The New Empire of the Rockies: A History of Northeast Colorado
BLM Cultural Resources Series (Colorado: No. 16)
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Northeastern Colorado Since 1940

Events of the late 1930s that eventually led to World War II were felt in northeast Colorado by 1939. Hitler's armies were ready to march and Germany's desire for territory increased. In September, 1939 a contrived incident with Poland gave Germany an excuse needed to invade its neighbor and war broke out. While the United States did not join the European conflict, Roosevelt's administration moved toward rearmament. As news of an arms build-up reached northeastern Colorado boosters from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins saw new wealth if the Federal government were to build defense facilities in this region. Denver promoters announced that the city would like to become the "second United States capitol." As events of the 1940s proved, these booster efforts were successful for local Federal presence continued to grow. Yet, even as these changes happened many old ways remained the same in this region.

World War II stimulated the area. In 1939 "boosters" set out to lure the military to the front range. Denver was the big winner in that effort. Arguing that Fitzsimmons Hospital was already here and that the metropolitan complex had an abundance of labor and building sites, the Chamber of Commerce sought new facilities. In 1940, as the United States began to rearm itself, planners expanded national military output. To support the war effort, new factories for arms production were built throughout the nation. Coloradans did not want to be left out and Denver offered the Army every assistance if a plant were located near the "Queen City." The Army Ordinance Department chose lands just west of Denver for an ammunition plant, to be operated by the Remington Arms Company. Construction got underway in 1940 and .30 and .50 caliber cartridges were being made at the facility by 1941. Production continued until late in the war when the Kaiser Company took over the factory to make artillery ammunition. The ordinance plant was only the first of new wartime facilities for northeast Colorado. [1] Others near Denver included Lowry Airfield and Buckley Naval Air Station, not to mention the expansion of Fitzsimmons Hospital. Local promoters convinced the War Department that Colorado offered certain advantages, including good transportation systems, a climate that was excellent for flying and a good place for convalescents. These bases and arms plants stimulated the local construction industry and offered new jobs to residents when the facilities opened. To take full advantage in ending regional unemployment, the Army and its contractors used Colorado natives before "outsiders" were imported. The money brought into northeastern Colorado by military projects did more than anything else to end the Great Depression in this region. [2] Denver was not alone in benefiting; economic good times were enjoyed throughout northeast Colorado. Colorado Springs "boosters," seeing the same opportunities, jumped on the band wagon in 1940. Through gracious displays of hospitality and offers of local assistance, Colorado Springs convinced the U.S. Army to locate a training base near their city. In 1941, after nearly a year of lobbying, construction on Camp Carson began. This site became one of the Army's primary facilities to prepare troops for combat. By war's end the place had produced over 100,000 fighting men. Camp Carson also served as a hospital base and a prisoner-of-war facility. To complement ground facilities, the Army Air Corps also expanded a local airport and renamed it Peterson Field. Like Denver, Colorado Springs discovered that the influx of Federal money pulled the city out of the Depression. [3]

In addition to purely military spending in northeast Colorado, other industries also benefited from the war, particularly after America joined the Allies in December, 1941. Purchases of foodstuffs, fuel and minerals from the region increased earlier, but when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor orders for all sorts of materials were placed in unlimited quantities and at higher prices. Wheat, corn, sugar beets, beef and lamb were all in great demand. Northeastern Colorado's farmers responded by increasing output. In late 1942 the Federal government began price control but farmers were not hurt for their costs also stabilized. The war years were among the most prosperous this region ever had. Also sharing in the new wealth were northeast Colorado's civilian factories and mines. Companies like Western Cutlery of Boulder and various steel fabricators in Denver were awarded contracts and sub-contracts to supply the military. Railroads, trucking companies and airlines had as much business as they could handle. The Federal government loaned money for equipment and facilities to insure the smooth movement of goods and people. Oil producers, some local coal mines, and cement factories were also included in the new "boom." By 1944 the entire region had achieved prosperity, but at the same time worried about what would happen once peace returned. [4] Japan surrendered in September, 1945 and after the victory celebrations ended, northeast Colorado prepared for a return to the Great Depression. But this never happened. Among those most fearful were farmers. Both ranchers and farmers thought that once their protected markets were no longer available they would have to find new ways to stay in business.

In irrigated areas the need for a dependable cash crop was still present. Sugar beets remained important to growers during post war years, but as new corn sweeteners were developed, sugar beet was far less in demand. In the next decade, as the trend away from sugar beets continued, farmers of the South Platte Valley planted different crops. Potatoes and other vegetables experienced new popularity with the region's farms as the 1970s drew to a close. At the same time Great Western Sugar Company was forced to cut back its operations and to diversify.

Other crops that became popular in northeast Colorado were feed grains and hay. Watered pastures proved profitable. Increased output came about for two reasons. First was an expanded amount of land under irrigation due to completion of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. Secondly, a vast increase in the number of deep wells were drilled in areas of previous dryland farms. These water supplies led to decreased pressures on farmers to depend upon one crop. As the trend away from open range ranching to feedlot cattle production gained momentum, farmers found ready markets for their produce. Often the same producers who grew fodder also owned the stock. The line between farmer and ranch rancher became blurred as marginal land once under the plow was returned to range for grazing. [5] Dryland farming that prospered during the war was forced to make adjustments after World War II. Demand for wheat, corn and other agricultural products helped those who survived the Great Depression by giving them money after the war ended. Often drylanders used their capital to drill deep wells and to make other production improvements. The Dust Bowl experience and federal interest in soil conservation fostered development of new techniques that helped increase output while limiting the impacts of drought. In the post war years eastern Colorado dryland areas continued among the nation's top producers of wheat and barley.

Those lands that proved impractical for farming were returned to range as cattle production boomed between 1945 and the 1970s. Northeastern Colorado's livestock industry underwent significant changes during and after World War II. Consumers demanded higher quality meat. By the 1950s the American people no longer bought meat that was tough and unmarbled. This change of taste forced ranchers to give up finishing cattle on the range and to either sell yearlings to feedlot operators or complete finishing themselves. During the 1950s, and into the early 1960s, northeast Colorado became one of this nation's leading producers of feeder cattle. Animals were sent to feedlots from across the country. Another change in area livestock operations was the introduction of new scientific breeding and better nutritional techniques, both of which were designed to lessen the time between birth and slaughter while still producing satisfactory meat. [6]

From 1945 ranching was modernized and prospered with only occasional interruptions. One was the winter of 1948-49 when blizzards paralyzed northeast Colorado and some herds were nearly wiped out. The death and destruction was reminiscent of the 1880s. These snowstorms led to extensive efforts to protect cows from the elements including the use of helicopters to rescue stranded cattle. Fluctuating prices occasionally disturbed prosperity but not until the seventies did the cattle market become so bad as to make ranchers consider reducing herds. Rustling also became a modern day problem. With the expansion of northeast Colorado's highway system, stock rustlers found theft easy. They used trucks to move cattle from pastures and then would be hundreds of miles away before the crime was discovered. An additional problem that farmers could not overcome was the encroachment of cities and suburbs onto farm land and the subsequent political control urban areas exercised over regional affairs. These shifts led to a urban-rural split that has grown deeper during the mid-twentieth century. [7]

While farmers enjoyed prosperity after the Second World War, mining did not due partially well thanks to orders by the War Production Board (WPB) that halted all gold mining. The one exception was the uranium "boom" of the 1950s around Jamestown in Boulder County. American victory was hastened by the use of atomic bombs on Japan. Air raids on Hiroshima and Nagasaki thrust the world into the nuclear age. The secret of the bomb was exclusive until 1949 when the Soviet Union exploded its own. Almost immediately America became concerned about losing its superiority and a weapons race, the "Cold War," ensued. Because of this competition and a fear that foreign supplies of radioactive materials might be interrupted, the Federal government began a system of rewards for the development of domestic uranium. This led prospectors to scour the West with their geiger counters. Deposits were found near Jamestown and a minor rush ensued. The discoveries were relatively small and only a few souls succeeded in uranium mining. By the early 1960s the excitement had ended.

Uranium prospecting during the 1950s became quite a fad in Boulder County. F. W. Stead Photo, Courtesy U.S.G.S.

This decade witnessed new mining activity in Colorado's High Country that occurred when world gold prices skyrocketed. Individuals and small companies reactivated old claims in hope of taking advantage of the new market. Gold's value reached levels to make mining profitable once again, especially after the Federal government removed $35.00 per ounce restrictions. [8] Yet, the most stable mining activities in the region from 1945 were oil, natural gas and stone and gravel operations. Heavy wartime demand for petroleum depleted northeast Colorado's reserves. However, production from new regional wells continues to the present. The future looks bright because of present emphasis on domestic energy needs and intensified drilling programs by major oil companies.

Railroads were another industry that suffered declines during the mid-twentieth century. Yet as the war ended few could foresee the problems that rail carriers would face by 1970. High levels of wartime rail use dropped off, but the roads expected this and in the late 1940s planned to prevent further declines. The first major change came in 1947 when the Denver and Salt Lake, under control of the Denver and Rio Grande Western for more than 10 years, was formally merged into the D&RGW eliminating some waste in operation. The enlarged D&RGW, just out of bankruptcy, looked to the future optimistically. At the same time the D&RGW, and all other railroads that served northeast Colorado, were replacing older steam locomotives with diesels for efficiency and lower costs.

Hand in hand came new streamlined, dome-car equipped passenger trains to attract tourist business. The Rock Island Rocket, the City of Denver, the Denver Zephyr, the California Zephyr, and the Colorado Eagle all served the region into the 1960s. These "rolling palaces" were short-lived, for by the early 1960s railroad companies found themselves losing money. Service was cut back to slow the drain on company revenues. One by one, passenger trains were taken out of service until by 1970 only two or three were left. Responding to this service decline, AMTRAK was established to operate the nation's long distance passenger trains. Because of its regional importance, Denver got a transcontinental from AMTRAK. One rather independent local railroad refused to join this Federal consortium. Until April, 1983, the Denver & Rio Grande Western, opted to maintain its own Denver to Salt Lake City passenger train, the Rio Grande Zephyr; the remains of the once grand California Zephyr. [9]

Changes in rail service to this region came about in large part because of a rapid expansion and improvement of the highway system. Foremost was an interstate network that began in the 1950s under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Federal planners decided the nation needed a system of limited access roads used by civilians but available to the military in times of national emergency. When final routings were announced, three interstates were to cross northeast Colorado with a fourth just a few miles north in Wyoming. They were: I-70, I-25 and I-76 (formerly I-80S), with I-80 in the "Cowboy State". These new roads allowed motorists from back east direct access to this region. The crowning achievement of the Interstate system was construction of the Eisenhower Tunnel through the Continental Divide, under Loveland Pass, allowing quick passage west from Denver.

Even before Interstates were under construction state, federal and private funds were used to upgrade other regional highways. Roads like U.S. 36 (the Boulder-Denver Turnpike) were built. Highways were improved and rebuilt to resemble interstates. In some ways the 50s, 60s and 70s witnessed the culmination of northeast Colorado's "good roads" movement. With fine roads available and the flexibility of trucks, these carriers soon hauled much of the region's commerce. During this same period automobile ownership sky-rocketed the new highways were heavily used both by residents and visitors.

This region's easy access for motorists led to increased tourism. Towns along main highways made efforts to attract vacationers. Some communities like Estes Park became totally dependent on that trade for an economic livelihood. State and local governments, Chambers of Commerce and other boosters exerted much effort to attract visitors to northeast Colorado. In some respects, the Federal government also became indirectly involved. Large numbers of military personnel trained here very often returned after they left the service. Also, programs of the Forest Service and the National Park Service to improve their recreational facilities after World War II encouraged more visitors in this region. [10]

For those who did not travel by car, flying emerged as a real alternative after the war. To encourage aviation Denver voters, in 1947, agreed to expand Stapleton Field. This foresight allowed the "Queen City" to become the air center of the Rocky Mountain West. Both United and Continental Airlines located major facilities for training and repair at Denver and in 1950 this city became headquarters for newly formed Frontier Airlines. Since World War II commercial air travel has boomed in northeast Colorado. During 1970s annual passenger flow through Stapleton was measured in the millions. [11]

Since World War II one of the most significant segments of this region's history has been ever expanding presence of the Federal government. When the war ended, the government was in a quandary about disposal of facilities throughout the nation, like the Remington Arms Plant near Denver. Local organizations went to the War Assets Board and convinced them that the government should retain its buildings and convert them to offices. From this project came the Denver Federal Center. It grew slowly at first, but under President Dwight D. Eisenhower the place became regional headquarters for numerous agencies. Ike was fond of northeast Colorado, having both vacationed and recuperated from a heart attack here. Denver was not alone in lobbying to get Federal dollars. Colorado Springs, after its success with Camp Carson, feared the post would be closed after the war. However, the Army decided to expand the site. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, Carson again actively trained troops. In 1954, a year after the Korean cease-fire was signed, Camp Carson became Fort Carson. 1965 saw the post doubled in size as it became one of the Army's primary training bases. In that same year, a six year campaign by local boosters bore fruit when the United States Air Force announced it would accept Colorado Springs' land offer and locate the new Air Force Academy at the foot of Pike's Peak. The city's role as major center of early warning defense activity was assured during that same decade when the Cheyenne Mountain Early Detection and Response facility was activated in 1951. Originally known as the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) the organization was renamed the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) in 1957 when Canada became a partner. These military activities added hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy each year. [13]

Another city in northeast Colorado that benefited from Federal spending after the second World War was Boulder. This town had not gotten any wartime facilities, but during the 50s and 60s the situation changed. One of the first plants to be located near the city was the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility, south of Boulder. Operated by various agencies and private companies over the years, this highly scientific site started a science trend. Soon other high technology agencies looked to that city as a good place for head quarters. Soon the Boulder was home to NCAR, NSTAR, NOAA, NBS and other Federal bureaus with strange names. Because of the technical atmosphere of this community, private companies also chose the Boulder area for their plants. Among these were International Business Machine (IBM), Storage Technology (STC) and Ball Brothers. While Boulder was the regional center for science, other places also participated in the "science boom". Foremost was Littleton where the Martin Marietta Company chose a site in the foothills to build a factory for aero-space related business. Northeast Colorado has always been intimately involved with America's space program. By the 1960s a large part of the metro area was dependant, to a large degree, on governmental activities for its economic base. [14]

Federal spending in the region was concentrated in the cities, however, outlying areas also benefited. Federal land management agencies like the Forest Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management have all taken steps to encourage use of their lands. The Forest Service, especially, has spent millions to improve range conditions, to foster controlled timbering and to provide recreation. One major step in that direction took place in 1960 when the Secretary of Agriculture formally transferred control of the Pawnee National Grasslands to the Forest Service. Since then the Forest Service has undertaken new programs, some of which focused on watershed protection, to help meet ever-growing demands by northeast Colorado's burgeoning population. [15]

Since the 1940s this region has been one of the fastest growing in the United States. Most increase took place in the cities of northeast Colorado. The nationwide trend toward suburbanization was also felt. As freeways spread, it became easier for people to work in core cities and commute to the suburbs. This trend led, by the 1970s, to urban sprawl and the development of a corridor of heavy settlement along the Front Range from Fort Collins to Pueblo. During the 50s and 60s urban growth was encouraged in Denver and Colorado Springs as a way to ease congestion. By the end of the 1970's officials bemoaned the death of core areas. Revitalization programs in the seventies have helped turn the situation around. [16]

The Fort St. Vrain Nuclear Power Plant is the first and only nuclear electrical generation plant in Colorado. A. E. Turner Photo, Courtesy USGS.

Boulder, Colorado in 1982 represented a "state of the art" community based on strict land use controls. This subdivision is typical of the newer areas in Boulder. Photo by F. J. Athearn.

Rapid growth in northeastern Colorado's cities also caused other problems. Some matters were limited to the Denver metropolitan area but others were shared by nearby communities. These included the collapse of city bus systems, periodic water shortages and city budgets stretched to the limit as service demands increased. Another matter was the inadequacy of older structures in downtown areas. Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA) was created in the 1960s to deal with urban decay and undertook a program of redevelopment and restoration. A few basic problems were solved by the late 1970s, but others, especially water, were left for the future. Water and air pollution were two concerns that impacted the entire region and led to activity to clean up those irreplaceable resources. Often major cities were sources of pollutants, but rural areas suffered. The 1970s witnessed strides at air and water quality improvement, yet Denver remains a city with the worst air in the nation. [17] During the late 60s and into the early 70s large numbers of Americans embraced an "environmental movement". They not only sought to improve local air and water quality but also to protect "virgin" areas of northeast Colorado from further damage at the hands of man. The mountains, in particular, attracted attention because with rapid growth, after 1945, thousands of visitors used the high country for all forms of recreation. Often on summer weekends, it was impossible to find a picnic spot as literally tens of thousands flocked to the hills. During the 1970s, under pressure from environmentalists, government at all levels made new strides at controlling users and upgrading facilities. Only the future will hold the answer as to how effective these efforts to preserve the natural quality of northeast Colorado will be. [18]

Another new force that made itself felt throughout the region during the 60s and 70s was the new assertiveness of various minority groups. This was part of a nationwide trend begun before World War II and that accelerated rapidly during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Four specific groups in the region benefited from these new laws, while starting a search for their own separate identities. Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and women all participated in the process of their heritage search. During the past two decades strides were made to integrate them into the community. Often programs such as mandatory school busing and bi-lingual education met with opposition from Anglo members of the community. This led to social tensions, but adjustments were made. As with all movements, only future generations can evaluate how well or poorly these programs accomplished their goals. [19]

Northeast Colorado became a "safety valve" for the nation during the 60s and 70s. As the "youth movement" took place, young people sought a place to "drop out". They chose the mountains around Nederland, west of Boulder. Communes and other modern living arrangements were established and Boulder County gained a reputation as "the place to go." When the movement ended during the early 1970s, the county continued its reputation as a "hip" place. Now the young were replaced by the slightly older and far more affluent. Boulder, by 1983, developed into a center of "social awareness," with modernity like the Pearl Street Mall, a city-sponsored semi-nude beach, and Mork's house. This was far cry from the assortment of cabins, and tents that was Boulder City a hundred and twenty years earlier. [20]

The history of northeastern Colorado since pre-historic times, and especially in the past century and a quarter, was dictated by nature. The region's resources acted as a lure, attracting settlers, but without "pushes" from other parts of the United States, few would have ever crossed the plains. From the earliest Spanish explorers, northeast Colorado's history was dominated by this "push-pull" force. Perhaps the best example was the gold rush of 1859. Gold deposits were well known before 1859, but only by then were enough men feeling a "push," to risk new settlements in the Rockies. The region's past was also one of inter-action with forces outside the area. Events in northeast Colorado have always been part of a greater integration with national events. While it often appears as if man has overcome his surroundings, nature still prevails. This was proven again on the night of July 31, 1976, only a few hours before Colorado's one hundredth birthday, when a flash flood obliterated the works of man and killed over a hundred people in the Big Thompson Canyon. [21]

Chapter XII: Notes

1Lyle W. Dorsett, The Queen City, A History of Denver, (Boulder: Pruett, 1977), pp. 220-221, hereafter cited: Dorsett, Queen, and Steven F. Mehls, "A History of the Denver Federal Archives and Records Center," (M.A. Thesis, University of Colorado, 1975), pp. 19-35, hereafter cited: Mehls, "FARC."

2Robert G. Athearn, The Coloradans, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976), pp. 296-299, hereafter cited: Athearn, Coloradans, and Porsett, Queen, pp. 220-239.

3Marshall Sprague, One Hundred Plus, A Centennial Story of Colorado Springs, (Colorado Springs: Colorado Springs Centennial, Inc., 1971), pp. 52-5?, hereafter cited: Sprague, 100+, and No Author, Fort Carson: A Tradition of Victory, (Ft. Carson, Co.: Public Affairs and Information Office, 1972), pp. 8-12, hereafter cited: No Author, Ft. Carson.

4James F. Wickens, "Colorado in the Great Depression: A Study of New Deal Policies at the State Level," (Ph. D. dissertation, University of Denver, 1964), pp. 280-281 and 376-377, hereafter cited: Wickens, "New Deal", and Athearn; Coloradans, pp. 295-310.

5David A Henderson, "The Beef Cattle Industry of Colorado," (M.A. Thesis, University of Colorado, 1951), pp. 165-171, hereafter cited: Henderson, "Beef", and Athearn, Coloradans, pp. 195-296.

6Henderson, "Beef," pp. 1-16, 44-50, 174-179.

7Ibid., pp. 135-160.

8Nore V. Winter, James S. Kane, Ellen Beasley, Kathy London and Liston E. Leyendecker, "Level I Historic Cultural Resource Survey of Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland," (Lakewood, Co.: United States Forest Service, n.d.), n.p., hereafter cited: USFS, "Level I."

9See: Karl Zimmerman, CZ—The Story of the California Zephyr, (Oradell, Ca.: Delford Press, 1972), and Robert G. Athearn, Rebel of the Rockies, A History of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), pp. 328-337.

10Sprague, 100+, pp. 62-63; Athearn, Coloradans, pp. 288-289, 352-353; USFS, "Level I," n.p. and Henderson, "Beef," pp. 216-219.

11See: H. Lee Scamehorn, "The Air Transport Industry in Colorado," in: A Colorado Reader, Carl Ubbelohde, [ed], (Boulder: Pruett, 1962), and Athearn, Coloradans, pp. 303-304.

12Sprague, 100+, pp. 62-63; Dorsett, Queen, pp. 220-223 and 260-261, and Mehls, "FARC," pp. 36-38.

13Sprague 100+, pp. 60-64, 77-78, and No Author, Ft. Carson, pp. 6-10.

14Athearn, Coloradans, pp. 320-322, and Dorsett, Queen, pp. 261-262.

15USFS, "Level I," n.p.

16Athearn, Coloradans, pp. 258, 305, 321-322, and Dorsett, Queen, pp. 260-263.

17USFS, "Level I," n.p.; Athearn, Coloradans, pp. 305-315, and Dorsett, Queen, pp. 260-288.

18Athearn, Coloradans, pp. 258-270, and USFS, "Level I," n.p.

19Dorsett, Queen, pp. 280-288, and Athearn, Coloradans, pp. 337-340.

20USFS, "Level I," n.p.

21See: David McComb, Big Thompson: Profile of a Natural Disaster, (Boulder: Pruett, 1980).

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Last Updated: 20-Nov-2008