The New Empire of the Rockies: A History of Northeast Colorado
BLM Cultural Resources Series (Colorado: No. 16)
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Northeastern Colorado represents a significant portion of this state, for here began much of Colorado's history. This corner of Colorado has seen most of the events that have shaped our state and has participated in the building of the entire state though its history and traditions. When the 1858 Gold Rush started, thousands of would-be miners poured into this region seeking precious minerals located in the foothills of northeastern Colorado. These people were the first permanent settlers, and since the mountains offered up their treasures with little initial difficulty, towns were soon founded and grew along the waterways of northeast Colorado.

The populations base of this state, much of its economic activity, and its agricultural foundations all had roots in the northeast quarter of our state. It is small wonder that most Colorado history started here and then radiated from the region. Prior to the 1858 rush, not much happened in northeast Colorado. There was some fur trapping and buffalo hunting, but this did not amount to long term settlement. Only a few places like Fort Lupton and Fort Vasquez, represented Europeans on Colorado's frontier. By 1850 these remote outposts were gone, along with the fur trade.

Yet the area was surprisingly well-known by that time thanks to early explorations by men like Zebulon M. Pike (1806) and Stephen H. Long (1819). Both of these men brought knowledge of eastern Colorado to the general public through their journals and maps. Long pronounced the place unfit for settlement and gave it the title "The Great American Desert", sealing its fate for the next forty years.

But human greed overcame fears of a "desert". In 1858 gold was located along Dry and Cherry Creeks. Thanks to considerable promotion by "port Towns" like St. Louis, Leavenworth, Kansas and St. Joseph, Missouri, one hundred thousand eager gold seekers rushed to what was then called Pike's Peak. As in any such boom, there was not enough to go around, so many frustrated miners went home. These were the despised "Go-backers". However, thousands of others stayed. Businesses were quickly founded to service foothills mining communities like Central City, Blackhawk, Idaho Springs and Gold Hill. Denver, Boulder, and Golden soon became supply centers located at the mouth of canyons in which mining went on at a frantic pace.

The early years saw Long's "desert" become an enemy. Goods and services were imported across the plains, no small feat considering hostile natives, the lack of water or established roads, and quite primitive equipment. Thousands of tons of food and manufactured goods came down the Santa Fe Trail, over the Smoky Hill Trail, up the Platte River Road, and even southward from the Oregon Trail in Wyoming.

The first settlers to reach northeast Colorado were trespassers. They found native Americans already living along the waterways. The Arapaho, the Cheyenne, some Utes, and even a few Blackfeet roamed the eastern plains. At first, the natives looked upon the hoards of miners as temporary visitors. When cities, farms and ranches began to spring up, the natives became fearful that their land was about to be taken. These fears led to confrontations between Anglos and natives. The tension increased well into the 1860s. The Hungate Massacre of 1864 crystalized public sentiment, and the U.S. Army was used to quell rebel natives. Several battles, most notably Beecher Island (1868) and Summit Springs (1869) cleared the plains of native residents. By 1870 there was no threat and expansion onto the eastern grasslands began.

As cities grew, (Denver in particular) they became more self-sufficient. The plains were cut off by native raiders during the early 1860s so developing a local supply source became most important. Near Golden, in 1859, David K. Wall planted and irrigated the first garden in this region. This led to further experiments in making the "desert" bloom. By the late 1860s, settlements were founded along the South Platte, the St. Vrain and the Cache la Poudre Rivers. One of the first, and most famous, colonization projects was the Union Colony at Greeley. Its success caused others to colonize the northeast's bottomlands. Later, successes like Longmont and Fort Collins generated more attempts at colonization. But for each town founded, there were numerous failures like David Green's Green City. By the mid-1870s the rich bottomlands were occupied and newcomers were forced to locate on the dry plains.

The 1870s saw another clash, this time between cattle operations such as those of John W. Iliff and sodbusters determine to take up their 160 acres of public land under the various homestead acts. This conflict did not end until the late 1880s when bad weather, poor management, and low prices virtually wiped out the range cattle business. From that point forward, feed lots, better grazing management and controlled herds marked modern plains cattle ranches. At the same time the cattle industry slowed, dryland homesteading boomed.

The first wave of "drylanders" came during the mid-1880s and this phase lasted to the 1893 Panic. That depression decimated crop prices and by 1896 dryland farming had ended. Wheat was the main crop from the northeastern plains. It required minimal moisture, it could be planted in winter, and there was considerable demand for this grain at the time. In this manner, Colorado's eastern plains were opened to agriculture.

While farming was the primary use of the flat, arid, plains, the mountains were scenes of frantic mining activity. After the first gold discoveries, mining declined due to a lack of readily available "free" minerals. Hardrock techniques used in California generally proved unsuccessful in Colorado and by the mid 1860s local mining was in a state of deep downturn. Towns that boomed in the early 60s were now ghost towns. South Park was particularly hard hit. Denver, Boulder and other mining oriented supply towns also suffered a severe slump in their economies. By the end of the Civil War in 1865, Colorado's lustre was gone. Not only was local ore nearly impossible to separate, but there was no cheap transportation into the mountains to haul it out.

But technological innovation came to the rescue. In the late 1860s, Nathaniel Hill devised an ore milling process that made hard rock mining cost-effective. His Blackhawk, Colorado mill dominated mineral processing in these early years. With the separation problem solved, all miners needed was a cheap way to move ores and goods. In 1870 General William Jackson Palmer incorporated the Denver and Rio Grande Railway. It first went to newly founded Colorado Springs. This was only the beginning, because by the late 1870s not only did the Rio Grande go nearly everywhere, but there were numerous other railways. The Colorado Central went to Georgetown and Silver Plume (1872), the Denver, South Park and Pacific arrived in Fairplay in 1879 and then Leadville in 1884. The Denver Pacific connected Denver with the Transcontinental at Cheyenne in 1870 and the Rio Grande reached Pueblo in 1872, then it proceeded to build up the Arkansas River to Leadville, arriving in the "Cloud City" in 1883.

Railroad transportation revolutionized the mining frontier. Not only was it less expensive to move ores, but getting goods into mining camps became far more reasonable. This, in turn, stimulated exploration that manifested itself in new discoveries of both gold and silver. As it happened, silver was the queen of minerals from the late 1870s until 1893. Discoveries at Caribou Georgetown, Silver Plume, and finally Leadville (1879) brought about a new rush to the Rockies. Silver mining also stimulated the plains economy for more farm goods were needed as the state's population swelled. Cities like Denver, became major commercial centers based upon the silver pouring from the Rockies. Industrial expansion caused various smelters, originally located near mines, to be moved to Denver. Denver was also the hub of a rail network that served all of the mountains and the eastern plains. By 1883 Denver had rail systems running to Chicago, Omaha, St. Louis and Kansas City. As new rails crossed the eastern flatlands, towns sprang up along the rights of way. Dryland farmers were brought to the eastern plains by rail and their crops were shipped east by the same bands of steel.

The year 1893 was the end of an era. The price of silver collapsed, the nation was thrown into its worst depression since the 1870s, and Colorado's economy suffered terribly. Railroads went bankrupt, farmers abandoned their fields, and miners fled the mountains, leaving behind more and more ghost towns. The 1893 disaster also caused the formation of a new party; the People's Party (also called Populists). This group demanded massive reforms in agriculture, currency, taxation and other basic social institutions. The life of this new national third party came to an end in the election of 1896 when the "Silver Crusade" culminated in a classic specie confrontation between silver interests (miners) and gold capitalists (industry). William Jennings Bryan, a "Silver Democrat" delivered one version of his "Cross of Gold" speech at the Boulder, Colorado, Chatauqua Auditorium to the applause of thousands. But William McKinley, a "Gold Republican" overcame popular sentiment and won the election, wiping out both the Populists and the "free silver" movement. Colorado mining never recovered from the silver debacle although Cripple Creek, a booming gold center, did do rather well at this time. As the 1890s ended, change swept over Colorado. Traditional mining disappeared, the open range cattle industry was gone, dryland farmers were wiped out and the booming cities slowed their growth.

Prosperity began to return by 1900. Mining may have been stunted, but agriculture developed even more than before. Irrigated lands, along with the introduction of sugar beets, brought about a revival of farming from Fort Collins to Sterling. Where irrigation was not possible, dryland wheat farming started again. More economic slack was taken up by an increasing number of tourists arriving by rail. Intensive promotion by the railroads lured easterners "Out West" where they could see the wonders of nature, stay in quality hotels and spend lots of money. The tourist boom extended to health care too, for many persons with lung diseases came to the clear, crisp air of Colorado to recover. Colorado was famous for its health facilities. By 1915 automobiles brought tourists into Colorado where they camped, visited places like Pike's Peak and spent money. It is not purely coincidence that Rocky Mountain National Park came into being in 1916. Thanks to intense lobbying efforts by the residents of Estes Park, Colorado, they also saw tourism as an economic windfall; not to mention they could claim that the city saved a valuable piece of Colorado's wilderness, that just happened to be fifty miles from Denver.

The creation of a national park in northeast Colorado was symptomatic of major land tenure changes in this region. Most of today's national forests were created at this time. For instance, the Arapaho National Forest was carved out of the mountains west of Denver in 1905, while the Pike Peak Timber Reserve was established in the same year. President Theodore Roosevelt took advantage of the 1891 General Revision Act to withdraw these federal lands. Homesteading was effectively ended on the front range, although the far eastern plains did remain open until 1934 to homesteaders.

World War I brought considerable prosperity to a region that was languishing. Agriculture did well because of European food demand. Local industry recovered when more minerals were needed for arms production. In fact, there was a "boomlet" in Boulder County, near Ward, when tungsten was discovered. Steel makers needed it and through 1918 Ward, Caribou and Nederland did quite well. In fact, thanks to minerals a new railroad was built from Boulder to Ward to haul tungsten. This period was also the final thrust onto the eastern plains. Dryland wheat farmers took up virtually every last acre of public lands. Intensive cultivation brought quick wartime profits and deep regrets ten years later.

The end of the Great War in 1918 burst the bubble. By 1919 the nation was in a depression and Colorado agriculture suffered intensely. Wheat, sugar beets, corn and cattle prices all collapsed. Soon marginal farmers were bankrupt and farms went on the auction block. But this was just a prelude to complete disaster. To save themselves, farmers began cooperative marketing; finally legalized during the 1920s. Mining, like farming, also suffered from a depressed economy. Precious mineral development was nearly non-existent while ores like zinc, tungsten and other industrial minerals were minimally produced. Coal mining, mostly in Boulder County, suffered from declines in sales. Several violent strikes took place during the 1920s at Lafayette and Louisville. Natural gas destroyed the local coal industry.

One of the last major developments during this era was the construction of the Denver, Northwestern and Pacific Railroad (usually called the Moffat Road), from Denver to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. David H. Moffat's standard gauge line hoped to reach Salt Lake City through northwestern Colorado, and thereby give the Rio Grande some real competition. However, Moffat went broke at Steamboat Springs. Denver had a railroad that went nowhere. The Moffat Road reached Craig, Colorado in 1915 where it finally died. One of the railroad's most serious problems was using the 11,000 foot Rollins Pass. Finally, after years of lobbying, the construction of a tunnel under the Rockies was approved by Denver voters. This was to be a rail tunnel, with a parallel water diversion tunnel. Begun in 1924 and completed in 1928, the Moffat Tunnel provided a direct connection through the Rockies and shortened the rail route by 180 miles. Later, a cut-off was built between Orestod and Dotsero connecting the Rio Grande with the Moffat Road, thereby giving Denver its first direct access to the West Coast. In 1947 the Rio Grande bought the ailing Moffat Road and consolidated the Moffat Tunnel route to Salt Lake City under one railway.

Other events of the twenties included the rise of the Ku Klux Klan to the governor's office in 1924 and the equally quick demise of the Klan as a political power when the voters discovered their own stupidity. The northeast quarter of Colorado was a Klan stronghold, particularly Boulder, Denver, Sterling and Greeley where Klan rallies built voter support. The 1920s were also a period of depression for Colorado despite the national boom. While optimism may have been rampant in the United States, Colorado did not really participate. In October, 1929 the end came as the stock market collapsed and the nation was plunged into the worst depression in its entire history.

The 1930s saw real trouble as farm prices dropped, industrial output stopped, and mining was abandoned. At the same time the economy died, the West was gripped by a terrible drought that lasted for years. Overtilled soils on the plains dried up and blew away. Colorado lost its economic base overnight, and the crisis lasted well into the thirties. There was nothing to save the northeast corner of this state but massive federal aid.

The 1932 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt promised a "New Deal" for America. One of his first actions was to give immediate aid to agriculture and industry through the "alphabet" agencies like the AAA, the SCS, the NRA and so on. All of Colorado, including the northeast region, benefitted from agricultural stabilization and higher farm prices. In addition, work projects like the WPA, CCC, and PWA built roads and trails in the national parks and forests, new schools, post offices, and on a larger scale, water diversion in the form of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. While federal aid poured into the local economy, and the situation did look better by the late 1930s, it was world war that once again "saved" northeast Colorado.

War broke out in Europe during 1939 and soon there was a huge demand for food, arms, and minerals. Both wheat and sugar beet farmers profited. So did the mineral industry that produced industrial war materials. Transportation, railroads in particular, did well hauling both troops and goods across the region. More importantly, military installations and factories added to the local economy on an unprecedented scale. A few examples were Lowry Air Field, Buckley Naval Air Station, an expanded Fitzsimmons Army Hospital and the Remington Arms plant located in Lakewood, Colorado.

As the war ended in 1945, northeast Colorado's growth continued. Not only did the military stay, but so did industry. The federal government added to this area's population by establishing various civilian and military institutions like the Denver Federal Center in the early 1950s. This came about due to considerable Denver Chamber of Commerce and other growth groups lobbying the government to locate in Denver. Other governmental installations included the National Bureau of Standard at Boulder (1952) and the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant in Jefferson County (1953).

While agriculture remained a mainstay of the economy, there was established a large population corridor from Fort Collins to Pueblo during the 1960s. For the first time, economic and political power concentrated on the front range. Farmers, miners and ranchers found themselves dealing with city dwellers and having to share power with them. Tensions increased and conflicts between metro Denver and the eastern plains, where agricultural and political clout were traditions, became common. The power struggle continues to the present. But with several million people in the Denver metroplex and more arriving every day, it is only a matter of time before northeast Colorado becomes urbanized to the point that it begins to resemble Los Angeles.

This history, written by Dr. Steven F. Mehls, represents a synthesis of secondary materials gathered over a year's time. The purpose of this work is to provide a basic narrative history of northeastern Colorado which, in turn, gives BLM managers information with which to make decisions as to the best means of managing historic sites found on public lands within this area. Since most such Bureau lands are either in the foothills or out on the eastern plains, the history of cities like Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs, Greeley or Fort Collins were deliberately shortened in order to concentrate on places that are of more direct interest to the Bureau. The bibliography, however, does represent an extensive literature search that covers most secondary materials available for this region's history as of 1981. Cities that were "glossed over" are also contained in the bibliography.

This history is probably the first time anyone has gathered and reduced the massive amount of literature pertaining to northeastern Colorado to a single volume. While there are undoubtably shortcomings, especially regarding detailed local history, this document provides the reader with a sound overview of nearly one-quarter of Colorado. As always, we have tried to give a readable narrative, while at the same time producing history that can be profitably used by both professionals and the general public.

Frederic J. Athearn
Denver, Colorado

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Last Updated: 20-Nov-2008