A Brief History of Denver, CO, The Mile High City

Gold In There Hills…

In the 1800s the great gold rush attracted many people to seek their fortune out west, leading many to the base of the Rocky Mountains. It was in this migration that Denver was founded as a mining town in 1858 after Sam Bates and Green Russell struck gold earlier that summer in the area. At the time Denver was part of the Kansas Territory and the original name of what would later become downtown Denver was Montana City right on the South Platte River. Yes, that is right, the original name was essentially Montana, Kansas!

Many other small towns would also be founded nearby as close to 100,000 people traveled to the city in what would become known as the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush. The name would later be changed to Denver after the governor of the Kansas territory James W. Denver. The name change was an attempt to get the governor to name the city as the center of governance for the county. Ironically, governor Denver resigned from office before the decision was made. But they received the county seat designation anyway.

Moving On From Gold

However the local gold mines did not last long, leading to a rapid transition to a supply and support town serving many other mining operations scattered around the area. The city would have become a typical western ghost town if the resources of the new mining colonies to the west had more resources in their area.

Early on area around Denver was rather isolated as it was far away from the major trade routes. In fact some referred to the expanse separating Denver to the east as the “Great American Desert.” The Leavenworth and Pike’s Peak express became the first major overland routes established shortly after the foundation of the city in 1859.

Denver Colorado Skyline

A Rough Decade in the 1860s

As the officials of eastern Kansas to the east of the continental divide had their focus on the early politics leading up to the Civil War, people in the western half of the territory supported the idea of carving out another territory so they could manage their own affairs. Thus on October 24, 1859 an election was held to appoint leaders to the brand new Territory of Jefferson. The first governor Robert Williamson Steele was a Democrat who was highly critical of Abraham Lincoln. That combined with the events surrounding the lead up to the Civil War would have impeded the recognition of the territory by the federal government. However in a lame duck session President Buchanan recognized the new Territory of Colorado before Lincoln took office and the Civil War got under way. President Lincoln appointed William Gilpin as the governor and Steele dissolved the Territory of Jefferson standing behind the federally recognized territory and governance structure.

Soon after the new territorial government was convened Denver was combined with the cities of Auraria and Highland to create the larger Denver City. Since most of the people from the city were from the North, the city took the side of the Union in the Civil War, which drove off a lot of Southerners from the city. Coinciding with the falloff of gold reserves, the growth of the city stalled for a time. This was made worse by a great fire that occurred on April 19, 1863. And if that were not enough, glacial melts and strong rains caused a great flood the year after that on May 19, 1864. It would be the first of many great floods that would affect the city over the next century until the Cherry Creek Damn was built in the 1950s.

Finally a grasshopper infestation hit the area hard in 1865 along with a spate of robberies on important supply trains. By 1868 much of the city had left, crashing the population down to about 3500 souls.

The City Rebounds and Becomes Capital Of A New State

After the Civil War, the country could think about building and expanding again. Transportation was a big problem for people in the Denver area as it was rather isolated from the mail rail lines across the country. In 1867 a group of investors made up plans for the Denver Pacific Railway and Telegraph Company to connect the city with the other major rail routes. This line was competing with another from Golden, Colorado, but was aided with funds from the federal government to subsidize the linking of the Wyoming Union Pacific Line with the Kansas Pacific Line to the east.

The line to Cheyenne Wyoming was completed in 1870 after about two years of construction, and months later the linkage to the Kansas Line was complete. At his point Denver became a vital hub linking rail traffic across the country, setting the catalyst for the rapid growth of the city.  Soon after Colorado would become a state and Denver its capital partly as a result of its status as a transportation hub, while the Golden line was not completed until 1877.

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