Burlington was a small homestead community along St. Vrain Creek, near present-day Longmont. Founded in 1860 by prospector Alonzo N. Allen, Burlington was named after Burlington, Iowa. The settlement grew to a population of about 150 before the Chicago-Colorado Colony absorbed it in 1871.
The bountiful wheat crop of Burlington homesteader Enoch J. Coffman helped convince the colony to establish Longmont where it is today. Many of Longmont’s influential early citizens came from Burlington, including William Henry Dickens, founder of the Dickens Opera House, Farmers National Bank, and several other local enterprises. Burlington was also the home of Longmont’s first newspaper, the Burlington Free Press, founded in 1871.
Settling the St. Vrain
In 1859 Wisconsin resident Alonzo N. Allen came west with his stepson, seventeen-year-old William Henry Dickens, to join the Colorado Gold Rush. After prospecting near present-day Boulder, Allen built a log cabin in 1860 on the south bank of St. Vrain Creek, just west of what is now US Highway 287. Leaving Dickens to work the land, Allen went prospecting again, eventually establishing the small mining town of Allenspark in the foothills to the west.
Allen may have beaten others to the St. Vrain, but not by much, and there was plenty of land to go around. George and Morse Coffin, Illinois brothers who came to Boulder around the same time as Allen, set up farms near the confluence of St. Vrain and Left Hand Creeks. Led by eighteen-year-old Lawson Beckwith, the Beckwith family arrived from New Hampshire in 1859–60, and Enoch J. Coffman set up a farm in the area in 1861. By the time the Colorado Territory was established in 1861, the St. Vrain valley was dotted with dozens of homesteads—although they would not be legally filed until the first Homestead Act of 1862.
Forming a Community
Although these homesteaders could call each other neighbors, they did not yet have an official town or a name for their settlement. That could only come with a post office, which the area lacked. From 1859 to 1862, residents of the St. Vrain valley had to travel to Denver to get their mail. That changed in the fall of 1862, when the Holladay Overland Stage Company—spurred by the official organization of the Colorado Territory the previous year—established a route from Laramie, Wyoming, to Denver. Thanks in part to road planning and other efforts by Fred C. Beckwith, the route passed directly through the St. Vrain settlement, using a crucial ford of the creek near Allen’s cabin. With the arrival of the stage line, a post office was established in the settlement in November 1862.
The next year, Allen’s wife, Mary, and their seven children—two from Mary’s previous marriage—joined him along the St. Vrain. With regular stage traffic now passing directly in front of their cabin, the Allens turned their house into a tavern and inn that provided meals and lodging for stagecoach passengers. Mary learned how many people she needed to cook for via a telegraph line that stretched from Denver into her kitchen.
In 1864 Burlington gained a school and organized a militia to defend against potential attacks by Native Americans. By 1865 the community boasted two hotels, a new stage barn built by Dickens, and the Beckwiths’ merchandise and blacksmith shops.
In 1869, with Burlington’s population climbing toward 150, Dickens built the two-story Independence Hall. A prelude to the opera house Dickens would later build in Longmont, Independence Hall featured retail space on the first floor and entertainment space on the second. The building served as Burlington’s drugstore and community center for the next two years.
Although the stage traffic and decent harvests kept Burlington’s hopes high in the 1860s, the community’s location near the St. Vrain bottoms made it especially vulnerable to flooding. Time and again floods inundated residents’ land and homes.
Then, in 1871, Burlington resident Enoch Coffman was taking a load of wheat to Denver when he met members of the Chicago-Colorado Colony, who were looking for a location to establish their colony. Illinois lumberman Seth Terry and Rocky Mountain News founder William Byers led the search committee. After inspecting Coffman’s wheat and remarking on its quality, the committee visited the Burlington area. Impressed with the St. Vrain valley’s agricultural potential, the colony established the city of Longmont just north of Burlington in March 1871.
Backed with large amounts of eastern capital, the new town grew quickly. It helped that Longmont was farther from the flood-prone creeks. Burlington residents soon realized where their future lay. Dickens moved Independence Hall to Longmont in 1871 and acquired a stake in the colony, as did Coffman, who was elected to the colony’s board of trustees. The Allen family also joined the colony, moving their inn and stage barn to the northwest corner of Third Avenue and Main Street. In the early 1870s, some seventy-five Burlington residents moved to Longmont, taking their houses and businesses with them.
Burlington may have disappeared after its residents moved to Longmont, but its contributions to the city that took its place were many. The Allens and their many descendants remained in Longmont through the twentieth century. Like his father, Alonzo, Charles Allen became an innkeeper in 1894, purchasing the Zweck Hotel—the building that replaced his parents’ inn in 1881–82—at Third and Main. Charles and his wife, Margaret, ran the hotel, which later became known as the Imperial, for some fifty years. Charles’s son, Vern Allen, worked as a local stage driver and rancher and served for many years as the superintendent of Longmont’s parks.
The Beckwiths were another influential Burlington family. Brothers Fred and Elmer established the Burlington Free Press in 1871 and Elmer became Longmont’s first postmaster. In the early 1890s, Elmer established the Daily Times, the newspaper that is now today’s Longmont Times-Call.
Coffman, whose bountiful wheat harvest helped draw the Chicago-Colorado Colony to the St. Vrain valley, helped oversee the planting of communal crops in the colony’s first years. Coffman Street, just west of Main Street in Longmont, is named after him. In 1881 William Dickens built the Dickens Opera House across from the Zweck Hotel. The building served as the political and social hub of Longmont for decades and remains a popular entertainment venue today.
While Longmont’s rapid development in the late nineteenth century is often attributed to the irrigation ditches and other efforts of the Chicago-Colorado Colony, the previous success of the Burlington homesteaders laid the foundation for a prosperous farming community in the St. Vrain valley.