J. H. Pollard, establishing the Kelly-Pollard Retail and Wholesale Drug Company. But politics was his true calling.
In 1904, having been successful in passing laws against open gambling and prostitution, the Citizens League and other reformers were determined to clean up “ Sin City,” as El Paso was known. These reformers reflected a popular national movement called Progressivism . Those who fought against reform believed that fines derived from gambling and prostitution contributed greatly to El Paso’s treasury, paying salaries and expenses of the fire and police departments. This issue would prove crucial for future mayoral elections.
Sonnichsen wrote that a rift in the Democratic Party between the progressives and the supporters of the status quo would “spawn a new political machine, led by Joseph U. Sweeney and Charles Edgar Kelly, which would be unbeatable for over a dozen years.”
Kelly entered the city’s political arena in 1902, when he was elected city treasurer, a post he kept until 1910. Kelly’s power, however, began when he aligned himself with County Judge Joseph Sweeney. Sonnichsen noted that the two became “good friends who saw eye to eye in political matters and despised the reformers.” Kelly’s position as city treasurer gave the group, which came to be known as “the Ring,” true political force.
The Ring, comprised mostly of businessmen, lawyers and politicians, had its beginnings in the 1889 mayoral election between Republican Adolph Krakauer and Democratic “Ring” leader Charles R. Morehead . Although Krakauer won the election, he was denied office when Democrats discovered that he had failed to complete his citizenship papers in time for the election. Democrat Richard Caples won the second election. According to Sonnichsen, by 1899, the Republicans “were through as an effective opposition party for many years.”
In 1903, traditional Democrat Morehead became mayor and allowed prostitution and other “sin” to continue. But the reform movement presented a petition with 1,300 signatures demanding that the sheriff enforce existing anti-gambling laws. Morehead allowed the gambling halls and brothels to close. He also let the sheriff enforce the “blue laws”, which stopped all business on Sunday. Prostitutes and gamblers moved to Juárez. Thousands of El Pasoans began crossing the border.
Sonnichsen said that for a while “vice went underground.” Then in 1905, reformer Charles Davis was elected mayor. The Ring suffered internal divisions that would weaken Morehead’s power but solidify that of Sweeney and Kelly.
By 1907, the reform movement had lost its earlier momentum and disagreements among supporters divided their group. Current leader of the Ring, Joseph Sweeney, and reformer Joe Nealon ran for mayor. Even former mayor and reformer Charles Davis supported Sweeney for a time. In Politics at El Paso, 1850-1920 , Jack Vowell wrote that Sweeney’s faction of the Ring made sure he won by importing Juárez citizens who were paid to vote.
The Ring now controlled city politics, with Mayor Joseph Sweeney and Treasurer Charles Kelly. Sweeney resigned in 1909, and city council appointed W. F. Robinson as mayor. A collapsing wall killed Robinson when the Buckler Building burned on August 14, 1910. The city council next considered J. I. Hewitt and Charles Kelly for mayor, and on August 23, 1910, Charles Edgar Kelly became the new mayor. The reformers were out, Morehead’s power was gone, and the Democratic Party was in the hands of the vibrant Kelly.
Kelly ran the city, Sonnichsen wrote, with forcible tactics in order to achieve results, and his accomplishments were numerous. According to the Handbook of Texas Online, his administration “assumed municipal acquisition of the privately owned waterworks, extended street lighting and paving, reduced the cost of fire insurance, voted funds for the construction of schools, and supported the building of Scenic Drive, which became a tourist attraction.”
In 1913, Mayor Kelly and the city council recommended that $10,000 be set aside to build a mesa drive. Kelly suggested that future administrations also devote $5,000 annually to the project until the $50,000 needed for construction had been reached. Clinton P. Hartmann wrote in the journal Password that these recommendations fell through. Kelly then appointed W. S. Clayton as chairman of a committee to “secure the right-of-way from the property owners who might wish to ‘dedicate the property to the city as an act of civic betterment.’”
According to Hartmann, to inspire community interest in what would become Scenic Drive, Peter E. Kern and Mayor Kelly announced a public celebration to be held on October 9, 1914. Kern organized a free barbecue that included 6,000 loaves of bread, 4,000 pounds of meat and four barrels of pickles. Children enjoyed candy, soda and ice cream, while adults drank beer and ate barbeque cooked in a 75-foot long trench.
Two Fort Bliss bands livened up the scene with concert music. Electric lights and red lanterns placed along the first part of the proposed road illuminated the festive autumn night. Mayor Kelly had asked El Pasoans to leave on the lights in their homes and businesses and pull up the shades so they could “convey the full possibilities of a metropolis” from the mesa rim. The celebration was about six-years too early, however, and Kelly’s financial proposal some $150,000 short.
Scenic Drive, then only a rough dirt road, was first opened to the public on October 6, 1920. It had taken years to acquire land belonging to a man known simply as “D” Storms, where about 400 people lived without water, electricity, gas, phones or sewers. Stormsville, as it was known, sheltered the homeless from south El Paso, after the floods of 1897 destroyed their adobe homes. The area was considered a public health threat and would be torn down in 1928. But Scenic Drive was popular from the beginning, even though it was not paved until 1933.
During Kelly’s administration, El Paso had more on its mind than scenic roads, however. The Mexican Revolution was in full swing right in El Paso’s backyard. When 16 Americans died in the San Ysabel massacre , Kelly called in Fort Bliss troops to squelch an uprising of angry El Pasoans. As the revolution continued to spill into the city, Kelly wrote a letter to President William H. Taft, dated March 11, 1912, in which he accused the federal officials in El Paso of placating Juarenses rather than protecting Americans. Kelly added, “I do not propose to maintain order in the city of Juárez, but I do intend to protect life and property in the corporate limits of El Paso, Texas.” The U. S. government sent troops as a show of power.
Sonnichsen described Kelly as a “small but dynamic man with sandy red hair, a sanguine complexion, and a rugged Irish face.” His bravado was perfectly illustrated when he confronted revolutionary leader Pancho Villa at the Sheldon Hotel in El Paso. When Kelly heard that Pancho Villa was armed and ready to kill Gen. Giuseppe Garibaldi, grandson of the Italian liberator and leader of a foreign faction of revolutionaries in Mexico, Kelly did not wait until the police arrived but went himself and demanded that Villa drop his guns. He did. Kelly’s actions made national headlines . (NY Times article: AMERICANS DISARM ANGRY REBEL LIEDER: Villa Hunts Down Garibaldi in El ...New York Times (1857-1922); May 18, 1911; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2009) available to EPCC community)
When Thomas Calloway Lea, Jr. defeated Kelly and his team in the mayoral election of 1915, the reformers regained control of the political arena. The Ring had outlived its usefulness. Charles Kelly would not run for public office again. In 1917, Governor James E. Ferguson appointed him to the board of regents at the University of Texas.
Kelly shared a home life with his wife Willie Word and their four daughters. A member of various social and civic clubs, Charles Edgar Kelly was a practical man of vision who dealt with both corruption and the progressive movement successfully.
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