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The Denver area, part of the Territory of Kansas, was sparsely settled until the late 1850s. Occasional parties of prospectors came looking for gold, then moved on. In July 1858, Green Russell and Sam Bates found a small placer deposit near the mouth of Little Dry Creek (in the present-day suburb of Englewood) that yielded about 20 troy ounces (622 grams) of gold, the first significant gold discovery in the Rocky Mountain region. News spread rapidly and by autumn hundreds of men were working the along the South Platte River. By spring 1859, tens of thousands of gold seekers arrived and the Pike's Peak Gold Rush was under way. In the following two years, about 100,000 gold seekers flocked to the region.
In the summer of 1858 a group from Lawrence, Kansas, arrived and established Montana City on the banks of the South Platte River (modern-day Grant-Frontier Park). This was the first settlement in what would become the Denver Metropolitan Area. The site faded quickly due to poor findings by miners and most of the settlers and some structures moved north to the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek and formed a new settlement named St. Charles. The location was accessible to existing trails and had previously been the site of seasonal encampments of the Cheyenne and Arapaho.
In October of 1858, five weeks after the founding of St. Charles, the town of Auraria was founded by William Greeneberry Russell and party of fellow settlers from Georgia on the south side of Cherry Creek. The town, named for the gold mining settlement of Auraria, Georgia, was formed in response to the high cost of land in St. Charles and gave away lots to anyone willing to build and live there. A post office was opened in Auraria in January 1859 serving the 50 cabins that had already been constructed.
A short time later a third town, called Highland, was founded on the west side of the South Platte River. Surrounded by steep bluffs and separated from the other two settlements by the river, it was slow to develop.
In November 1858, General William Larimer, a land speculator from eastern Kansas, placed logs to stake a square-mile claim on the site of the St. Charles claim, across the creek from the existing mining settlement of Auraria. The majority of the settlers in St. Charles had returned to Kansas for the winter and left only a small number of people behind to guard their claim. Larimer and his followers gave the representatives whiskey, promises, and threats and the St. Charles claim was surrendered.
The name of the site was changed to "Denver City" after Kansas Territorial Governor James W. Denver, in an attempt to ensure that the city would become the county seat of then Arapaho County, Kansas. Ironically, when Larimer named the city after Denver to curry favor with him, Denver had already resigned as governor and no longer had say in naming the capitol.
Denver at first was a mining settlement, where gold prospectors panned gold from the sands of nearby Cherry Creek and the South Platte River. Larimer, along with associates in the Denver City Land Company, laid out the roads parallel to the creek and sold parcels in the town to merchants and miners, with the intention of creating a major city that would cater to new immigrants. In the early years, land parcels were often traded for grubstakes or gambled away by miners in Auraria. But the prospectors discovered that the gold deposits in these streams were discouragingly poor and quickly exhausted. When rich gold deposits where discovered in the mountains west of Denver in early 1859 it appeared that Denver City might become a ghost town as prospectors left for more lucrative claims. But once the gold rush began there was a great need for materials that couldn't be produced locally which assured Denver's future as a supply hub for the new mines.
Before the gold rush, trading was sparse in the Denver area. Early expeditions into the area, such as the Pike and Long expeditions, had returned east referring to the plains as the "Great American Desert" which deterred immigration. Despite this, frontier posts and forts existed and traded with the natives and frontiersmen. However the closest major trading routes, the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails, didn't come with in a hundred miles of the Denver area. Until a permanent trading route was established the locals had to make due with what little extra new immigrants brought with them.
Auraria and Denver began to compete for businesses that could cater to the new immigrants and for domination of the area. Auraria began to take an early lead with the first saloon, smithery, and carpentry shop. But in May 1859, Denver City donated 53 lots to the Leavenworth and Pike’s Peak Express in order to secure the region’s first overland wagon route. Offering daily service for “passengers, mail, freight, and gold,” the Express reached Denver on a trail that trimmed westward travel time to as few as six days. With supplies being delivered to the Denver side of Cherry Creek, businesses began to move there as well. By June Auraria had 250 buildings compared to Denver's 150 buildings, and both cities were growing quickly. With this growth came a need for a wider government.
Denver, Auraria and the land east to the Continental Divide were part of Arapahoe County which encompassed the entire western portion of the Kansas Territory. At the creation of Arapahoe County in 1855 it was occupied primarily by Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians with only a few white settlers, and thus the county was never organized. With no county government and the leaders of the Kansas Territory preoccupied with the violent events of Bleeding Kansas, little time or attention was given to those in Arapahoe County even by the United States Congress who were preoccupied with threats of secession by the slave states. In addition the mine fields were beginning to move beyond the borders of the Kansas Territory and because of their importance and ties to mining activity closer to Denver, calls began for a new territory or state.
On October 24, 1859, an election was held to form a provisional government for the goldfields and the formation of the Provisional Government of the Territory of Jefferson was approved. The elected Governor of the Territory of Jefferson, Robert Williamson Steele, opened the first session of the Jefferson Territorial Legislature in Denver City on November 7, 1859. The Congress, embroiled in the debate over slavery, failed to consider the new territory. The election of Abraham Lincoln for the President of the United States eliminated any chance for federal endorsement of the Territory of Jefferson and any role in government for Governor Steele, a staunch pro-Union Democrat and vocal opponent of Lincoln and the Republican Party.
Seeking to augment the political power of the free states, the Republican led congress hurriedly admitted the portion of the Territory of Kansas east of the 25th meridian west from Washington to the Union as the free State of Kansas on January 29, 1861. Kansas statehood left the western portion of the now defunct Kansas Territory, which the Jefferson Territory also claimed, officially unorganized.
On February 28, 1861, outgoing U.S. President James Buchanan signed an Act of Congress organizing the free Territory of Colorado. President Abraham Lincoln appointed William Gilpin of Missouri the first Governor of the Territory of Colorado and he arrived in Denver City on May 29, 1861. On June 6, 1861, Governor Steele issued a proclamation declaring the Territory of Jefferson disbanded and urging all employees and residents to abide by the laws governing the United States.
The Colorado General Assembly first met on September 9, 1861 and created 17 counties for the territory on November 1, 1861, including a new Arapahoe County with Denver City as its seat. The legislature approved the reincorporation of the cities of Denver, Auraria, and Highland as Denver City on November 7, 1861 in order to better administer the quickly growing cities.
Denver City served as the Arapahoe County Seat from 1861 until it became its own county in 1902. In 1865, Denver City became the Territorial Capital. With its new-found importance, Denver City shortened its name to just Denver. On August 1, 1876, Denver became the temporary state capital when Colorado was admitted to the Union, and a statewide vote in 1881 made Denver the permanent state capital.
Prior to 1861, Denver was technically part of Arapahoe County, Kansas but because the county was never organized there was a lack of government services that resulted in vendettas and vigilantism, but also entrepreneurialism. William Hepworth Dixon, an English traveler, once noted of Denver, "a man's life is of no more worth than a dog's" but that in its people he saw "perseverance, generosity, [and] enterprise." After Colorado became a territory courts were set up, judges were appointed, and laws were created but mob justice was still common.
The same year that Colorado became a territory, the American Civil War broke out and Colorado was not spared. Most Denverites were from the North and their support for the Union drove many Southerners from town, including Denver's first mayor John C. Moore. William Gilpin, Colorado's first territorial governor, organized Colorado's volunteer militia, and sent them south in February 1862 to fight Confederate Texans at the Battle of Glorieta Pass. With resources tied up in the war there was little left over for mines, farms, and infrastructure and Denver stagnated.
Though Denver surpassed most other cities in Colorado at the time and was transforming itself, it was still considered a frontier town. Churches, lacking permanent facilities, often held their services in public halls or saloons and children attended pay schools led by teachers of questionable ability. Gold mining declined as miners exhausted the shallow parts of the veins that contained free gold, and found that their amalgamation mills could not recover gold from the deeper sulfide ores. Many people left Colorado, and often those that stayed lacked continuous work during the economic slump, spending their time drinking and getting into fights.
Denver's early wooden buildings were extremely flammable and on July 15, 1862 citizens organized a volunteer Fire Department. Unfortunately, almost a year later, carts and buckets were still on order, and firemen were untrained and untried. On April 19, 1863, a fire broke out in the center of downtown Denver. High winds fed the sparks and, in a few hours, a great majority of the wooden buildings in the heart of Denver had been destroyed. Losses totaled over $250,000, and although the buildings themselves were of minimal value, the loss of inventory devastated many new businesses. As a result of the fire, new laws were passed to prohibit using wood and other flammable materials to construct downtown buildings. Denver's new buildings were built with brick, often larger than the original. As the rebuilding progressed, Denver began to look like a town rather than a temporary campground.
On May 19, 1864, just over a year after the fire, the spring melt combined with heavy rains caused severe flooding on Cherry Creek. The flooding severely affected the low-lying Auraria, destroying the Rocky Mountain News building, the Methodist Church, City Hall, and numerous offices, warehouses, and outbuildings. Eight Denver residents had been killed, and enormous number of livestock had been drowned. Financial losses totaled approximately $350,000 and left many homeless. The water was badly contaminated and threatened a major epidemic. Despite these overwhelming losses, rebuilding began almost immediately. Ignoring the risk, many rebuilt well within the flood plain, and flood waters continued to engulf Denver in 1875, 1878, 1912, and 1933. It was not until the 1950s, when the Army Corps of Engineers completed Cherry Creek Dam, that the flooding was stopped.
The summer of 1865 saw attacks on supply trains and market manipulations drive up prices. In 1865, grasshoppers swarmed through the area stripping away all the vegetation. Real estate values fell so low that entire blocks changed hands during poker games. The town's population shrank from 4,749 in 1860, to only about 3,500 in 1866. Many of the original gold miners and town founders were among those who left.
By the mid-1860s the Civil War was over and Denver had survived many tragedies. The city began to grow again and ended the decade with a population of 4,759. With the freeing up of capital that the end of war brought, new investment was once again possible. Denverites began to look toward the next step for growing their city, ensuring the route of the transcontinental railroad traveled through Denver.
With investment once again flowing into the Denver area transportation became a greater concern. Transporting goods to and from Denver was a large expense, an expense that railroads could alleviate. In 1862 the United States Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act and Coloradans were excited at the prospect of the railroad crossing the Rockies Mountains through Colorado despite the dismal surveys by John C. Frémont and John Williams Gunnison. When the Union Pacific Railroad choose to go north through Cheyenne, Wyoming many at the time expected that Cheyenne would blossom into the major population center of the region. Thomas Durant, vice president of the Union Pacific, pronounced Denver "too dead to bury." Colorado Territorial Governor John Evans declared that "Colorado without railroads is comparatively worthless."
As a result, Evans, together with other local business leaders, partnered with East Coast investors to form a railroad company that would link Denver and the Colorado Territory with the national rail network. The company was incorporated on November 19, 1867 as the "Denver Pacific Railway and Telegraph Company." The sense of urgency for the Denver boosters was enhanced by the formation of a rival, the Colorado, Clear Creek and Pacific Railway (later the Colorado Central Railroad), by W.A.H. Loveland and citizens of nearby Golden, with the intention of linking that city directly with Cheyenne and making Golden the natural hub of the territory.
Within several days, the company sold $300,000 in stock, but were unable to raise further funds to begin construction. The efforts seemed to be on the brink of failure when Evans was able to persuade Congress to grant the company 900,000 acres (3,600 km²) of land on the condition that the company build a line connecting the Union Pacific line in Wyoming with the existing Kansas Pacific line, which then extended only as far west as central Kansas.
Racing to beat the Golden investors, the company broke ground on its Cheyenne line on May 18, 1868 and took approximately two years to complete. The first train from Cheyenne arrived in Denver on June 24, 1870. Two months later, in August 1870, the Kansas Pacific completed its line to Denver and the first train arrived from Kansas. With the completion of the Kansas Pacific line to Denver, the Denver Pacific became integral to the first transcontinental rail link between the east and west coasts of America. While the Union Pacific line had been declared finished in 1869 with the Golden spike event in Utah, linking it with the Central Pacific Railroad, passengers were required to disembark the train and cross the Missouri River at Omaha by boat. With the completion of the Denver Pacific line, it was finally possible to embark a train on the east coast and disembark on the west coast.
The Denver Pacific's rival, the Colorado Central line from Golden, was not completed until 1877. By this time, Denver had established its supremacy over its rival as the population center and capital city of the newly-admitted State of Colorado. The railroad brought residents, tourists, and much-needed supplies. In the 1870s, it is estimated that the railroad brought 100 new residents to Denver each day. Population statistics bear this out, for Denver's population soared from 4,759 in 1870 to over 35,000 by 1880. In addition to bringing new residents, it put Denver on the map as a tourist destination and brought 1,067 visitors in its first month of operation. That first month also brought 13 million pounds of freight. Denver now had the people and supplies it needed to flourish and solidify its dominance in the region. 
|This article is written like a personal reflection or opinion essay rather than an encyclopedic description of the subject. (December 2012)|
Between 1870 and 1890 the city's population increased from less than 5,000 to over 100,000.
In the 1880s silver was discovered in the nearby mountains, leading Denver to a new surge of gaudiness and opulence, typified by Tabor's fancy opera house. The silver madness was as economically unstable as the gold rush 20 years before. The landmark 10-story Brown Palace Hotel in 1893 was designed by noted local architect Frank Edbrooke.
In 1893 financial panic swept the nation, and the silver boom collapsed. By this time, however, the city's economy was gaining a more stable base rooted in railroads, wholesale trade, manufacturing, food processing, and servicing the growing agricultural and ranching hinterland. For example, between 1870 and 1890, manufacturing output soared from $600,000 to $40 million, and population grew by a factor of 20 times to 107,000. It was the nation's #26 city in size.
The 1880s and 1890s saw more corruption as underworld bosses such as Soapy Smith and Lou Blonger worked side-by-side with city officials and police to profit from gambling and other criminal enterprises. The city provided lavishly for the lusts of the rich miners visiting the city. There was a range of bawdy houses to fit every pocketbook, from the sumptuous quarters of renowned madams such as Mattie Silks and Jenny Rogers to the most squalid "cribs" located a few blocks farther north along Market Street. Gambling flourished as sharp-eyed bunco artists exploited every chance to separate miners from their hard-earned gold. Edward Chase ran scrupulously honest games in several elegant establishments and regularly entertained many of Denver's most influential leaders. By 1880 Denver's vice district ranked only slightly behind San Francisco's Barbary Coast and New Orleans's Storyville. Most of the city's seamiest attractions were within a few steps of the railroad station, but newsstands sold guidebooks that provided additional addresses. Sin was good for business; visitors spent lavishly, then left town. As long as madams conducted their business discreetly, and "crib girls" did not advertise their availability too crudely, authorities took their bribes and looked the other way. Occasional cleanups and crack downs satisfied the demands for reform.
In legitimate entertainment, music stood high, beginning with the Apollo Hall in 1859. The Denver Theatre, home of the city's first opera performance in 1864, the Tabor Grand Opera House (1881)and the Broadway Theatre (1890–1955) brought in internationally renowned performers. Many other theaters were built, most of which did not last very long. Denver churches were also important venues for music performances in the last half of the 19th century.
Promoted by William N. Byers publisher of the Rocky Mountain News the Festival of Mountain and Plain was a great 3 day party featuring parades, masquerading, music and dance which nominally commemorated the settlement of the West. From 1895 to 1902 it provided relief from the economic and psychological depression resulting from the Panic of 1893 which devastated silver mining in Colorado.
By 1890, Denver had grown to be the fifth-largest city west of the Mississippi River, and surpassed Omaha in population by the turn of the 20th century. The era of the 1890s played an important role in Denver's history, as this is when the city began to take on a "big city" image. The population doubled between 1900 and 1920, reaching 256,000. Growth rates slowed somewhat, as the total in 1940 was 322,000, with few people as yet living in the suburbs. Local boosters created the National Stock Growers Conventions in 1898 and 1899. The National Western Stock Show began in 1907 as an annual event attracting cattlemen from a wide region. The Progressive Era brought an Efficiency Movement, typified in 1902 when the city and Denver County were made coextensive; Denver pioneered the juvenile court movement under Judge Ben Lindsey (1869–1943), a nationally famous reformer. Mayor Robert Speer was a prominent progressive who gave the city world leadership in building parks. Boasting itself the "Queen City of the Plains," Denver hosted the Democratic National Convention in 1908, then waited 100 years for its return.
The Social Gospel was the religious wing of the progressive movement which had the aim of combating injustice, suffering and poverty in society. Denver, Colorado, was a center of Social Gospel activism. Thomas Uzzel led the Methodist People's Tabernacle from 1885 to 1910. He established a free dispensary for medical emergencies, an employment bureau for job seekers, a summer camp for children, night schools for extended learning, and English language classes. The Baptist minister Jim Goodhart set up an employment bureau, and provided food and lodging for tramps and hobos at the mission he ran. He became city chaplain and director of public welfare of Denver in 1918. Besides these Protestants, Reform Jews and Catholics helped build Denver's social welfare system in the early 20th century. Myron W. Reed was the leading Christian socialist in the American West in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. He came to the city in 1884 as pastor of the affluent First Congregational Church. Christian socialism, for Reed, meant that the state should manage production and instill cooperation to provide what he called "the comfortable life" for all. He was a leader in the city's Charity Organization Society, even while questioning that organization's efforts to distinguish the "worthy" from the "unworthy" poor. Reed spoke out for the rights of labor unions and was voted out of his pulpit during the bitter 1894 strike at Cripple Creek. He ran for Congress as a Democrat in 1886 and worked for Colorado's Populist party in the 1890s. A former abolitionist Reed spoke out for African American and Native American rights while denouncing Chinese and eastern European immigrants as dependent tools of corporations who were lowering "American" standards of living.
Women's suffrage came early, in 1893, led by married middle class women who organized first for prohibition and then for suffrage, with the goal of upholding republican citizenship for women and purifying society. The Denver Fortnighly Club played a major role. Caroline Nichols Churchill, edited and published the Colorado Antelope, subsequently the Queen Bee, beginning in 1879 and boasted that she and her journal played a crucial role in the passage of the referendum in 1893 that granted the vote to women in Colorado. There was a strained relationship between the radical and eccentric Churchill and the mainstream women, as Churchill was a confrontational and outspoken proponent of the equal rights of minority ethnic groups.
Until World War II, Denver's economy was dependent mainly on the processing and shipping of minerals and ranch products, especially beef and lamb. During the war and in the years following, specialized industries were introduced into the city, making it a major manufacturing center. Population expanded rapidly, and many old buildings were torn down to make way for new housing projects. Many of Denver's finest buildings of the frontier era were demolished, such as the Tabor Opera House, as the city has expanded upward and outward and acquired new lands for buildings and parking lots.
Labor unions were active in Denver, especially the construction and printing crafts affiliated with the AFL, and the railroad brotherhoods. After being welcomed at the 1908 Democratic National Convention, held in Denver, the AFL unions, who formed the Denver Trades and Labor Assembly, generally supported Democratic candidates. A major strike in 1920 by workers on the street railroads led to violence with seven dead and 52 seriously wounded until federal troops arrived.
In early 1913, members of the Industrial Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies, conducted a free speech fight in Denver. City authorities had refused to allow IWW organizers to speak to people on street corners. Union members challenged the policy, with the aim of filling the jails to put pressure on city leaders. The Wobbly tactic, which they had employed successfully for half a decade throughout the North and West, clogged the courts so they couldn't handle anything but free speech cases. Taxpayers complained that they were being forced to feed "whole armies of jailed Wobblies." In her autobiography, Emma Goldman wrote of twenty-seven IWW members, arrested during the Denver free speech fight, who were "tortured in the sweat-box for refusing to work on the rock-pile. On their release they marched through the streets with banners and songs..." The union eventually won the right to speak to workers, and within a year had formed two Denver "branches."
The 1908 Democratic National Convention was staged to promote Denver's prominence, and to signify the city's participation on the national political and socioeconomic stage.
Up until World War II, Denver's economy was dependent mainly on the processing and shipping of minerals and ranch products, especially beef and lamb. During the war and in the years following, specialized industries were introduced into the city, making it a major manufacturing center. Population expanded rapidly, and many old buildings were torn down to make way for new housing projects. Many of Denver's finest buildings of the frontier era were demolished, such as the Tabor Opera House, as the city has expanded upward and outward and acquired new lands for buildings and parking lots. By 1950 middle-class families were moving away from downtown to larger houses and better schools; the subsurbs started the rapid growth. Denver was a gathering point for poets of the "beat generation." Beat icon Neal Cassady was raised on Larimer Street in Denver, and a portion of Jack Kerouac's beat masterpiece On the Road takes place in the city, and is based on the beat's actual experiences in Denver during a road trip. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg lived for a time in the Denver suburb of Lakewood, and he helped found the Buddhist college, Naropa University or the "Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa" in nearby Boulder.
Denver was selected to host the 1976 Winter Olympics to coincide with Colorado's centennial anniversary, but Colorado voters struck down ballot initiatives allocating public funds to pay for the high costs of the games, so they were moved to Innsbruck, Austria. The movement against hosting the games was based largely on environmental issues and was led by then State Representative Richard Lamm. Lamm was subsequently elected as Colorado governor in 1974.
Federico Peña (1983–1991) became the city's first Latino mayor in 1983. One of his central campaign messages was a promise of inclusiveness targeted at minorities. Latino turnout reached 73% in 1983, a contrast to the usually low Latino rates elsewhere.
In 1991, at a time the city was 12% Black and 20% Latino, Wellington Webb won a come-from-behind victory as the city's first black mayor (1991–2003). The Hispanic and Black minority communities supported each other's candidates at 75-85% levels. Webb, who won 44% of the white vote, reached out to the business community, promoting downtown economic development and major projects such as the new airport, Coors Field, and a new convention center. During his administration, Denver built the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library in the historic Five Points Neighborhood, and helped pass several neighborhood bonds for infrastructure improvements citywide.
Businessman John Hickenlooper was elected mayor in 2003 and reelected in 2007 with 87% of the vote. After he was elected governor of Colorado in 2011, Michael Hancock was elected Denver's second African American mayor.