Denver is the capital of Colorado and the twenty-first largest city in the United States, sprawling over six counties and 3,497 square miles of the High Plains and the Rocky Mountain foothills. Centered at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek, the city and county of Denver together have a population of about 600,000. At an elevation of 5,280 feet, Denver has been nicknamed “The Mile High City.” Michael Hancock has served as mayor since 2011. More a conglomeration of suburbs than a single city, the Denver metropolitan area consists of Denver, Arapahoe, Jefferson, Boulder and Adams Counties and has a population of about 3.4 million. This area forms the cultural, economic, political, and social center of Colorado.
Historically, Denver’s location at the intersection of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains made it a place where people in the American West came together. Local prehistoric indigenous sites provide a record of cultural contact and mixing, featuring stone tool styles from sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles away. These early groups did not mark their boundaries on maps. Their territories were irregular and widespread, fluctuating with the ebb and flow of resources and political alliances. Ute and Apache peoples frequented the area of present-day Denver by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and by the nineteenth century, the site became a favorite winter campsite of the Cheyenne and Arapaho.
William Green Russell, a veteran of both the Georgia and the California Gold Rushes, was one of many nineteenth-century Americans who surmised that the massive granite cordillera of the Rockies held mineral treasure. In July 1858, about eight miles above the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte, Russell’s prospecting party found a few ounces of gold. His find initiated the Colorado Gold Rush (1858–59), which gave birth to Denver.
On the west side of Cherry Creek, Russell and his party founded the first permanent settlement in what is now Metro Denver—Auraria, from the Latin word for gold. On November 21, 1858, General William H. Larimer, Jr., jumped a claim across Cherry Creek from Auraria. He named his town Denver City, after Kansas Territorial Governor James Denver. Denver City became the seat of what was then Arapahoe County, a huge swath of land stretching from the current Kansas border to the Continental Divide. The Civil War soon swept Auraria’s Georgians away, and Yankee town builders took command, reorganizing the city as West Denver.
The gold rush prompted Congress to establish the Colorado Territory in 1861. That year the federal government also brokered the Treaty of Fort Wise, reducing the territory of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people to a small reservation in eastern Colorado. Amidst rising tensions between whites and Native Americans, US troops under Col. John Chivington slaughtered more than 150 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho women, children, and elderly men at a camp on Sand Creek in November 1864. Enraged by the massacre, the Cheyenne and Arapaho, along with other Plains Indians, fought a protracted war against the US Army in Colorado until 1869, when the Cheyenne leader Tall Bull was defeated at Summit Springs. By that time, much of the remaining Cheyenne and Arapaho populations had been forced onto reservations in Wyoming and Oklahoma via the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867. The next year the government brokered a treaty with the Ute people that relocated most of them to a large reservation on the Western Slope.
“The Great Braggart City”
Denver City was a long shot, since most gold rush “cities” became ghost towns. But while other Coloradans mined gold, Denverites mined the miners, providing them with food, liquor, and entertainment in exchange for the wealth they found up in the hills. Denverites also bet on everything from dogfights to snowfall, gambling with mining stock, real estate, railroads, and bank notes. During the slow winter months, city fathers amused themselves with card games. Using town lots as poker chips, they won and lost whole blocks of downtown Denver in an evening.
Denver’s persistence puzzled visitors. The city had few visible means of support. It lacked the navigable waterways which usually helped cities thrive. Other towns, notably Golden and Boulder, were closer to mines. Littleton, with its Rough and Ready Mill, had a solid agricultural base. Meanwhile, Denver faced the same problems—aridity and isolation—that left the prairies and mountains littered with ghost towns. It seemed that Denverites lived solely on excitement and speculation.
Beset by isolation and Indian conflicts, by drought and grasshoppers, the city owed its early survival to capable town builders and determined boosters. Chief among them were William Larimer and William N. Byers, founder and longtime editor and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News. Although stigmatized by some as the “Rocky Mountain Liar,” Byers and the News persisted in promoting Denver as the capital of Colorado. In early issues, Byers even puffed Denver as the steamboat hub of the rockies. It is not difficult to see why English traveler Isabella Bird called Denver “the Great Braggart City” when she visited in 1873.
While steamboats never negotiated the South Platte River, railroads did arrive in 1870. This spiderweb of steel first enabled Denver to establish its metropolitan sway over Coloradans. Gold and silver ores mined in the mountains rode the rails into Denver’s smelters. The giant Argo, Globe, and Grant smelters became Denver’s biggest employers by the 1890s. Acrid, black smelter smoke hung over the city, signaling its emergence as an industrial center.
The city drew not only Colorado’s gold and silver, but also attracted the state’s mining magnates. Wealth and the wealthy from Central City, Leadville, Aspen, the San Juans, and Cripple Creek flowed into Denver.
The Rush to Culture
Colorado’s gold and silver rushes led to a culture rush, as Denver’s overnight millionaires hoped to impress the rest of the world—or at least other Coloradans—with their artistic and humanistic pursuits. Denver’s nouveaux riches found cultural trappings a way to separate themselves from less successful gold-grubbers. Peacocks in the front yard of mansions in Capitol Hill, servants in the kitchen, and children off to Vassar and Yale helped the successful flaunt their new status. Inspired by both a sincere interest in culture as well as a means to defining an aristocracy, Denverites rushed to respectability. Horace Tabor, the “Silver King,” epitomized this trend, going from nouveau riche to a patron of the cultural arts.
Colorado did not produce any literary giants to immortalize the frontier era, no Willa Cather or Mari Sandoz. Travelers such as Isabella Bird, Richard Townsend and Louis Simonin left lively, literary accounts, but not until the twentieth century would Coloradans such as Hal Borland, Marshall Sprague, and Frank Waters do literary justice to the white settlement of mountain and plain.
Historians have been luckier. Robert Athearn, Leroy Hafen, Frank Hall, Jerome C. Smiley, and Wilbur Fisk Stone all published state histories. Nearly every town and county compiled at least a booster booklet. The first generation of Coloradans were conscious of both history and culture. They prided themselves on being the first white Americans to see, to name, to settle, and to build.
As early as 1872, Denver and other towns held pioneer picnics for their founding mothers and fathers. In 1879 the State Historical and Natural History Society (now History Colorado) was created. The state legislature gave the society $500 to collect, preserve, and exhibit Colorado’s heritage.
Denverites emphasized the edifying, ignoring the fact that their city and territorial governments had been conceived in saloon halls. Saloons also housed the first theaters, art exhibits, dance music, theater, and even libraries. By 1910 Denver had 410 saloons, offering a side variety of goods, services, arts, and amusements, as well as nickel beers and free lunches.
Bar art attested to early cultural aspirations. Today, original art is often confined to museums, corporate board rooms, and the homes of the wealthy, but in nineteenth-century Denver, much original saloon art was public art. Charles Stobie, a now celebrated western artist, lived above the Gallup & Stanbury Saloon (which still stands at 1445 Larimer Street) and exhibited his work downstairs in the bar. Byers of the Rocky Mountain News appraised Stobie’s work as “the most excellent and beautiful work in oil painting we have seen executed in this country.” Stobie’s works, like the paintings Charles Russell once swapped for drinks in the Mint Saloon, now command five- and six-digit prices. Most of Denver’s bar art perished under the reckless demolition of nineteenth-century buildings. Two exceptions are the landscapes on the old high-back booths at the Punch Bowl Tavern (2052 Stout Street) and the Windsor Hotel bar mural in the Oxford Hotel dining room.
Colorado artists and art lovers organized the Artists Club in 1893 to promote the visual arts. During the 1920s, this club was reorganized as the Denver Art Museum. Anne Evans, a leading benefactor and an artist herself, helped to establish what is still the Denver Art Museum’s strongest collection: its American Indian materials. In their rush to culture, many in the pioneer generation overlooked the treasures of earlier Indian cultures that are now showcased in public and private collections. Ironically, Anne was the daughter of territorial governor John Evans, who was removed from office for his role in the Sand Creek Massacre.
Colorado’s performing arts were also born in barrooms. Apollo Hall on Denver’s Larimer Street staged Colorado’s first theatrical performances in 1859, and the Occidental Hall on Blake Street featured Colorado’s “favorite balladist” to “delight all with operatic and sentimental, as well as comic songs.” At other times, this Blake Street bar advertised a reading room with the latest newspapers and free stationery, offering readers a haven two decades before the Denver Public Library was founded in 1886.
Such astonishing artistic efforts helped make Denver a cultural as well as a commercial capital for Colorado. Farmers from the eastern plains, ranchers from the San Luis Valley and the Western Slope, and mountain miners have long relied on Denver as an entertainment center.
Flush times ended abruptly for Coloradans with the Panic of 1893. The price of silver—then the state’s chief product—tumbled from over one dollar an ounce to under sixty cents. In response, Denver diversified its economy. The city had previously relied on supplying and smelting for the mining industry, but now it shifted to other endeavors, including tourism and agricultural processing.
In 1894 Denverites launched the Festival of Mountain and Plain to promote tourism, boost local spirits, and advertise the region’s industrial diversity. A prominient example of the latter was Charles Gates, an out-of-work mining engineer, and his brother John. They invented the world’s first rubber v-belt, which, unlike earlier flat belts, did not slip off machinery wheels and helped improve machinery performance. The Gates hired Buffalo Bill to promote their belts, tires, and hoses. Gates rode his rubber accessories for horseless carriages into prominence and wealth with the auto age. As they built factories, sugar mills, barley elevators, train depots, and gas stations, Gates and other enterprising Denverites transformed not only the city but also the rest of the state.
Many of these entrepreneurs were immigrants. Adolph Coors, a teenage orphan from Germany, transformed long-stagnant Golden into a thriving brewery town. John Kernan Mullen, a young Irish immigrant, skipped school to work in a flour mill and wound up with a multi-million-dollar milling empire. Mullen’s Colorado Grain Elevator and Hungarian Flour empires owned wheat fields, grain elevators, and flour mills throughout the state. Rather than sink his money into mining, Charles Boettcher, a German immigrant, concentrated on hardware and mining supplies, then fathered the Great Western Sugar Company, the Ideal Cement Company, Capitol Life Insurance, the National Fuse and Powder Company, and the Bighorn Rand in North Park.
Racial and Ethnic Diversity
Following the area’s long history as a gathering place, Denver has drawn people of many different races and ethnicities. Yet, as in other American cities, those who were considered white—a definition that has changed over time—had held most of the economic and political power since the mid-nineteenth century. Beginning then, relations between the various groups that have called Denver home were often fraught with tension.
Many of the city’s first white residents held ambivalent views toward Native Americans. Some even argued for their extermination through violence or other means. In 1866 the Rocky Mountain News declared that “savage tribes must give way to the western advance of empire,” suggesting that in lieu of extermination “by the sword … the remedy then consists in feeding them, and they will gorge themselves to death.”
White Denverites also looked upon their Chinese neighbors with disdain, even though Chinese residents helped build the nation’s railroads and operated nearly all of the city’s laundering businesses, a critical part of the local service industry. By the late nineteenth century, Chinese residents in Denver had built a thriving community along present-day Wazee Street. Anti-Chinese sentiment came to head in the Anti-Chinese Riot of 1880. A white mob descended upon Denver’s Chinatown, destroying property and beating dozens of Chinese residents, killing one. Denver’s Chinatown endured the assault and remained an integral part of the city until the 1940s.
During the late nineteenth century, black railroad workers began moving their families to the Five Points neighborhood north of downtown, as it was closer to the tracks along the South Platte. By the 1920s Five Points had become majority black and was known as the “Harlem of the West,” attracting Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and other great musicians of the day. White Denverites enacted discriminatory housing practices, including racially restrictive covenants, to keep blacks in Five Points. Such agreements effectively barred black Denverites from new housing developments until the state supreme court outlawed racially restrictive covenants in 1957.
While black businesses and culture were thriving in north Denver during the 1920s, the city’s Latino population grew in the Auraria neighborhood on the west side of Cherry Creek. By 1940 the city’s Spanish-speaking population had expanded to other neighborhoods northeast and southwest of downtown. Like blacks, Latinos faced discrimination in housing, education, law enforcement, and employment, but because they were relative newcomers, their plight was often worse. A survey conducted by the Denver Area Welfare Council in 1950, for instance, found that Spanish-speaking residents were twice as likely to live in substandard housing as black residents, and blacks’ per capita income was double that of Latinos.
With the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1920s, race relations had reached a nadir. The KKK numbered in the hundreds of thousands and eventually achieved de facto political control over the entire state. Members included Denver mayor Benjamin F. Stapleton, Denver police chief William J. Candlish, at least twenty Denver police officers, a state supreme court justice, and even the governor, Clarence J. Morley. Klan members threatened the local chapter of the NAACP, held well-attended cross-burnings, boycotted Catholic businesses, hurled insults while driving through Jewish neighborhoods, and chased blacks out of new white neighborhoods. By 1925, corruption and political ineptitude doomed the Klan in Colorado, as Klan policemen’s ties to vice trades were exposed and the Colorado Grand Dragon was investigated for tax evasion. Stapleton, however, remained Denver’s ineffective yet immovable mayor until 1947.
Social Struggles and Civil Rights Campaigns
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as they did in other American cities, black and Latino Denverites took part in social movements that sought to change long-entrenched patterns of discrimination. De facto segregation and discrimination continued in Denver, despite the state supreme court’s 1957 ban on restrictive housing covenants and the election of Denver’s first black city council member, Elvin Caldwell, in 1955. In the 1960s black Denverites organized boycotts of discriminatory businesses such as Denver Dry Goods and staged sympathy sit-ins to demonstrate their solidarity with other black sit-ins across the country. In the late 1960s the local chapter of the Black Panther Party found traction, sponsoring free breakfasts for black school children while loudly criticizing racist policies and actions by Denver officials and police.
In 1965 Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales organized "La Crusada para La Justicia," the Crusade for Justice, which became part of the broader Chicano Movement that gained traction in Denver and across the country in the 1960s. Gonzales’s crusade advocated for Latino self-determination through control of local schools and ethnic solidarity, while also calling for an end to employment and police discrimination against Denver’s Latino population. While the candidate for his Chicano political party, La Raza Unida, garnered just 2 percent of the vote in the gubernatorial election of 1970, Gonzales’s campaign nonetheless demonstrated the political power of Latinos in the Mile High City.
As Gonzales was unifying Denver’s Latinos, the city’s Native American population was growing. It began to increase in the 1950s, when the federal government encouraged members of western tribes to move to western cities. Many of the city’s new Native American residents were poorer than either blacks or Latinos, and several intertribal support agencies—such as the White Buffalo Council and the Denver Indian Center of Denver Native Americans United—provided social support and services to members of the Navajo, Sioux, and other tribes.
Economic Decline and Renewal
In the early 1980s, Denver’s economic fortunes again crashed alongside the price of a major Colorado commodity. This time it was not silver but oil. In the 1970s Colorado had enjoyed an energy boom thanks to development of oil shale deposits on the Western Slope. But in 1983 the price of crude oil plummeted from $42 a barrel to $10, and unemployment and office vacancy rates soared. The oil bust retaught lessons of the Silver Panic of 1893. Led by Governor Roy Romer and Denver mayor Federico Peña, Denverites explored new economic possibilities, such as high-tech, computer-age enterprises. Meanwhile, Coloradans could take some comfort in economic mainstays such as tourism and recreation. Additionally, in 1988 the city designated the portion of Lower Downtown Denver between Twentieth Street, Larimer Street, Cherry Creek, and Wynkoop Street—locally known as “LoDo”—as a historic district. In 1991 Denverites elected the development-minded Wellington Webb to the mayor’s office. Webb, the city’s first black mayor, served for twelve years and oversaw the completion of a new airport, the arrival of new sports teams, and the expansion of the city’s parks and art museum.
The successful redevelopment of LoDo brought Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies to Denver in 1995. The franchise built its stadium, Coors Field, on the northeast edge of the Historic District at Twentieth and Blake Streets. Architects incorporated elements of the surrounding buildings into the stadium’s design, adding red brick and stone trim. Just across Cherry Creek, the Pepsi Center opened in 2000 as home for the National Basketball Association’s Denver Nuggets and the National Hockey League’s Colorado Avalanche. These two giant venues, along with the addition of Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City in 2006, made the Denver Metro Area into a sports fan’s paradise. Of course, Mile High Stadium, the home of the Denver Broncos on the west bank of the South Platte, had already been a national sports landmark for decades.
Metro Denver Today
Denver is different from other large American cities in several ways. First, its population is generally well educated, with the second-highest per capita education level in the country. Second, most are residents by choice rather than birth—the city, and especially the suburbs, are filled with immigrants from across the nation and world who are more likely to be “United in Orange” (as Broncos fans) than by a common ancestry. In recent years, Denver residents have also continued the city’s long tradition of political activism, organizing protests against Wall Street, police brutality, the federal government and Internal Revenue Service, and the city’s treatment of the homeless.
Denverites are also unusually mobile, both in vehicles and with their legs. The American Fitness Index ranks Denver as the third-fittest city in the nation, ahead of both Seattle and Portland. Denverites also own about 1.5 vehicles per household, ranking in the top 25 percent among American cities; the emissions from so many vehicles often creates a visible layer of smog above the city. Union Station once made Denver a hub for state and regional travel, but since 1995 Denver International Airport (DIA) has taken up that mantle. DIA is the sixth-busiest airport in the United States and the largest by land area, covering more than 33,500 acres. The Regional Transportation District, meanwhile, supplies Metro Denver residents with bus and light rail service, including to DIA.
Perhaps the greatest asset of this automobile metropolis is easy escape to the wide open spaces. Within an hour’s drive to the east lie prairie ghost towns and the exquisite solitude of the Great Plains. An hour’s drive to the west takes Denverites to Denver’s Mountain Parks system and the campgrounds, hiking trails, and ski areas of the Continental Divide. Long after the founding generations of Denver extolled the beauty of the Front Range, the easy escape to Colorado’s other attractive regions remains one of the Mile High City’s best attributes.
This article is an abbreviated and updated version of the author’s essay “Denver: Mile High Metropolis and Capitol of the Five States of Colorado,” distributed in 2006 as part of Colorado Humanities’ “Five States of Colorado” educational resource kit.