Boulder County encompasses 740 square miles of the western plains and Rocky Mountains in north central Colorado. The county straddles three unique geographic zones: mountains in the west, plains in the east, and a natural trough that runs between the plains and foothills. Its western boundary, which it shares with Grand County, follows a jagged line of peaks in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. The northwest corner of the county holds the southern reaches of Rocky Mountain National Park, including Longs Peak. Its eastern boundary, which it shares with Weld and Denver Counties, runs along the plains on the eastern edge of the city of Longmont. Boulder County borders Gilpin, Jefferson, and Denver Counties to the south and shares its northern boundary with Larimer County.
The county supports a population of 294,567, with much of it concentrated in the county seat of Boulder and the city of Longmont. Nestled against the foothills, the city of Boulder is home to the University of Colorado, the flagship campus of the University of Colorado system. The county is known for being the site of the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59. It was created in 1861, two years after prospectors discovered gold about a dozen miles up Boulder Canyon. Before the discovery of gold, the Boulder County area was frequented by several Native American groups, mainly the Ute, Arapaho, and Cheyenne.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Paleo-Indians roamed the mountains of the Boulder County area as early as 7,000 BC. These people likely followed seasonal migration patterns and employed hunting strategies established by older groups of Clovis and Folsom hunter-gatherers: they used creeks and streams to follow game to higher elevations during the summer, and when the first snows came, they retreated back down those same waterways to the natural sanctuary of the foothills. Near the mountain peaks, Paleo-Indians built huge stone corridors where they funneled and cornered large game; they also built stone blinds where they waited, bait in hand, to pick feathers from swooping eagles.
By the mid-sixteenth century, Ute peoples had occupied the whole of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains for nearly a century. Several distinct Ute bands roamed the Front Range in what would become Boulder County: the Parianuche, or “Elk People,” the Tabeguache, or “People of Sun Mountain (Pikes Peak),” and Muaches, or “Cedar Bark People.” Expert hunters, Ute subsisted on elk, deer, and other mountain game. They also gathered a wide assortment of roots, including the versatile yucca root, and wild berries. In the summer, they followed elk and bison into high mountain parks, such as Allen’s Park (8,500 feet). In the winter, they followed the game back to the sanctuary of lower elevations in the foothills and river valleys (5,000–7,000 feet). After the 1640s, when the Ute obtained horses from the Spanish, river bottoms became important wintering grounds, as cottonwood twigs and roots provided food for ponies.
By the early nineteenth century, the Ute found their hunting and wintering grounds contested by the Arapaho, a group of Plains Indians that had been forced out of a sedentary life in the upper Midwest by the powerful Lakota. Unlike the Ute, who rarely left their mountain homeland, the Arapaho ranged across all three ecological zones in present-day Boulder County. In the spring and early summer, they hunted buffalo on the plains; in late summer, they followed the herds into cooler, higher elevations, camping and hunting as far as the Continental Divide; in winter, they returned to the natural shelter of the trough along the foothills, where milder weather prevailed. For most of the year, Arapaho and Ute occupied the same territory, and this put them in a near-constant state of warfare.
The Cheyenne, another equestrian group of buffalo hunters, joined the Arapaho on the western plains north of the Platte River in the early 1820s. The two groups formed an alliance and fought the Ute not only for rights to hunting and wintering grounds, but also for access to the growing French and Anglo trade networks along the Front Range and western plains. But exposure to white trade goods came with a price—exposure to European diseases, such as smallpox. These diseases, against which no American Indian had immunity, decimated populations of all three prominent native groups in the Boulder County area. For example, in 1800 one group of Arapaho numbered some 10,000; by 1858, when Niwot, or Left Hand, led the group, disease had brought their numbers down to fewer than 3,000.
Niwot attended the signing of the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851, which preserved Arapaho rights to the Boulder Creek area. The treaty was brokered by his niece’s white husband, Thomas Fitzpatrick, who died in 1854. After gold was found along the South Platte, few whites felt obligated to obey the treaty. As they moved into the foothills, they chopped down cottonwood trees and killed game, adding lack of shelter and starvation to the growing list of threats to all native groups in the region.
In the fall of 1858, Chief Niwot encountered Thomas Aikins and his group of gold prospectors camped near the mouth of Boulder Creek. Niwot had learned English from his brother-in-law, a Kentuckian who traded at Bent’s Fort on the upper Arkansas, and put it to use. Aware of the Americans’ intentions but preferring diplomacy to warfare, the Arapaho leader told the Aikins group in English to leave his people’s territory immediately. The prospectors told Niwot they had only come for the winter and promised to leave in the spring. Against the wishes of some of his people, Niwot relented and let the prospectors stay.
That decision would prove invaluable to the prospectors and devastating to Niwot’s Arapaho. On January 16, 1859, while prospecting at a site along a Boulder Creek fork, Aikins’s son James and several others found gold. News of their discovery brought David Horsfal to the area, and he found an even larger deposit, the Horsfal Lode. A year later, the Boulder Creek deposits had already yielded a combined $100,000 in gold. Gold Hill, as the area of discovery came to be known, soon attracted not just gold seekers but also miners of clay—used to make brick—limestone, coal, and granite.
On February 10, 1859, not even a month after his son’s discovery, Aikins founded the Boulder City Town Company. The city of Boulder was then platted on a two-mile stretch near the mouth of Boulder Canyon. In 1861, the new Colorado Territory was established, and Boulder County became one of its original seventeen counties. The same year, Arapaho leaders Niwot and Little Raven were forced to negotiate another treaty, the Fort Wise Treaty, which surrendered the Front Range to the whites and carved out a small reservation for the Arapaho and Cheyenne in southeast Colorado.
Niwot did not sign this new treaty. Unwilling to simply abandon their once-plentiful land, Niwot’s and Little Raven’s people spent two more lean and violent years in the Boulder Creek area before they moved to the Sand Creek camp, near Fort Lyon in present-day Kiowa County. Whites consistently assured the Arapaho and Cheyenne that they were safe near the fort; the near-starving Indians, for their part, also assured whites that they wished to camp peacefully and trade for supplies. But in 1864 Colonel John M. Chivington’s 550 volunteers smashed into the Cheyenne-Arapaho camp at Sand Creek, slaughtering between 150 and 200 women, children, and elders and scalping and disfiguring the bodies. Niwot was shot down as he held up his hands and called out in English for the troops to stop. He later died at an Indian camp on the Smoky Hill River.
The southern Arapaho under Little Raven were removed to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) after the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867. In 1875 the founders of a railroad town northeast of Boulder named their new community Niwot after the fallen Arapaho leader.
Flood of 1894
On May 30, 1894, heavy rain caused Boulder Creek to rise out of its banks. The water tore through the canyon, laying waste to mines, railroad bridges, and settlements. By dawn the next day, the floodwaters crashed out of the canyon, inundating the city of Boulder. Rail and road bridges, as well as telegraph lines and many houses, were swept away, and farmland and irrigation ditches were destroyed. The city's Red Light District and other poor neighborhoods bore the brunt of the flooding, while surrounding towns, including Jamestown, Crisman, Glendale, and Springdale, also sustained severe damage. Many of those towns never recovered, as the deluge brought the county's three main industries--coal, metal mining, and agriculture--to a standstill. It took several years for the city of Boulder to fully recover.
Caribou, Nederland, and Longmont
Despite the devastating flood, by 1900 Boulder County's population had grown to more than 21,500; the mining communities of Caribou and Nederland, as well as the agricultural settlement of Longmont, were an essential part of that growth. In the mountains west of Boulder City, Nederland was founded in 1871 as Middle Boulder, serving as a mill and supply town for the nearby mining community of Caribou; that same year, on the plains some sixteen miles northeast of Boulder, the Chicago-Colorado Colony founded Longmont.
Ohioan prospector Sam Conger organized the town of Caribou around his silver strike in 1870. The multiple blizzards that pounded the area during the long winter made life in early Caribou famously harsh; in addition to bracing their buildings to withstand the destructive winds, snowbound residents often had to exit their homes through second-story windows. The same year his town was organized, Conger sold his mine to Abel Breed, another Ohio investor, for $50,000. An influx of British miners skilled in ore extraction made the mine exceptionally profitable in its early years, and in 1873 Breed sold the Caribou mine to the Nederland Mining Company for the enormous sum of $3 million. As part of the purchase the Dutch group also obtained Middle Boulder, which they renamed Nederland after their home country.
While multiple fires and the crash in silver prices in 1893 doomed the town of Caribou over the next two decades, Nederland blossomed as a tourist town, offering picturesque views of the nearby mountains and Boulder Canyon. Then, in the early 1900s, Nederland again became a hotbed of mining activity as the fortunate Conger again struck a precious metal—this time it was tungsten, a hard metal used to make incandescent light bulbs and strengthen steel. Conger’s tungsten mines hummed until demand fell off with the end of World War I in 1918. Tourism again took over as the town’s economic backbone.
Longmont, named for its view of Longs Peak, began as an agricultural colony on land granted to the Denver Pacific Railroad. William N. Byers, Rocky Mountain News founder and agent for the railway’s land company, brokered a deal for some 23,000 acres near St. Vrain, Left Hand, and Boulder Creeks with Seth Terry, a representative from the Chicago-Colorado Colony. The colony bought an additional 37,000 acres in the area from the federal government and other parties.
In contrast to saloon-ridden mining towns like Boulder and Caribou, Longmont’s founders envisioned their town as a sober agricultural community. Deeds to land in the colony originally forbade the consumption or sale of alcohol on the property. By June 1871, three months after its initial settlers arrived, Longmont had twenty-three miles of irrigation ditches and seventy-five buildings, including Boulder County’s first library. After the turn of the century, Longmont farmers were producing profitable crops of wheat, pumpkins, peas, and sugar beets. Longmont was also one of the first Colorado settler towns to plot out parks, including Lake Park—subsequently renamed Roosevelt Park—the site of the Boulder County Fair from 1891 to 1978.
In addition to the metal mining around Boulder, Caribou, and Nederland, coal mining became an important part of the Boulder County economy, especially in the early twentieth century. By that time, however, exploited coal miners began to organize in unions such as the United Mine Workers of America to lobby for better pay and working conditions. This led to a series of ugly strikes in Boulder County’s coal mining towns in 1903, 1910–14, and 1927.
First, coal miners in Louisville won an eight-hour day, a 15 percent raise, and safer working conditions in 1903. Then, from 1910–14, some 2,700 Boulder County miners struck, with violence between strikers, guards, and scabs curtailed by the appearance of state and federal troops. At the end of this strike, miners won a 20 percent wage increase and more improvements in mine safety. During yet another strike, in 1927, blood was spilled when company guards at the Columbine Mine fired on strikers, killing six and wounding twenty. Again, federal troops intervened to quell the violence. Ownership of the Columbine Mine passed to Josephine Roche, the previous owner’s daughter, who raised wages, improved mine safety, and championed workers’ rights as the state’s first female gubernatorial candidate in 1934. Later in the twentieth century, the Boulder County economy shifted from mining to education and agriculture.
University of Colorado
Founded in 1861, the University of Colorado–Boulder (CU) is the state’s flagship university. To build the initial campus, the Territorial Legislature gave the town $15,000 on the condition that Boulder residents match that amount themselves. The residents matched the appropriation and by 1876 had finished construction on Old Main, CU’s first building. Its first president, Dr. Joseph Sewall, and his family lived in the building, which also hosted the first classes. In the spring of 1882, CU graduated its first, all-male, class of six.
By 1980, CU-Boulder’s student population had reached 20,000 and faculty members worked with many prominent research institutes, including the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Today, the University of Colorado has campuses throughout the state, including the University of Colorado–Colorado Springs, University of Colorado–Denver, and the Health Sciences Center in Denver. With a combined enrollment of 44,500, the University of Colorado system remains a prestigious and nationally respected academic institution.
Boulder County remains culturally and economically diverse. A liberal pocket in an otherwise conservative state, the so-called "People’s Republic of Boulder" has evolved into an active, wealthy suburban community that also prioritizes conservation; the city maintains 145 miles of hiking trails and attracts hundreds of outdoor enthusiasts each year.
Giant tech companies such as IBM and Ball Corp., an aerospace company, are headquartered in Longmont. The town has reaped the benefits of being near a major university, as it recruits many CU graduates for its burgeoning biotech, aerospace, and software and IT industries. In 2015 CU Health, citing a lack of access to emergency care across the state, began construction on a $160 million hospital at County Line Road and Ken Pratt Boulevard in Longmont.
Hay and other forage crops are the county’s primary agricultural products by a wide margin; in 2012 hay and forage crops covered 23,397 acres, while the next-most plentiful crop, wheat, covered only 1,764. Boulder County is also among the top-ten poultry-and-egg-producing counties in the state.
Although it has yet to endure a catastrophe like that of the 1894 flood, Boulder County remains vulnerable to flood events. After several days of heavy rain beginning on September 9, 2013, Boulder County was one of fourteen Colorado counties to experience historically destructive flooding. Within Boulder County alone, floodwaters damaged more than 1,200 homes; took down ten bridges; washed out dozens of miles of roads, power lines, and open space trails; and killed three people, stranded over 100 more, and forced 1,600 to evacuate the flood zone. Immediately after the floods, Governor John Hickenlooper declared a state of emergency and funneled $6 million in state funds to pay for flood response and recovery.
Total repair costs from the flood are estimated at $217 million over a five-year period. Of that total, $56 million will be the responsibility of Boulder County; the rest will be reimbursed by state and federal agencies. As of September 2014, Boulder County workers, volunteers, and residents had removed 4,870 truckloads of debris, rebuilt five of the ten bridges destroyed during the storm, and repaired twenty-two miles of open space trails. In the wake of the floods, a coalition of state and local politicians, community leaders, and church leaders formed the Long-Term Flood Recovery Group of Boulder County. The group’s website also provides links to mental health agencies, support groups, and financial resources to help flood victims who continue to struggle in the aftermath of the floods.