Now home to the tri-institutional campus of Metropolitan State University of Denver, University of Colorado–Denver, and Community College of Denver, the Auraria neighborhood has a long and rich history predating the founding of Denver itself. Auraria is bordered by the South Platte River to the west, Colfax Avenue to the south, and Speer Boulevard (which flanks Cherry Creek) to the east, forming a rough triangle. The neighborhood’s proximity to the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek made it an oasis amid Colorado’s dry plains, and Indigenous people used the place as a trading post for many years before whites arrived. In 1858 the town of Auraria was founded by miners who discovered gold in the area, and it continued to grow and flourish until being combined with nearby Denver in 1860.
Auraria, known as West Denver, was a mixed-use neighborhood for much of its history, home to a diverse group of nationalities and cultures. In 1965 a disastrous flood left Auraria severely damaged, and an urban-renewal project demolished the former neighborhood to build the Auraria Higher Education Center (AHEC) that exists today. While the removal of Auraria residents to build an urban college campus remains controversial, AHEC and local historic-preservation groups have attempted to preserve the neighborhood’s cultural past.
The confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek was home to a diverse group of Indigenous people for more than 10,000 years before white immigrants arrived. Throughout the Paleo-Indian, Archaic, and Formative periods, various prehistoric groups hunted bison along the Front Range. By about 1500 CE, Ute and Apache people started to move into the central Rocky Mountains and plains. In the 1700s, Comanche and Kiowa drove the Apaches out of the area and established a trade network that would last into the 1800s, when the Cheyenne and Arapaho pushed them out.
Auraria Town Company
It was with the Cheyenne and Arapaho that the first white trappers and traders in the area established contact in the 1810s. But the dry, harsh climate of the plains meant that immigrants did not come in droves. Some Cherokees discovered gold around the confluence, but they kept the location secret. In 1858, however, a Georgia man named William Green Russell, who had marriage ties to the Cherokees, headed west after hearing about a gold discovery at Ralston Creek. Initially Russell’s group came up empty-handed, but it finally discovered gold at the junction of the South Platte and Dry Creek (a few miles south of the Cherry Creek confluence) in July 1858.
News of the discovery spread, and soon prospectors flocked to the area. A townsite, named Auraria for Russell’s hometown in Georgia, was staked out at the confluence and advertised as free to all immigrants. On November 6, the Auraria Town Company formalized and adopted a constitution, making it an official township.
Rivalry on the Plains
Within weeks of Auraria’s founding, General William Larimer, Jr., led a group of men from Kansas into the Cherry Creek area, at that time still technically part of Kansas Territory. Larimer’s party acquired the land on the east bank of Cherry Creek, opposite Auraria, which had formerly been the townsite of St. Charles. The party formed the Denver City Company, named after Kansas governor James W. Denver. The Denver Town Company adopted its constitution on November 22, 1858.
Auraria and Denver became rivals, fighting to attract businesses and residents. In April 1859, for example, Rocky Mountain News editor William N. Byers first set up shop in Auraria, on the second floor of Richens Wootton’s saloon, before moving to the dry bed of Cherry Creek in order to maintain neutrality between the towns. (As one might expect, the office was soon destroyed in a flood.)
While Auraria initially succeeded in attracting more businesses, Denver won an important victory when it offered fifty-three lots and nine shares to the Leavenworth and Pikes Peak Express. Having the first stagecoach connection was crucial for Denver’s growth because hotels and saloons wanted to be located near the stagecoach terminals. Residents also wanted to live near the stagecoach for easier access to incoming mail and news. Auraria finally conceded, and on April 5, 1860, it merged with Denver. For the next century, the neighborhood was known as “West Denver.” The term Auraria would not be used again until the 1960s, when the city revived it to refer to the redevelopment project in the area.
Over time, Auraria developed as a distinctly working-class neighborhood, home to mills, warehouses, breweries, and various other businesses alongside homes for working-class families and boardinghouses for single men. Old immigrant groups were the first to inhabit the neighborhood, primarily American-born citizens from the east as well as German and Irish immigrants. After several South Platte River and Cherry Creek floods in the 1860s–80s, which made the area less desirable, the land along the river was devoted to railroads and industrial uses while the demographics of West Denver began to shift toward central and eastern European immigrants.
Between the 1890s and 1920s, the West Colfax neighborhood (including West Denver) was the main home of eastern European Jews in Denver. Many originally left Russia because of religious persecution, and eventually some relocated to Denver for tuberculosis treatment at the Jewish Hospital for Consumptives (now National Jewish Hospital). In the 1910s, future Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, who was originally from Russia, lived on Julian Street, where her family’s duplex became a cultural center for Jewish immigrants from Russia. In 1988 the duplex was relocated about a mile east to the Auraria campus and today is a museum. Another center of Jewish culture in Auraria was the Emmanuel Shearith Israel Chapel, originally built in 1876 as an Episcopalian church but converted to a synagogue in 1903. The building remained a center for Jewish worship in West Denver until 1963, when a private owner bought the chapel and converted it into an art gallery. Today it remains an art gallery on the Auraria campus.
These different immigrant groups mingled mostly in peace, though there was some rivalry and contempt between groups, especially the Germans and Irish. Germans built St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church in 1878, and a separate Irish church, St. Leo’s, was not built until 1891. During the intervening years, Irish residents of West Denver attended mass in the German-dominated St. Elizabeth’s, something that neither group was particularly happy about.
Latino Community Calls Auraria Home
In the early twentieth century, West Denver’s population declined as streetcars and automobiles allowed many people to move outside the urban core. During the 1920s, Latino farmers and World War I veterans began to move in, shifting the neighborhood from central and eastern European to Latino. From the 1920s through the 1960s, the Latino residents of Auraria created a rich culture. St. Cajetan’s Catholic Church at the corner of Lawrence and Ninth Streets was built in 1926 and represented the heart of the neighborhood, while the Casa Mayan restaurant also served as a cultural center.
By 1941 city officials were concerned about the concentration of Latinos living in West Denver, as they believed overpopulation and crowding in the neighborhood’s houses and apartments were negatively affecting the lives of residents. This was a controversial issue, given that many residents of Auraria liked their neighborhood. They had lived there for generations, and despite a lack of resources, it was rich in kinship, tradition, and community. Despite official concerns, the Auraria community continued to thrive until 1965, when the South Platte River flooded, inundating much of the neighborhood.
Flood and Urban Renewal
In the late spring of 1965, the Front Range was struck by heavy rain and thunderstorms. On June 16, the rains caused the South Platte to flood, damaging railyards, houses, and warehouses as well as the Tivoli Brewery in West Denver. More than 1,700 buildings were destroyed or damaged by the flood, with an estimated $543 million in damages. Twenty-one lives were lost, making the flood one of the deadliest natural disasters in Colorado history.
After the flood, as part of a large urban-renewal and flood-mitigation project, the city proposed that West Denver be transformed into a tri-institutional college campus. With business and industry in the city growing and a large generation of baby boomers nearing college age, the city saw the need for higher education centers in the Denver metro area to support a better-educated workforce.
Legislators and planners had been targeting West Denver for urban renewal since the 1950s. Already in 1956, the city prohibited the construction of new residential housing in the neighborhood, which several studies identified as the most promising location for a higher-education campus. The flood gave the city an excuse to move ahead; city officials argued that three-fourths of the area was “damaged beyond repair,” when in fact less than half of the neighborhood had been affected by the flood.
To prepare for what it called the Auraria urban-renewal project, Denver proposed a bond to buy the land and relocate West Denver citizens. In response, angry residents established the Auraria Residents’ Organization to fight the initiative. Their efforts failed, however, largely because Denver archbishop James Casey urged Catholics to vote “yes.” Some displaced residents pondered whether the city may have paid off the church. One granddaughter of a displaced resident claimed, “No one thinks they have a price. But everyone does. Even the church.”
Whether or not the allegations were true, the bond passed with 52 percent of the vote. The city went ahead with the project. Residents were forced to leave, and by 1972 relocations were complete. Many moved just south to the Latino neighborhood of La Alma–Lincoln Park.
After the bond to create a higher education campus passed, Auraria began to be recognized by its original name again. The neighborhood was mostly flattened to make way for the tri-institutional campus of Metropolitan State University of Denver, University of Colorado–Denver, and Community College of Denver, which opened in 1974. Some efforts were made to preserve the area’s history with St. Elizabeth’s, St. Cajetan’s, Emmanuel Shearith, and the Tivoli Brewery all still on campus. Ninth Street Historic Park also remains, with original Victorian-style houses that now serve as campus offices.
After the Auraria campus was built, tensions erupted when Chicano activists claimed that city officials had failed to deliver on promised scholarships to the children of displaced residents as well as a Hispanic cultural center on campus. Officials claimed they never found documentation of the promises, but in the 1990s, after much lobbying, the campus did start offering Displaced Aurarian Scholarships, which provide displaced residents and their children and grandchildren with eight semesters of tuition and funding at any of the campus’s three schools. Current public history projects on campus seek to rediscover the historic value of the neighborhood and tell the stories of its residents.
Today, the campus continues to flourish with an enrollment of more than 33,000 students, making it the largest higher-education campus in Colorado.