Why has Colorado’s economy experienced booms and busts? Which Coloradans have profited the most from the state’s natural and human resources? In what ways have Colorado’s cities, towns, and regions competed against one another to secure investment, migration, and authority—and how have they cooperated to draw labor and investment from beyond the state’s borders? What visions of the good life have Coloradans of different socioeconomic classes and ideological perspectives embraced, and how have they struggled against one another to realize these visions through popular mobilization, public policy, and law? How has the expansion of the federal government—and, at times, its contraction—affected Colorado’s diverse peoples? How have corporations and labor unions—most of them based outside of Colorado—attempted to influence the state’s economy and politics? Why has financial and political power in Colorado remained concentrated among a relatively small elite, and by what means have grassroots movements attempted to redistribute—and thus to equalize—wealth and privilege?
These are just some of questions that the study of political economy brings to our understanding of Colorado’s past, present, and future. At its core, political economy refers to the relationship between individuals and society and between markets and the state. The scope of these relationships and the complex forms they have assumed over the course of Colorado’s tumultuous history defy easy summary, but dividing this vast and unruly story into three sequential phases—the Old West, the Middle West, and the New West—nonetheless helps to highlight the most important twists and turns between the mid-1800s and the present day.
The label for the first of these draws upon the hallowed place of the frontier in American culture and mythology, while the name of the third phase invokes the growing sense, both within and outside the American West following World War II, that Colorado and the rest of the region had changed significantly—perhaps even fundamentally—from their frontier roots. In truth, though, the arrival of railroads in 1870 initiated a new increasingly industrial period in Colorado’s political economy: the Middle West phase. A few parts of the state seem to have experienced such far-reaching political-economic shifts in recent years that they appear to be entering a fourth phase—let’s call it the Newest West era—defined by unprecedented economic diversification, political estrangement from Colorado’s rural regions, and such pathbreaking and problematic innovations as the full legalization of marijuana.
Old West (ca. 1858–ca. 1870)
The discovery of gold in a chilly tributary of the South Platte River in 1858 did more than any other single event to initiate the Old West phase of Colorado’s political economy. Old West Colorado outwardly resembled the mythic West of dime novels and Western movies. Poised on the outer edge of a rapidly industrializing United States, the economy of the area that the US Congress organized into Colorado Territory in 1861 represented a throwback, its political economy driven by farming for subsistence purposes and local markets; open-range ranching; real estate speculation and development, especially in towns and cities; and, above all, the mining of precious metals.
More than a few self-proclaimed pioneers would later look back upon Old West Colorado with profound longing. In their minds, at least, this phase represented an era of practically boundless opportunity—a time when financial independence required only hard work and a little luck —and possibly even a fortune. Those who looked backward with memories of their own success, though, generally chose to discount or forget the many other Coloradans who had lost out in the bargain: the hundreds of thousands of prospectors, homesteaders, and other home seekers who abandoned Colorado as abject failures; the more select but no less disillusioned ranks of investors and entrepreneurs who had been deceived, cheated, or forced out of the lucrative mining claims, agricultural lands, and businesses in which they had invested their time and hope, as well as their money; the Hispano individuals and communities who found their land and water rights challenged by incoming Americans; and the Arapahos, Cheyennes, Utes, and other indigenous peoples who had been dispossessed, herded onto reservations, and killed by Colorado militiamen, US troops, and federal negotiators.
Middle West Political Economy (ca. 1870–ca. 1945)
While Colorado’s Old West political economy centered on freewheeling and often ruthlessly competitive mineral prospecting, open-range ranching, and town building, the political economy of Colorado during the Middle West period was inextricably industrial, urban, and corporate.
The incorporation of Colorado into American railroad networks starting in 1870, and the subsequent extension of tracks into nearly every nook and cranny of the state by the early 1900s, inaugurated the Middle West. Instead of ending abruptly, the Middle West took more than a century to peter out. The Middle West subsided in part because of major economic shifts: the collapse of silver mining and smelting in the depression of the 1890s; the eclipse of railroads by explosive growth in automobile, truck, and bus traffic in the late 1910s and 1920s; and dramatic declines in output, employment, or both in subsequent decades by the state’s mines and factories (especially at Colorado Fuel & Iron’s (CF&I) Pueblo steel mills). Political and cultural changes, however, also contributed: Progressive and New Deal reforms softened some of industrialism’s harder edges, while the rise of consumerism in the form of recreational tourism and lifestyle-oriented suburban development in the 1920s and 1930s paved the way for a New West future in which a rising percentage of Coloradans defined themselves more through leisure and purchasing than through productive labor.
Colorado’s Middle West political economy rested on a foundation forged by the railroads’ wide-ranging mobility, steel’s strength and versatility, and coal’s seemingly boundless energies. The Middle West phase left an enduring legacy of brick and metal structures: trestles, skyscrapers, warehouses, and mansions. More subtly, this era served to integrate Colorado into the heart of the American and global economies. A region that had previously served up furs, hides, and precious metals from a wide-open, sometimes lawless milieu increasingly resembled the places in the northeastern and midwestern United States and northwestern Europe, where the vast majority of newcomers to Colorado originated.
Industrialism’s reign over Colorado faced challenges from several fronts. Workers in smelters, steel mills, and mines, like those on the railroads themselves, labored in remarkably dangerous conditions. Every year, on-the-job accidents claimed hundreds of lives—and thousands of limbs—in the state. The most dramatic workplace tragedies were mine disasters such as a trio of coal-dust explosions that killed more than 200 coal miners in Las Animas County in a ten-month period in 1910. The misgivings kindled by the violence laboring Coloradans experienced at work were aggravated by the indignities of poor pay; long hours; ongoing efforts by employers to control workers and combat labor unions through private detectives, company housing, and other intrusions; and the outsized influenced that mine operators, railroad companies, smelter owners, and the CF&I exerted over political and legal institutions at the local and state levels.
Given these conditions, it should come as little surprise that the state’s Middle West witnessed the worst labor management conflicts in Colorado history. Many Colorado workers joined labor unions in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Virtually all of these labor organizations sought to improve wages, limit the daily labors of men and women to eight hours, mitigate workplace hazards, and coordinate efforts to advance workers’ interests at the ballot box and in the state capitol.
But some of Colorado’s unions sought not simply to gain greater security, prosperity, and control for workers within the existing structures of capitalism and democracy but wanted to destroy the existing order and build a new one from its ashes. The largest and most famous of Colorado’s radical labor organizations was the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), founded in Butte, Montana, in 1893 with the help of delegates from Colorado’s smelters and silver and gold mines.
The growing economic, political, and cultural power of the state’s spectrum of workers’ movements prompted a range of responses among Colorado’s large employers, as well as the state’s growing middle classes. In some towns and industries, unions encountered little opposition and made considerable headway advancing their aims. Even the more revolutionary WFM gained significant ground in many parts of the state during the 1890s, turning the booming Cripple Creek Gold District into the so-called Gibraltar of Unionism after a successful strike campaign in 1894.
The 1890s also revealed another core feature of Colorado’s Middle West phase: the growing power of outside corporations over the state’s political economy. Like all frontier regions, Old West Colorado possessed almost no capital. Yet even though most of the state’s early enterprises were financed by investors from the eastern states—as well as from Great Britain, Holland, and other parts of Europe—Colorado’s pioneer entrepreneurs nonetheless retained most of the prerogatives of ownership and control. In the wake of the financial crisis that began in 1893, though, Coloradans learned firsthand of Wall Street’s burgeoning power. By the early twentieth century, many of Colorado’s most important corporations were headquartered in New York (or, in some instances, Boston or Chicago) and controlled by such titans of industry and finance as John D. Rockefeller (the biggest shareholder in CF&I starting in 1903) and the Guggenheim family (which leveraged a fortune made in Leadville into the monopolistic American Smelting and Refining Company).
As capitalists beyond Colorado’s borders assumed command over the core of the state’s Middle West era economy, they closed ranks with local elites—especially the leaders of Denver’s big banks and business-friendly political officials—to roll back labor unionism. In a massive set of strikes in 1903–04 that affected the state’s gold, silver, and coal mines and smelters, Colorado’s organized workers suffered major defeats. Ten years after the state’s corporations shattered the Gibraltar of Unionism at Cripple Creek, a brutal fifteen-month conflict erupted in Colorado’s southern coalfields when the United Mine Workers of America sought recognition from the region’s coal operators as the collective bargaining agent for everyone laboring in and around the area’s coal mines and coke ovens. In the coal miners’ strikes of the early 1910s (1910–14 in northern Colorado, 1913–14 in southern Colorado), as in so many other labor disputes during the state’s Middle West phase, the Colorado National Guard played a decisive and controversial role, killing eighteen strikers at the Ludlow tent colony and making it easier for the state’s coal corporations to maintain production by protecting strikebreakers.
Unionization constituted just one set of threads within a larger tapestry of campaigns to reform—or, in the case of the WFM, to revolutionize—Colorado’s Middle West political economy. While workers on the state’s railroads and in its mines and mills paid an especially heavy toll for Colorado’s industrial “progress,” a host of other Coloradans also bristled against the rule of what gadfly Denver attorney J. Warner Mills bemoaned as the state’s “Throne Powers.”
Farmers on the eastern plains accused railroad and grain elevator companies of monopolizing the markets for transportation and grain. Owners of small businesses groused that corporations, cartels, trusts, and monopolies made it impossible for them to compete. And consumers and citizens of all sorts complained about the control big business exerted over Colorado’s economic and political life.
These widespread, diverse, and sometimes contradictory critiques of corporate dominance fueled a variety of reform campaigns, of which the two most consequential were Populism and Progressivism. Populism forged a short-lived coalition between farmers, workers, nonconformists of various stripes, and an array of Coloradans concerned with propping up the state’s vital silver industry. Under the auspices of the People’s Party, Colorado Populists showed their strength by electing Davis Waite to the governorship in 1893. Waite was voted out of office just two years later, and the People’s Party declined almost as swiftly as it had risen to prominence. Yet several core Populist causes fed into Progressivism.
Like Populism, Progressives sought to grind down industrialism’s hard edges and limit corporate power by rebuilding grassroots democracy and increasing government regulation and oversight. But in Colorado, as in the United States more broadly, some Progressives also wanted government to exert tighter command over social and cultural life—whether by prohibiting alcohol, restricting immigration (particularly from Asia and southern and eastern Europe), or compelling indigenous peoples on the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Reservations and recent immigrants to assimilate into the dominant society by forsaking their native cultures and embracing what advocates called “100 percent Americanism.”
During World War I, the federal government’s war production policies favored workers and their unions while advancing many of the regulations, social programs, and government interventions in the economy favored by Populists and Progressives. Workers’ gains evaporated, however, during newly elected president Warren Harding’s “return to normalcy.” The rise of Colorado’s Ku Klux Klan, meanwhile, and the broader resurgence of business-friendly conservatism checked the further growth of the state and federal government (though some Progressive causes remained vibrant enough to secure the passage of restrictive federal immigration regulations in 1924 and ongoing state, local, and federal crackdowns on alcohol, prostitution, and organized crime). By the mid-1930s, when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal codified the right of labor unions to organize and enshrined federal responsibilities for providing at least a modicum of economic security for those Americans—mostly white and male—protected by Social Security and other new entitlements, most of the core industries of Colorado’s Middle West period were either faltering or in total collapse.
New West Political Economy (ca. 1945–ca. 2010)
The New West political economy of Colorado, like its predecessors, took hold in some places earlier than in others; it even left some stretches of the state largely untouched well into the twenty-first century. Colorado was almost certainly one of the first parts of the United States to grapple with deindustrialization, thanks to the silver bust of the 1890s and the stagnation of railroads, steel, and coal by the 1920s. But people in many parts of Colorado, unlike those in most other American places afflicted during the 1900s and early 2000s by the blight of shuttered mines and factories, managed to build new economic foundations as the old ones crumbled away. The most picturesque exceptions became ghost towns, while the most troubling departures from emerging New West trends could be found in the deteriorating working-class neighborhoods of Denver and Pueblo, as well as in the eviscerated Middle West heartlands of Aspen, Trinidad, and other once rollicking mining towns founded on silver and coal.
Compared to the Middle West before it, New West Colorado was more suburban than urban; more oriented to the consumption of the state’s scenery, climate, and recreational opportunities than to the extraction and transformation of the state’s natural resources into marketable products; and more fully premised on the notion of the state as a special and distinctive place. Trains continued to play a crucial role in shipping and the streetcar systems built in the late 1800s and early 1900s did not reach peak ridership until the 1940s, but New West Colorado depended utterly and inextricably on automobiles, trucks, and the roads and highways upon which these motor vehicles traveled.
New West Colorado was not so much postindustrial as alt-industrial. Farming and ranching grew more intensive and productive thanks in no small part to ever-growing quantities of fossil fuels, chemical inputs, and irrigation water. Mining remained important too, though the targets shifted away from precious metals and coal toward molybdenum, uranium, and gravel even as mechanization and strip mining reduced the industry’s labor requirements. And though Coloradans imported most of the fuel burned by their growing fleets of cars and trucks, petroleum and natural gas extraction eventually emerged as key drivers of growth in parts of the Western Slope and the northern Front Range.
The rising power of the federal government played a pivotal but sometimes overlooked role in creating and sustaining New West Colorado. National parks and national forests established in the late 1800s and early 1900s helped to ensure the state’s continuing role as a tourist destination; so did federal subsidies for the state’s roads. New Deal relief and assistance programs resulted in the construction of hiking trails and other recreational amenities, including world-renowned Red Rocks Amphitheatre, as well as K–12 schools and new classrooms and dormitories at Colorado’s state institutions of higher learning.
During World War II, Colorado, like other western and southern states, benefited immensely from federal military spending and wartime investment. This infusion of government funds continued throughout the ensuing Cold War, with several important consequences. Military posts like Fort Carson near Colorado Springs; Lowry Air Force Base outside Denver; and Camp Hale, on the opposite side of Tennessee Pass from Leadville, exposed hundreds of thousands of American service members to Colorado for the first time. Many of those who enjoyed their time in the Centennial State pulled up stakes and made new lives in Colorado after their military commitment ended. Federal defense spending also laid the basis for the state’s emergence as an important center for research, development, and innovation in fields ranging from aerospace to climate change. Finally, and perhaps more subtly, federal programs from the New Deal and World War II through the Cold War era established the infrastructure of highways, water systems, and power transmission and communications networks upon which the rapid growth of New West Colorado depended.
Coloradans responded to growing federal involvement in the state’s economy with mixed emotions. Government money could spur growth and development, but it also raised fears that federal officials would try to leverage increased government spending into centralized political authority over the state. Organized opposition to federal programs during the New West phase stretched from Democratic governor Edwin “Big Ed” Johnson’s attempts to refuse New Deal aid through the successful campaign by wilderness activists to prevent the damming of Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument in the 1950s and the Sagebrush Rebellion that pitted some Colorado ranchers against the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies starting in the 1970s.
Champions of small government at the state level won a signal victory with the 1992 passage of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR). This constitutional amendment sought to roll back the expansion of state and local government by restricting their ability to generate revenue. Though touted as a way to harness the expansion of governments that conservatives blamed for enacting restrictive regulations and engaging in unwarranted interventions in economic, social, and cultural life, TABOR’s many critics lambasted the amendment for straitjacketing the ability of Colorado’s public institutions to serve Colorado’s rapidly growing population.
Newest West Political Economy (ca. 2010–)
By the early 2000s, at least some parts of Colorado appeared to be entering a fourth phase—the Newest West—distinguished from its New West precursor largely by the solidification of the Front Range corridor as a dynamic megalopolis tied much more closely to national and global trends and markets than to other parts of Colorado and the Interior West. For the first time in its history, Denver has finally unburdened itself from the inferiority complex that bedeviled it from the Colorado Gold Rush onward. Freed of the burden of imitating San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, or Dallas, the city has come into its own. New generators of economic growth—particularly the emergence of the world’s first legal marijuana industry following the passage of Amendment 64 by Colorado voters in 2012 but also the fluorescence of craft brewing and other neo-artisanal pursuits—have combined with old mainstays such as real estate development and speculation and New West innovations in high technology, financial services, petroleum extraction, and recreational tourism to fuel explosive economic growth along the Front Range, as well as in scattered pockets elsewhere in the state.
These trends in and around the Denver region have complicated effects on other parts of Colorado. Most important, and perhaps most worrisome, has been an apparent upswing in the longstanding divides and resentments pitting rural Coloradans—especially on the Western Slope and the eastern plains—against citizens of the state’s urban and suburban core. These antagonisms are especially evident in national elections, as well as in the special-issue politics surrounding gun control and other hot-button issues. Whether or not the countervailing trends of pragmatic action across party lines in day-to-day state politics and the rising influence of unaffiliated voters (whose ranks now outnumber Republicans and Democrats in Colorado) will mitigate these growing economic, cultural, and political divides remains to be seen.
All we can conclude with any confidence is that for us, as for earlier generations of Coloradans, the future will remain uncertain, up for grabs, and subject to the incessant winds of change that continue to shape and reshape the political economy that draws various people together at the same time it sets us apart.