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In the summer of 1858, a small group of prospectors from Georgia crossed the great plains of the Colorado Territory and made a region-changing discovery at the base of the Rocky Mountains. Gold. And although not much of the precious metal was found, the mere whisper of the word was enough to start a veritable stampede into the region. After all, the California Gold Rush had occurred just nine years earlier.
It wasn't long before tents, tepees, wagons, lean-tos, and crudely constructed log cabins lined the banks of the South Platte River as prospectors and fortune-seekers poured into the area. They came from all over the country, traveling on foot, in covered wagons, by horseback, and even pushing their belongings in wheelbarrows. Pikes Peak, a 14,000-foot mountain to the south of the mining camp served as both a landmark and a rallying cry for weary travelers. The "Pikes Peak or Bust!" gold rush was in full force.
However, gold wasn't the only way to strike it rich in the boomtown that was springing up on the banks of the South Platte. Those who arrived early enough could simply stake out a claim of land, lay out city streets, and then sell the lots to those arriving after them. General William H. Larimer didn't arrive early but followed the plan perfectly. He claim-jumped the land on the eastern side of Cherry Creek, laid out a city and, in hopes of gaining political favor, named the city after Kansas Territorial governor James Denver. What he didn't know was that Denver had already resigned.
A great fire burned much of Denver's business district to the ground in 1863. The following year, a flash flood swept down Cherry Creek, killing 20 people and causing a million dollars in damage. And shortly after that, an Indian war broke out, cutting stage stations and supply lines and leaving Denver with just six weeks of food.
The early hardships only solidified the resolve of Denver's citizens and made them more determined to not just survive but to thrive. When the Union Pacific Railroad bypassed Colorado on its transcontinental route, Denverites raised $300,000 and built their own railroad to meet the Union Pacific in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Soon after, the Kansas Pacific Railroad crossed the plains to Denver and, when a major silver strike was hit in Leadville, Denver was a boomtown once again.
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more knowledgeable about Denver than historian Tom Noel. Nicknamed “Dr. Colorado,” Tom has written the definitive book about The Mile High City, Denver: Mining Camp to Metropolis (Univ. Press of Colorado, 1990, with Stephen J. Leonard), along with several other works covering Colorado’s long and rich history.
A former chair of the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission and current National Register reviewer for Colorado, not to mention a professor of history at the University of Colorado at Denver, Dr. Noel is the perfect person to talk to about Denver’s early years.
VISIT DENVER: As a historian, why is Denver a fascinating place for you?
Tom Noel: Denver is such an unlikely place for a city to be. It began as a little town in the middle of nowhere, with no obvious reason to be there. Travel writer Rose Kingsley wrote of Denver in its early stages: "It was as if the angels were carrying a city to a proper place and accidentally dropped it here." Denver was not a sure thing - it easily could have died just like so many cities in Colorado. Colorado has more ghost towns today than "live" towns. Colorado has about 500 ghost towns.
VISIT DENVER: So why did the city survive and thrive, when others like it became ghost towns?
Tom Noel: The difference was the people involved - the human beings who worked to keep the town alive. There were a lot of ambitious people who laid the groundwork for the Denver of today. William Byers founded the Rocky Mountain News in 1859. Byers was a tireless promoter of the city. In the early days, he even called Denver a "steamboat port"! People back east didn't know any better, and probably thought Denver would be the next St. Louis. Byers was also instrumental in getting the railroad to Denver, without which the city would have never survived - connecting Denver to Cheyenne and the Transcontinental Railroad was a 106-mile lifeline. John Evans, a territorial governor, was the key builder behind railroads, churches and the University of Denver. Another key figure was General William Larimer, Jr., who named the city he founded on Nov. 22nd, 1858, for James W. Denver, governor of Kansas Territory, to help ensure that it would be chosen as the county seat of what was then Arapaho County, Kansas Territory. At the time that he decided to do that, James W. Denver was no longer governor, so that didn't make a difference. News traveled much slower back then.
VISIT DENVER: Can you paint us a picture of what Denver was like at the time? Was it anything close to how we imagine a "wild west" town to be?
Tom Noel: Denver was a pretty bleak, wild west-looking settlement early on. It was filled with a lot of shacks and shanties and log cabins -- and teepees, too, where the Arapaho tribe, led by Chief Little Raven lived. Little Raven had welcomed the "palefaces" to share his camp at the confluence of Cherry Creek and South Platte River. He lived to regret his generosity six years later at the Sand Creek Massacre. At Sand Creek, white settlers killed more than 160 Arapaho and Cheyenne, primarily old men, women and children. Denver consisted of many shady characters, who editor Byers called "bummers." Gamblers, prostitutes, and saloonkeepers all arrived in Denver in order to "mine" the miners. Denver was a rough-and-tumble place then and it certainly did not lack for saloons from the very beginning.
VISIT DENVER: Is it true that the city was founded over a barrel of whiskey?
Tom Noel: Indeed, Denver City was founded on the St. Charles Town Claim. Larimer and the Denver City crowd "persuaded" a St. Charles Town Co. representative with a barrel of whiskey -- and a threat of a hanging -- to surrender his claim to that of Denver City. The St. Charles Town Representative agreed.