In the early 1920s, after World War I, the United States was flooded with immigrants. Many in the Protestant majority in the country viewed this as a significant threat to American ideals. The result was a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which claimed 4.5 million members nationwide.
By 1924 the Ku Klux Klan had significantly infiltrated the Republican Party in Colorado and in the 1924 general election, Klan-backed candidates swept into several offices in Colorado, including the Governor and U.S. Senate. It also took over local governments in Denver, Durango and elsewhere throughout the state. Clarence Morley was the new Klan-backed Governor. But the Attorney General’s Office was an exception. It was won by a 48-year-old Republican lawyer, William L. Boatright.
A descendant of pioneers who settled in Virginia in the 1700s, Boatright was born on a homestead farm in Missouri on June 14, 1876, a month and a half before Colorado became a state. He grew up on the farm, went to a teachers’ college in Stansbury, Missouri and then came west to enroll in the University of Denver Law School. But he transferred to the new Stanford University Law School in Palo Alto, California and graduated from there in 1897. He then moved back to Colorado permanently, passed the bar and began the practice of law in Colorado Springs. He married Minnie Stamp and they would have two sons and two daughters. Boatright began his public career with an appointment as a police magistrate in Colorado Springs.
In 1908 the Boatright family moved to a farm in Broomfield. William became active in the Republican Party, including service as county chairman. After a move to a ranch in Golden, he became District Attorney for the First Judicial District in 1920, an office he held until his election as Attorney General in 1924.
Upon his election, Boatright retained Deputy Attorney General Charles Roach and Assistant Attorney General Oliver Dean. New Assistants included John C. Vivian who would subsequently become Governor of Colorado, and Jean S. Breitenstein who would become a federal District Court Judge.
As a Baptist and former attorney for the Anti-Saloon League, Boatright was a fervent supporter of Prohibition and had helped frame Colorado’s laws supportive of it. He also successfully resisted reconsideration of the U. S. Supreme Court’s decision in favor of Colorado in the boundary dispute with New Mexico. He obtained a $1500 appropriation from the legislature ensuring the survey was performed properly. He also spent considerable time arguing railroad related cases before the Interstate Commerce Commission. He lost a case trying to prevent the abandonment of a route between Buena Vista and Romley, but he succeeded in preventing a five percent across-the-board rate increase on freight, which saved Colorado freight shippers five million dollars per year.
In the legislative sessions of 1925 and 1926, the Attorney General’s staff drafted 200 bills that were introduced at the General Assembly. Boatright said his office undertook the task “cheerfully” despite the fact it was not a statutory duty of the office, but he asked the legislature to officially create a legislative reference unit in the Attorney General’s Office, and they did so in 1927.
Boatright devoted considerable time to a dispute with the U. S. Department of Interior over state school lands. In 1875, Congress had set aside Sections 16 and 36 in each township to provide support for public schools. The Act excepted all mineral lands from the grant. But it was not until about 1920 that the Interior Department began to oppose state claims to mineralized parcels. Boatright delayed the litigation and traveled frequently to Washington to lobby Congress on the issue. His efforts, and those of other westerners, led to President Coolidge signing a law on January 1, 1927 confirming that the western states had title to all school sections, whether mineralized or not.
Interstate water issues also took Boatright to Washington. He negotiated disputes with New Mexico over the Rio Grande, Kansas over the Arkansas, and with Wyoming and Nebraska over the North Platte River. He convened a formal seven state conference on the Colorado River in the summer of 1927 and spent a month in Washington dealing with legislation for the Boulder Dam to protect the interests of the upper basin states.
Boatright ran for reelection in November of 1926 and won a second term. His staff remained largely the same. He did appoint Ralph L. Carr to replace S. E. Naugle, who resigned. Carr was an up and coming water lawyer and he, like Vivian, would later become Governor of Colorado. Carr would serve as Governor during World War II and distinguish himself by courageously opposing the internment of Japanese Americans. Boatright also hired his own son Leland as an inheritance tax appraiser.
The office caseload continued to grow. Liquor law violations, water cases, and freight rate cases were commonplace. The office won one important case securing lower rates for potato growers in the Greeley area. Boatright personally felt that his most important work in his second term was related to labor unrest in the states’ coal mines. Beginning in October of 1927, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) instituted statewide strikes to protest the execution of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti a few months earlier. The strikes shut down 113 of the state’s 125 coal mines. One that remained open, the Columbine Mine north of Denver, became the focus of labor strife that culminated in violence on November 21, 1927 when state police shot picketers at the mine. Six men died and over 50 were injured. The labor problems led to the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company (later Colorado Fuel and Iron) allowing its miners to unionize as long as the union was not the IWW. That led to John L. Lewis and the United Mine Workers entering into Colorado.
Boatright tried to capitalize on his law and order credentials in a 1927 run for Governor. He won the Republican nomination but lost the general election to the incumbent, William Adams. Boatright retired to private practice, setting up an office with his son Leland. He served as County Attorney for Jefferson County for six years. But Leland died in a swimming accident on the family farm in 1935 and it broke his father’s spirit. He closed his Denver law office and worked from his home. He developed a heart condition and died on November 20, 1937 at the age of 62. For his service to the people of Colorado, Boatright was granted the rare distinction of lying in state in the capitol rotunda. Among his pallbearers were future Governors John Vivian and Ralph Carr.