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Denver ca 1905


August 28, 2015 by Pamela Nowak

In 1900, Denver’s population was 133,859; by 1910, it would increase to 213,381. It was a city of telephones, railroads, streetcars, electric lighting, and amusement parks. In 1905/06, when Escaping Yesterday is set, Mayor Robert Speer was in his first term and already making strides toward improving streets to accommodate the growing number of automobiles in the city. Social clubs, athletics, retail areas, churches, and schools were plentiful. A well-established police force and fire department maintained public safety. It was a city of promise.

Telephone and electricity came early to Denver. The first telephone switchboard opened October 24, 1879, just one year after the very first switchboard in the U.S. It served 161 phones. By the turn of the century, the number of subscribers grew to 4560 and would increase to 58,067 by 1920. Local electric lighting debuted on April 21, 1880 and was soon being used throughout the city.

Electricity was quickly put to use for streetcars. The Denver Horse Railroad Company, which was founded in 1871, began to replace its trolleys with electric cable cars and other companies joined in. In 1900, the various horse, cable, and electric railway companies merged into the Denver City Tramway Company, operating 160 route miles in Denver and its suburbs. The DTC Powerhouse was built on the banks of the Platte River in 1901.

The original streets in Denver were laid in a grid pattern parallel to the Cherry Creek and South Platte River confluence which ran diagonally to the north-south, east-west grid of later streets. By the turn of the century, all were in need of attention, many becoming jammed with cars and trucks. From 1904 through 1912, Mayor Speer instituted many road improvements, including many miles of paving, construction of new bridges, and the 20th Street viaduct, and a parkway along Cherry Creek (Speer Avenue). Automobile permitting began in 1906.

As early as 1866, Denver its first jail. In 1891, a large stone Arapahoe County Jail facility was constructed at Santa Fe, Colfax, 14th Street, and Kalamath. It accommodated 350 prisoners and replaced the scattered smaller jails. The Denver Police Department began using horse-drawn patrol wagons in 1886. Downtown, numerous small round booths (kiosks) were located on street corners and used to lock up prisoners until they could be transported to the police station—some could hold three men. By the turn of the century, they were smaller and known as “drunk tanks.”

A volunteer fire department was organized in Denver’s early days with a Chief Engineer appointed in 1872. In 1881, the fire department became professional and soon purchased a steam pumper. Denver’s fire equipment, unlike that of most cities, is painted white rather than the traditional red. By 1900, the city had 107 firemen and twelve fire stations.

Denver was home to a variety of businesses. Millers, meat packers, brewers, bakers, and brick makers did well. In 1899, the city had a flourishing cigar industry, producing 8 million cigars that year.

Turn of the century retail businesses included the A. Jacobs & Co. clothing store and the A.T. Lewis & Son Dry Goods Co. (located on 16th and Stout in 1901). Joslin’s opened in 1873 and moved to 16th and Curtis in 1889, remaining a Denver icon for years. The May D&F operated at 15th and Larimer until 1906 then moved to 16th and Champa and delivered via horse and wagon before purchasing its first delivery truck in 1900. Another department store was the Golden Eagle, located at 16th and Lawrence, was also known for its fleet of delivery trucks. Denver Dry Goods Company constructed a new six floor building at 15th and California in 1905. Daniels and Fisher began business in 1864 (as Daniels and Eckert) and grew as the city did. Daniels became solo owner in 1897 and built a new store at 16th and Arapahoe in 1918 with a high tower modeled on the Campanile in Venice.

A number of hotels competed for business from the 1880s forward. The grand Brown Palace opened in 1892 and soon became the place to stay in Denver. In 1903, the Shirley and the Savoy were built back to back on the corners of Broadway and 17th and Lincoln and 17th; they were combined in 1919 and razed in the 1970s. Restaurants and saloons of the time included the Scandinavian Saloon on Blake Street, the Tivoli-Union Brewery (1901) in Auraria.

Other landmarks included the Mining Exchange Building (1891) at 15th and Arapahoe, the California Building (1892) at 17th and California, the Masonic Building (1890) at 16th and Welton, and the seven story Kittredge Building on 16th Street.

Recreational activities included theatres and bowling lanes. And, of course, there were the houses of prostitution along Market Street between 19th and 21st, known as The Row. Soapy Smith’s gambling house on Larimer Street offered faro tables.

Hospitals were plentiful. The Denver General Hospital, built in 1874, served the indigent, treating 189 during its first year of operation. At first, it doubled as a poorhouse; after 1884, the poor were sent to the Arapahoe County Poor Farm. In 1901, an insane asylum was added to the hospital. Private hospitals included St. Joseph’s (1873), St. Anthony’s (1891), St. Luke’s (1881) which also set aside beds for the poor. In 1895, women pushed the state to fund an orphanage to ease overcrowding at the St. Vincent Catholic Orphanage which housed almost 1500 children in 1893.

Though difficult, women did make roles for themselves in traditionally make fields by 1900. Mary Lathrop, a journalist, became Denver’s first female attorney in 1896 and was the first woman admitted to the American Bar Association (1918). The Denver Medical Association began admitting women in the 1880s and the 1900 census listed more than 100 female physicians—17 percent of Denver’s total. In 1902, Julia Ford became Denver’s first black female physician. Teaching employed 1027 women in Denver in 1900, 80 percent of the city’s educators.

During the 1870s and 80s, Denver began to foster a variety of clubs and social organizations. The Denver Athletic Club was founded by several Denver businessmen (including John Elitch) in 1884. A Society of Colorado Pioneers was formed with membership limited to those who had settled in the state before 1861. The Colorado State Historical Society was founded in 1879. The Denver Club opened as a private men’s club in 1880. The Denver Country Club was formed in 1901, the city’s second golf course.

Women were not left behind. The Colorado Equal Suffrage Association was founded in 1890 with six members. Other clubs included the Denver Cooking Club founded in 1884 and the Denver Woman’s Club in 1894 with 200 charter members led by Elizabeth Byers and Margaret Evans. Mary Elitch Long was a lifetime member. The DWC fostered gardens to feed the poor, created the State Home for Dependent Children (1895) and pushed for civil service reform in 1899. There were also the Fortnightly and Monday clubs, the Artists Club, the Ladies Union Aid Society, the Ladies Relief Society, the Hebrew Ladies Relief Society, and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Recreational activities around the turn for the century were greatly varied with swimming, sparring, fencing, bicycling, billiards, and even a Turkish Baths. The first bicycle in Denver was sold in 1879 but only in the late 1890s did bicycling became a craze with clubs organizing day trips into the mountains and cycling within the city.

Recreation among the wealthy had its own flavor. Some upper crust clubs excluded certain groups. The prestigious Denver club barred Jewish and Catholic members—even Mollie Brown was refused. Many wealthy families spent only part of the year in Denver, spending huge amounts of money on mansions during the 1880s, each one outdoing those that were there. A Denver Blue Book was first published in 1892, listing members of dozens of clubs and offering social guidance such as tips on reading foreign terms on menus.

The Denver Zoo was established in 1896 and numerous parks built during Mayor Speer’s term with tennis courts, playgrounds, pony tracks, and other public areas. City Park hosted an encampment of Native Americans in 1900. Three amusement parks served the city.


Next week, I’ll explore the Denver Zoo in more detail. 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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