Boulder is Colorado’s eleventh-most populous city, twenty-five miles northwest of Denver, nestled against the foothills of the Front Range. Home of the University of Colorado (CU), the city has a population of 97,385 and is the seat of Boulder County. Boulder was founded during the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59, and the university was established in 1861.
As the educational capital of Colorado for more than 150 years, Boulder has fostered a unique cultural amalgam of middle- and upper-class intellectuals, enthusiasts of the arts and outdoors, entrepreneurs, and college students. The counterculture of the 1960s found a comfortable niche in Boulder, and the area became a haven for hippies and socially liberal politics. Of course, Boulderites may fit all, some, or none of those categories, but the city’s culture is nonetheless distinct from the rest of the state and has earned it the nickname, “the People’s Republic of Boulder.”
Ancient and Indigenous Boulder
Boulder’s unique landscape is the result of tens of millions of years of mountain-building and thousands of years of human habitation. The Flatirons, Boulder’s iconic triangular mountains, are remnants of a prehistoric seafloor pushed up by the same geologic forces that built the Rocky Mountains between 60 and 70 million years ago. With the uplift of the mountains came streams such as Boulder Creek, which carried snowmelt down from the Indian Peaks and carved today’s Boulder Canyon.
In 2009 workers at a west Boulder residence found primitive tools that date aboriginal occupation of the Boulder valley to the late Pleistocene, or at least 13,000 years ago. Native American occupation continued uninterrupted from the late Pleistocene to the present. During the Paleo-Indian (9500 BC–5500 BC), Archaic (5500 BC–AD 1), and Late Prehistoric Period (AD 1–1550), hunters and gatherers moved seasonally between the mountains and plains. Many of these groups spent the harsh Colorado winters in the shelter of the natural trough along the Front Range, where Boulder now sits. By the sixteenth century, Ute people occupied what is today western Boulder County, and by the early nineteenth century they were joined by the Arapaho.
Modern Boulder got its start in late fall of 1858, when Thomas Aikins and his group of Anglo-American prospectors arrived at Boulder Canyon during the Colorado Gold Rush. Aikins’s group built log cabins for shelter just below the mouth of the canyon. Niwot (“Left Hand”), a local Arapaho leader, allowed the prospectors to stay for the winter as long as they promised to leave in the spring. The decision would eventually cost his people their land and many of their lives.
On January 16, 1859, Aikins’s son James and several others found placer (surface) gold along a fork of Boulder Creek. The group set up a mining camp called Gold Hill. In June, drawn by news of Aikins’s discovery, prospector David Horsfal arrived and found an even larger deposit: a massive, gold-bearing quartz seam that he named the Horsfal Lode. These discoveries not only brought more miners to the area but also merchants, farmers, and others looking to cash in on the newest pin on the gold-rush map.
On February 10, 1859, Tom Aikins, A. A. Brookfield, and fifty-three other men formed the Boulder City Town Company, platting a small settlement at the mouth of the canyon to serve the mining camps. The town had its first irrigation ditch later that year, and by 1860 it boasted some seventy cabins, mostly occupied by Anglo-American families of miners and merchants. Non-whites were part of Boulder’s early history, but they are rarely pictured. Chinese miners kept to themselves in mountain communities. Few blacks or Asians hired photographers to have their portraits taken, and photos of Boulder prostitutes were even rarer.
In 1861 Boulder County was formed as one of the original seventeen counties of the Colorado Territory, and the Treaty of Fort Wise led to the removal of the Arapaho people from the Front Range. With their numbers thinned by disease and their resource base dwindling on account of mining and other white activities, Niwot’s band held out as long as they could but soon moved to the new Cheyenne-Arapaho Reservation in southeastern Colorado. By 1862 the Boulder Creek deposits had already yielded $100,000 in gold, and more than 300 people lived in the modest community at the canyon’s mouth.
The town, consisting of a few log cabins, was centered around Twelfth (Broadway) and Pearl Streets. Except for a few cottonwoods, willows, and box elders along Boulder Creek, there were no trees. Isabella Bird, an adventurous Englishwoman who traveled through Boulder on horseback a few years later, called Boulder “a hideous collection of frame houses on the burning plain.” By contrast, the City of Boulder’s Forestry Division estimates that there are about 650,000 trees in the city today, supported by more than a century’s worth of water delivery projects.
The Horsfal mine supported both Gold Hill and Boulder for several years. Then came what is known as “the slump of 1863.” Gold ore farther from the surface required more sophisticated milling, and gold was lost in the processing. Meanwhile, American Indian uprisings on the plains, spurred by the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864, interrupted shipments of supplies.
Many of the miners left to prospect elsewhere or fought in the Civil War. Others saw their future in agriculture and homesteaded farms around Boulder.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, many former slaves and their children moved west, and some settled in Boulder. The 1880 census listed blacks as approximately 1 percent of Boulder County’s 3,069 residents, but they nonetheless had formed their own thriving community in the city. Many of Boulder’s early black residents lived on the city’s west side, in a section of the Goss-Grave neighborhood known as the “Little Rectangle.” There, several houses originally built by former slaves still stand, including the home of Ruth Cave Flowers, one of the first black graduates of CU, as well as the home of musician John Wesley McVey.
Among the most prominent black Boulderites was Oliver Toussaint Jackson, the son of former slaves from Ohio who bought a farm outside the city in 1894. Jackson built a home at 2228 Pine Street, and he also opened a restaurant on Thirteenth Street, the Stillman Café and Ice Cream Parlor. Later, he opened a restaurant at Fifty-fifth and Arapahoe Streets that was famous for its seafood. Jackson went on to found the all-black agricultural settlement of Dearfield.
As African Americans built a community in Boulder, prospectors continued to search for gold in the mountains. In 1869 they found silver near present-day Nederland, setting up a small town called Caribou. A road up Boulder Canyon was completed to get supplies to Caribou, and revenues from the new mines began pouring into the city. By November 1871 Boulder’s economy was much improved, and the city was incorporated. In 1872 gold-bearing telluride ore was discovered near Gold Hill, and prospectors again rushed to the mountains west of Boulder to stake their claims. Mines cropped up all over the area, from Jamestown to Sunshine to Ward.
Miners west of Boulder depended on the city for supplies, and it grew steadily. Brick and stone commercial buildings began to replace the frame businesses on Pearl Street. Street merchants delighted Pearl Street crowds with flaring gaslights and displays of ventriloquism in order to sell hair restoratives, electric belts for rheumatism, and other cure-alls. The Colorado Central and Denver & Boulder Valley Railroads arrived in 1873, and in 1878 another line connected the city to the coalfields several miles to the south. As its commerce and culture coalesced in the 1870s, Boulder continued its push to build Colorado’s first university.
University of Colorado
As early as 1861, when the University of Colorado was officially founded, Boulderites took steps to ensure that their community would house the first university in the fledgling Colorado Territory. It took more than a decade to build the campus, however, as Boulder struggled to stay afloat after the first mining boom subsided. The town survived by catering to the needs of neighboring farmers and coal miners. To build the initial campus, the Territorial Legislature gave the city $15,000 on the condition that residents match that amount. Boulderites raised the money, and by the time Colorado became a state in 1876, the city finished Old Main, CU’s first building. Dr. Joseph Sewall, the university’s first president, and his family lived in the building, which also hosted the first classes. In the spring of 1882, CU graduated its first class, an all-male group of six. The university augmented Boulder’s industry-related growth, attracting people from elsewhere in the state. By 1890, Boulder had a population of 3,330.
The 100-Year Flood
Boulder’s late-nineteenth century growth was interrupted by a so-called 100-year flood in 1894. The deluge completely severed Boulder from the rest of Colorado, wiping out all road and rail bridges and telegraph lines. It also destroyed farms and irrigation infrastructure. Most of the city’s red light district, which covered the area along Water (Canyon) Street between the current Municipal Building and the Boulder Public Library, was destroyed. Madams promptly moved their girls to upstairs rooms in the downtown business district.
The Goss and Grove Street neighborhood, home to most of the city’s minorities and immigrants, fared little better. Although the neighborhood was rebuilt, the majority of large homes, churches, and public buildings built after the flood were located north of downtown or on higher ground. It took the city several years to fully recover from the flood.
“Athens of the West”
After recovering from the catastrophic flood, Boulder became a sophisticated city in the early 1900s, calling itself “the Athens of the West” and “the Place to Be.” The business district, comprising late nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings, was located between the new residential areas on Mapleton Hill and University Hill. Hardwoods and fruit trees were imported from the East.
CU was also growing. By 1902 the university had many more buildings, including dormitories, a president’s house, and a library. Its student body had grown to 550, taught by 105 faculty members. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, barracks were established at CU, and the university became one of the first college campuses to have a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). It was also during this period that CU buildings began taking on their signature look: flagstone walls covered by red-tile roofs, a style referred to as Tuscan Vernacular and chosen by Day and Klauder, the architectural firm hired to homogenize the campus buildings.
Along with the university, temperance was a key part of Boulder’s identity as a sophisticated city. Although the city featured nineteen saloons by 1883 and was not known as a particularly drunken city, a significant segment of the citizenry opposed drinking establishments. Organizations such as the Golden Sheaf Lodge (1869), the local chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (1881), and the Better Boulder Party (1900) vigorously opposed saloons and drinking by working to raise liquor license fees.
In 1907 the Better Boulder Party and nativists played on the moralist fears of many Boulder County citizens when they argued that going dry would curtail the licentious activities of prostitutes and alcohol-drinking immigrant groups such as the Germans, Irish, and Italians. That year, Boulder County approved a ban on alcohol that lasted until the repeal of federal prohibition in 1933. Boulder itself was a dry city until 1967.
As temperance advocates won prohibition, Boulder set its sights on obtaining the best drinking water for its growing population. The city purchased the watershed of the Arapaho Glacier, and later the glacier itself. A $200,000 steel pipeline brought the nearly flawless water from an intake pipe on Boulder County Ranch (now Caribou Ranch), to the Chautauqua and Sunshine Reservoirs in Boulder. All over Boulder, drinking fountains were installed that read “Pure Cold Water from the Boulder-Owned Arapahoe [sic] Glacier.” The only drinking fountain still marked today is in the Hotel Boulderado.
Between Boulder’s drinking fountains lay stores that held just about anything a shopper wanted. Dress goods for both sexes and ready-to-wear clothing were available, and women could buy imported perfumes, diamond lockets, plumed hats, button shoes, and even rust-proof corsets. Stores stocked gourmet foods such as oysters and a wide selection of coffees, as well as choice and smoked meats. In the 1930s, nineteenth and early twentieth century storefronts were lowered and modernized.
Shoppers in early twentieth-century Boulder often rode streetcars, while boys on bicycles darted around early automobiles. In 1909 the automobile was still a novelty, but people were taking notice. Meanwhile, the Denver & Interurban’s electrically powered trains made sixteen round-trips per day between Boulder and Denver. From 1908 to 1917, this cheap, clean, and efficient means of public transportation ran down Pearl Street on its way to Louisville, Broomfield, and Denver. Between 1917 and 1926 the Interurban trains stopped at the Union Pacific depot and alternated their routes with runs through the university and Marshall. Narrow-gauge railroads, meanwhile, provided access to Nederland and other mountain towns to the west. Soon, automobiles began to replace stagecoaches, and trucks instead of wagons carried freight.
By the end of World War II, its chief support lay with the university. Enrollment at CU doubled over the course of a single year after World War II, going from 5,483 in 1946 to 10,421 in 1947. Over the next several decades, the university added new facilities to keep pace with increasingly higher enrollment, and the school was admitted to the American Association of Universities in 1967. The university had an enrollment of 20,000 by 1980.
In the broader cityscape, postwar growth and the increasing popularity of the automobile took businesses away from downtown. The North Broadway, Arapahoe Village, and Basemar Shopping Centers were built in the 1950s. By 1955 Boulder was a city of nearly 30,000 people.
In the 1960s Boulderites talked about revitalizing downtown, buying open space, and limiting growth. In 1963, when the first segment of Crossroads Shopping Center was built, Boulder merchants and property owners organized “Boulder Tomorrow, Inc.” to help plan the redevelopment of the downtown area. Construction of a downtown pedestrian mall began in 1976 and was completed in 1977. The mall eliminated traffic on Pearl Street between Eleventh and Fifteenth Streets.
Historic preservation also came into style. Businesses and street merchants returned downtown. Many of Boulder’s original buildings were restored. In the early 1970s Historic Boulder, Inc. was formed to recognize and preserve Boulder’s historic buildings.
Since then, Boulder has become an indisputable high-tech mecca, with entrepreneurs drawn to the town for its combination of a skilled workforce, ambitious entrepreneurs, available venture capital—and healthy mountain living. Inc. magazine recently reported that Boulder has more startups per capita than any city in the United States—six times more startups than the national average. Companies like the tea maker Celestial Seasonings and the biotech firm Amgen have led the way.
Boulder’s reputation as a citadel of freethinking has also continued to grow apace. With the pedestrian mall of Pearl Street as the physical focal point and the university as the draw, the city continues to evolve as a petri dish for new ideas. But Boulder has expanded carefully, keeping nearly 100,000 acres of open space under city management.
Boulder remains so attractive that real estate prices can be 1.5 times more expensive than nearby Denver. Commuters between the two cities are often frustrated by high congestion rates on US Highway 36, which was expanded in 2016 to include HOV and bus lanes. As of 2016 Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) is extending the B Line of its light rail system to Boulder, with an eye toward relieving some commuters.
Parts of this essay adapted from Carl Abbott, Stephen J. Leonard, and Thomas J. Noel, eds., Colorado: A History of the Centennial State, 5th Ed. (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2013) and Robert R. Crifasi, A Land Made from Water (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2015).