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Early Denver…a Brief Summary


August 7, 2015 by Pamela Nowak

Gold was discovered in the area of present day Englewood in 1858 and in the mountains west of current Denver. Prospectors and other fortune seekers followed. Hundreds tried their luck along the South Platte River and Cherry Creek but the gold there never amounted to much. Several mining settlements: Montana City, Auraria, Highland, and St. Charles were left. General William Larimer took over the St. Charles mining claim across the creek from Auraria in late 1858 and renamed it Denver. The group of settlements soon grew to 150 structures.

The small deposits of gold that discovered near Denver soon played out and the settlement was in jeopardy of failing. Seeing the need for a central trading hub to support the gold camps to the west, Denverites focused on building businesses to support miners’ needs. In 1859, Denver donated 53 lots to the Leavenworth and Pike’s Peak Express and secured the route of the region’s first overland wagon route. Within the year, the combined size of Denver and Auraria doubled. The cities of Auraria, Highland and Denver officially combined into Denver City on November 7, 1861.

The1860s were not kind to Denver. At first, buildings in Denver City were wooden and fire was common. Although a volunteer fire department was organized in 1862, firefighting supplies were delayed. When a fire broke out in the center of the city on April 19, 1863, high winds fostered its spread and locals were unable to contain it. Losses totaled over $250,000. New laws were enacted to prohibit wood construction and brick buildings formed the rebuilt city. Then, on May 19, 1864, flooding occurred when spring melts overflowed Cherry Creek’s banks. Many homes and businesses were destroyed, livestock killed, and eight residents drowned. Losses netted $350,000 this time. Still, rebuilding began immediately. Attacks on supply trains and grasshopper swarms in 1865 further impacted the economy of the city. Population decreased from 4,749 in 1860 to 3,500 six years later. Still, population recovered by the end of the decade and city leaders looked to the transcontinental railroad as the future.

When the Union Pacific Railroad chose to pass through Cheyenne rather than Denver, it was thought Denver would soon dry up. But Colorado Territorial Governor John Evans was determined it would be otherwise. Evans and a collection of local and Eastern investors formed the Denver Pacific Railway and Telegraph Company and made plans to connect Denver with Cheyenne. Their goal was to keep Denver active as transportation and supply center. The strategy worked and a new rail line soon connected the Kansas Pacific line with the Union Pacific with Denver as the hub. Denver was soon the site of multiple railroad depots bringing goods for the Rocky Mountain area and tourists as well. Population increased to 35,000 by 1880.

At the same time, silver was discovered in the Rockies, first near Georgetown, Central City, and Idaho Springs in the 1860s, then near Leadville in 1874; all of it flowing through Denver. To the north and east was farmland with its products shipping through the city. Manufacturing, trade, food processing, and service industries grew. Millionaires reaping wealth from silver mines settled in Denver for its culture and transportation connections. By 1890, Denver was the fifth largest city west of the Mississippi. Denver was home to saloons and gambling dens as well as the theatres and opera houses. The Tabor Grand Opera House was built in 1881, as was Union Station. Brown’s Palace Hotel (1882) and the Colorado State Capitol (1894) further enhanced Denver’s image.

Home to wealth, Denver soon saw corruption as well. City officials and the underworld worked together in the 1880s and 1890s. Gambling houses were common and prostitution flourished along “the Row” of Market Street, including the fancy establishments of Mattie Silks and Jenny Rogers.

But Denver also made many contributions to American life. Suffrage was early, campaigned for heavily in 1876 when Denver became a state and finally approved in 1893. Progressivism had a firm hold in the city. Today’s United Way had its roots here as well, beginning in 1887 as the Charity Organization Society. Thousands traveled through Denver in the late nineteenth century en route to tuberculosis sanatoriums.

The Panic of 1893, and the collapse of the silver boom, hit Denver hard. Banks closed and unemployment rose. Regionally, miners went on strike and silver prices dropped further. The miners flooded into Denver, seeking work, and the city was further burdened. The population then dropped as people sought work elsewhere—from 106,000 in 1890 to 90,000 in 1895!

Denver was given a new municipal charter in 1893 which decentralized the mayor’s power. The new charter allowed the governor to appoint some of Denver’s city officials. In 1894, Governor Waite removed Denver’s police and fire commissioners in an attempt to overturn rising corruption. But when the commissioners barricaded themselves in City Hall, the state militia was called in to remove them and Federal troops were brought in to control the resulting civil unrest. The years that followed were filled with political discontent. Finally, in 1902, an amendment was passed to allow Denver to become a consolidated city-county, ending most of the problems.

The economy also recovered, especially between 1897 and 1900, with agriculture and its related industries boosting Denver’s survival during the roughest years. The city emerged into the twentieth century with a population of 133,000 (though much of the gain came via annexation of neighboring towns).


Next week, I’ll revisit the topic of incest recovery. Each Friday, I will blog about some aspect of Elitch Gardens, early Denver, or other topics related to my next novel, Escaping Yesterday. In between, I will post small factoids on my Facebook page. You can join me there and I love new friends (

Due for release in September 2015, Escaping Yesterday is set in Elitch’s Gardens, in 1905, and follows the story of Lottie Chase. Lottie is willing to take any risk to save her daughter from their abusive uncle. Stranded in Denver, Lottie meets Caleb Hudson, manager at Elitch’s Gardens amusement park, who sees her as a manipulative huckster. Caleb, a veteran suffering from PTSD, craves the tranquility of the park’s gardens. Lottie brings anything but peace as she seeks to convince the owners to add thrill rides so she can collect the sales commission and support her daughter. Neither anticipates their growing passion, common demons, or the dangers they will face as they confront their pasts and free their love.

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