Jack Dempsey lived in Montrose only a short time, but his career as a fighter—and as a restaurant owner—began here. Courtesy photo.

Jack Dempsey’s Days in Montrose

MONTROSE—(March 19) Harry was his nickname as a child, and anyone who knew him as a boy would have predicted a life of nothing but hard work and obscurity—so poor was his large, Mormon family that at one point they were politely asked to “move on” while staying in Delta.

He had been born in the San Luis Valley town of Manassa, the 11-pound son of two West Virginia emigrants who had recently converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. When young William Harrison Dempsey appeared on June 24, 1895, he was quickly nicknamed “Harry.”

It was only later in life, after he had begun to make a name for himself as a fighter, that the young Coloradoan began to go by the name “Jack.” However, author Toby Smith, whose book Kid Blackie (Wayfinder Press, 1987) chronicles Jack Dempsey’s Colorado beginnings, recalls a legend that followed the famed boxer all of his life.

According to Smith, mother Celia Dempsey greeted the birth of her ninth child with the announcement, “You will grow up to be the world’s champion fighter.  Just like John L. Sullivan.”

As the family drifted from one Colorado boom town to the next, the boy learned to defend himself against bullies with his fists, and picked up professional boxing tips from a much older brother, Bern. After bouncing from Manassa to Creede, Leadville, Steamboat Springs, Craig, Meeker and Rifle, the family spent some time ranching south of Montrose, eventually moving into town in 1909.

The Dempseys did not remain in Montrose very long. However, it was here that Jack fought his first professional fight, and here that he cemented the skills that would serve him well after his boxing career became a page in the history books. While Jack’s footloose father Hyrum and the older Dempsey boys joined the crews that were constructing the Gunnison Tunnel, his mother Celia opened a restaurant to help support the family, according to author Smith.

“The Rio Grande Eating House, christened with a jug of hard cider, was located on North First Street,” notes Smith, “close to where the old Montrose Railroad station now stands. A ramshackle wooden affair, the restaurant wasn’t fancy: a lunch counter, a half dozen tables and a kitchen in the back.”

All-you-could-eat meals cost just 25 cents, and Celia’s cooking soon drew crowds of tunnel workers, along with railroaders, drifters and cowhands, the author wrote.

“Since the restaurant stayed open late, Dempsey, who helped his mother run the place, worked the night shift,” Smith wrote. “He waited on customers, cleared tables, washed dishes and stoked the fire in the dining room stove.”

Young Harry Dempsey also sold newspapers around town, hauled coal for the restaurant and shined shoes with a little cart he had rigged up to be pulled by two dogs, Smith wrote.

And of course, he tossed a few punches.

“For impoverished people like Dempsey, fighting was a way of life,” Smith wrote. “Without a movie theater in   Montrose, boxing was the biggest amusement around, for kids as well as for adults.”

In fact, Smith quotes Dempsey himself, whom he later met at the fighter’s famed New York City Restaurant, on the subject of Montrose: “Everybody worked so hard there,” Dempsey said, “that they really looked forward to a good scrap as entertainment.”

When the Gunnison Tunnel was completed, the family left Montrose for Provo, Utah, where they continued to scramble for a meager existence. After finishing the eighth grade there, however, Jack decided to return to Montrose.

“…he felt that if he really wanted to fight and make good on his dream, he should return to Montrose, a town that had been receptive to him and to boxing,” Smith wrote. “So, in early June of 1911, Dempsey hopped a railroad car alone and headed East. He was 15, beetle-browed and crew cut. Long, taut muscles covered his slender body.”

Once he arrived, young Dempsey took a job picking fruit at the Ashenfelter Orchards west of town, Smith noted, adding that the teen also dug ditches, tossed sacks of sugar beets onto railroad cars, shoveled manure and pitched circus tents. However, there was always just one goal in Dempsey’s mind—to step into the ring.

And so it was in Montrose that Jack Dempsey (who fought under the name Kid Blackie at the time), destined to become heavyweight champion of the world in 1919 and one of the most famous sports figures in American history, fought his first professional bout.

Author Abbot Fay recounts the match in his book, I Never Knew that About Colorado (Western Reflections, 2004).

“Having taken part in several amateur matches in towns such as Telluride, the seventeen-year-old Harry and a friend, Fred Wood, decided in 1912 to stage a match for money,” wrote Fay. “They trained in a carriage works at South Third and Cascade in Montrose.”

The match itself was held during the Montrose County Fair, in a ring constructed in the dance hall at the Moose Lodge.

“The pugilists sold every ticket printed,” wrote Fay. “After a hard-fought match, Kid Blackie knocked out his friend.   The total gate receipts came to about $40 which the two fighters split.”

The historic nature of the moment was probably lost on the hometown crowd, however. Author Toby Smith recalls what happened when the punches stopped.

“Then the two friends pushed the chairs back to make room in the Moose Hall for a fiddling contest,” wrote Smith.

Dempsey went on to spend time in Telluride, where he acquired his first Manager, Andy Malloy. Dempsey had known Malloy for many years, having first met him in Creede as a boxing adversary of his older brother Bern, and later in the ring during a second match in Montrose. It was in Telluride, however, that the itinerant young boxer became fast friends with Malloy, a muleskinner by trade, and with his brother Pat.

When not working as a miner at the Smuggler-Union mine or washing dishes at a bordello called Big Billie’s, Dempsey refined his skills as a fighter in the rough and tumble town.  In 1913, he and Andy Malloy staged a rematch of their Montrose fight in Telluride’s Davis Park—the fight where Dempsey first became known as “Jack Dempsey” rather than Harry Dempsey or “Kid Blackie.”

Toby Smith also notes that it was not a falling out that ended the professional relationship between Malloy and Dempsey, who later told the author that Malloy brothers were the best friends he had ever had. Rather, it was Dempsey’s skill in the ring.

“Malloy could no longer obtain fights for Dempsey,” wrote Smith. “No one could.”

According to the official Jack Dempsey web site, the fighter went on hold the world heavyweight title from 1919 to 1926, when he lost the title to Gene Tunney. Dempsey also lost a second match to Tunney in the controversial “Long count” decision.

Upon his retirement from boxing, Dempsey owned a restaurant of his own, Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant, across from Madison Square Garden from 1935 until 1974, and served as a commander in the U.S. Coast Guard.  At one point Dempsey  shared an apartment with movie legends Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. He made two Hollywood films, and co-starred in a Broadway play with his then wife, Estelle Taylor (the boxer was eventually married three times). The Dempsey site also notes that the boxer appeared at Madison Square Garden on his 75th birthday in 1970, where a crowd of 19,000 sang happy birthday to him. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.

Although Dempsey was known throughout his life for his work ethic and passion for his sport and fellow boxers—when famed black fighter Joe Louis suffered financial troubles, Dempsey headed up a fund to assist him—his last words show him to be a fighter to the end.

Wikipedia notes that just before taking his last breath at the side of  his third wife Deanna Piatelli in 1983, the 87-year-old Dempsey told her, “Don’t worry honey; I’m too mean to die.”