Fort Collins, the fourth-most populous city in Colorado, lies along the Cache la Poudre River near the foothills of the northern Front Range. The seat of Larimer County, Fort Collins was founded as an Army camp in 1864 and has since developed into a regional hub for education, business, culture, and recreation. The city currently has a population of 161,000.
Fort Collins, nicknamed “Choice City,” is the home of Colorado State University, Colorado’s first land-grant college, as well as a host of popular craft beer breweries and several major technology companies. Cycling, craft beer, and music are all elements of the local culture, and the town lies close to a number of natural attractions, including the Cache la Poudre River and the Poudre Canyon, Horsetooth Mountain and Horsetooth Reservoir, and Estes Park.
The Council Tree
Prior to the arrival of white settlers in the mid-nineteenth century, the Cache la Poudre valley was the home of the Ute, Arapaho, and Cheyenne people. In 1820 Major Stephen H. Long led the first official US expedition through the valley. In the ensuing decades he was followed by fur trappers, emigrants, and homesteaders.
Cottonwood trees grow in the hundreds in the river bottoms along the Cache la Poudre River. However, one tree several miles east of present-day Fort Collins towered over the rest. At more than 100 feet tall and with a trunk reportedly 16 feet wide, this ancient cottonwood had been adopted by the Arapaho people as a council tree—a communal place to camp, fish, and hold council over important issues.
In May 1860 rancher Robert Strauss arrived near present-day Fort Collins and established his home on land that held the council tree. Strauss had an amiable relationship with a local Arapaho leader known to English speakers as Friday (his Arapaho name translates to “The Man Who Sits Thinking”). Even though Strauss considered himself owner of the land, he did not dispute the Arapaho presence on it.
The Arapaho continued to convene at the council tree without much trouble until 1861, when the Treaty of Fort Wise attempted to remove several groups of Cheyenne and Arapaho to a small area in southeastern Colorado. A handful of Arapaho leaders signed the treaty, though they later said they did not fully understand its terms and did not agree to cede tribal lands. Friday continued to camp near the council tree.
On May 20, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the first Homestead Act, opening a new era of westward expansion and conquest in American history. Between 1862 and 1864 more than 1 million homesteads were granted to settlers who traveled west on the Overland Trail and other wagon routes. Those migrating across the Great Plains and beyond came into direct and sometimes violent competition with Native Americans for land, food, fuel, and other resources, which gave way to numerous conflicts throughout the Colorado Territory.
From Camp to Fort
To protect goods and people moving along the Overland Trail, the US government dispatched cavalry units in strategic locations. Camp Collins, on the Cache la Poudre River near LaPorte, was one of these locations. It was named after Lt. Col. William O. Collins of the Eleventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry. In its first location, the camp was vulnerable to seasonal flooding. On June 12, 1864, the camp flooded, and a majority of its equipment was lost. To meet the needs of the cavalry, a new encampment had to be built at a different site. On August 20, 1864, Collins wrote out a special order calling for a permanent post to be built on the Cache la Poudre.
In late October 1864, the Fort Collins Military Post was established on what is now the northeast edge of the city’s Old Town district. It was given the name “Fort Collins” to distinguish it from the earlier camp. The small fort was surrounded by a military reservation of more than 6,000 acres and housed many different military units.
In November 1864, US cavalry slaughtered more than 150 peaceful Arapaho and Cheyenne camped near Sand Creek, igniting wide-open conflict between the United States and the two Native American nations. Amidst these growing hostilities, Friday fled the Fort Collins area, rejoining his Northern Arapaho people in Wyoming.
Fort Collins was only garrisoned for another two-and-a-half years before local conflicts with Native Americans subsided, expiring its purpose. The fort was decommissioned in March 1867 by order of General William T. Sherman.
From Fort to City
Despite the fort’s brief tenure as a cavalry garrison, a small community was commissioned around the post shortly after it was opened. Lewis Stone and his wife, the colorful Elizabeth “Auntie” Stone, received permission to build a cabin on the grounds of the fort. Finished in 1864, their two-story cabin at the present corner of Mountain Avenue and Jefferson Street was the first permanent, private dwelling in Fort Collins. “Auntie Stone’s Cabin,” as it came to be known, also operated as the city’s first hotel, initially for military officers and then for the public in 1867.
The Stone family continued efforts to develop Fort Collins from a frontier settlement to a full-fledged community. For example, Elizabeth Stone’s philanthropy included the founding of the Fort Collins Women’s Christian Temperance Union. But the Stones were not the only enterprising settlers to capitalize on the military personnel stationed along the Overland Trail.
To provide basic goods for soldiers and travelers, Joseph Mason, another early Fort Collins resident, built the first permanent storefront at the corner of Jefferson and Linden Streets in 1865. By 1866 the town had both a church and a schoolhouse. In 1867, following the closing of the military post, Fort Collins was surveyed and platted. In 1870 it was chosen as the site of Colorado’s first and only land grant college—Colorado Agricultural College.
Colorado Agricultural College
As the country recovered from the Civil War, the small community of Fort Collins faced a situation similar to that of most other newly established western communities: it lacked the necessary transportation and institutional infrastructure necessary to support large-scale agriculture. Without capital investments and access to a railroad, Fort Collins would wither. Harris Stratton, who came to Fort Collins in 1865, sought to address this problem. Stratton served in the territorial legislature during 1868–69, and he was intrigued by the prospects of the 1862 Morrill Act, which provided land for the establishment of agricultural and mechanical colleges. Recognizing that a land-grant college would benefit Fort Collins, Stratton and fellow Fort Collins legislator Mathew S. Taylor, introduced the bill in 1870 that established the Agricultural College of Colorado.
In 1874 the Larimer County Land Improvement Company built an agricultural colony near LaPorte to complement the founding of Colorado Agricultural College. The colony provided 3,000 acres of land for farm plots to encourage experimental high-desert farming. It was not long before Fort Collins earned a reputation as the agricultural hub of northern Colorado. The position of the city as the preeminent agricultural community in northern Colorado was only elevated after its integration into the growing network of western railroads.
Railroads and Sugar Beets
The first railroad to reach Fort Collins was William A.H. Loveland’s Colorado Central Railroad in 1877, followed by the Greeley, Salt Lake & Pacific (GSL&P) in 1882. The arrival of railroads allowed farmers in the Cache la Poudre valley to ship their produce to regional and national markets, connected Fort Collins to larger economic centers such as Denver, and allowed the importation of building materials from the East.
The declining economy of the United States during the 1890s—highlighted by the Panic of 1893—resulted in part from the decline in the western mining industry and unexpected agricultural setbacks. One enterprise, however, held promise for the Fort Collins agricultural community—the sugar industry. The environmental conditions of the Front Range were suitable for the widespread cultivation of sugar beets, and the plant itself was ideally suited for the region’s unpredictable climate.
Agricultural reformers enticed northern Colorado farmers to plant sugar beets and declared that the practice would not only provide income for farmers but would also create jobs for laborers and industrial workers, as well as provide an avenue for capitalist investment and city growth. In 1901 the Denver magnates Charles Boettcher, J. J. Brown, and John F. Campion founded the Great Western Sugar Company, and in 1903 the company built a beet processing factory in Fort Collins.
The sugar beet industry flooded Fort Collins with wealth, and the city attracted a diverse population of agriculturalists, laborers, and capitalists. Many new residences and businesses were established during the prosperous first decade of the twentieth century, including a library, theaters, schools, recreational facilities, parks, and churches.
By 1920 Fort Collins had become a popular destination for Hollywood actors such as John Wayne, Olivia DeHavilland, and Vincent Price, who were drawn by the fine amenities of the iconic Northern Hotel and the rugged backdrop of the Front Range. Then Vice-Presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt, who romanticized Fort Collins as an emblematic western city, even campaigned from the steps of the Fort Collins courthouse during his 1920 bid for the White House. Three years later, students at Colorado Agricultural College climbed a hogback overlooking the western edge of town and painted a white letter “A” for “Aggies,” the school’s mascot. The white “A” has been a signature landmark in Fort Collins ever since, maintained by successive generations of students.
Just west of that hogback in 1949, the federal Bureau of Reclamation built Horsetooth Reservoir as part of the massive Colorado–Big Thompson Project. The reservoir continues to serve as both the city’s water source and a hub for outdoor recreation, while the surrounding hills are popular grounds for hiking, camping, and cycling.
In 1935 Colorado Agricultural College was renamed Colorado State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (Colorado A&M). During World War II, American soldiers were sent to Colorado A&M to undergo officer training before being sent overseas. In 1957 Colorado A&M was renamed Colorado State University (CSU), and its mascot changed from “Aggies” to “Rams.” CSU remains one of the cornerstones of the city’s economy and culture. Craft beer is another, in part because of the high quality and availability of local water.
A dry city until 1969, Fort Collins is today nationally known for its breweries. Anheuser-Busch was the first beer company to set up shop in Fort Collins, opening a brewery in 1988. But Fort Collins’s now-legendary craft beer industry began in 1989, when Scott Smith founded CooperSmith’s brewpub in the city’s Old Town district. That same year, West Coast brewers Doug and Wynne O’Dell set up O’Dell brewery in an old grain elevator on the outskirts of town. Then, inspired by the quality of small-scale beer brewers as he bicycled through Belgian towns, Fort Collins resident Jeff Lebesch founded New Belgium Brewing in 1991. The company quickly moved out of Lebesch’s basement and into its own brewery at 500 Linden Street. Today, New Belgium ships beer all across the country, while O’Dell retains a smaller-scale distribution network. CooperSmith’s is one of the nation’s most successful brewpubs, selling more than 2,000 barrels of beer each year. Committed to its founder’s love for cycling, New Belgium promotes both its beer and cycling through the annual Tour de Fat, a festival that combines beer, costumes, and bicycles.
Craft brewing has since been a mainstay of the local culture and economy in Fort Collins. The Fort Collins Brewery opened in 2003, followed by Funkwerks in 2007, and the city has since added a number of smaller breweries and brewpubs, including Pateros Creek (2008), Equinox (2010), Black Bottle (2012), and several others.
Even though the present site of the city was considered safer than the original Camp Collins, Fort Collins has remained vulnerable to flooding. The city has endured eleven flood events since 1864, with the worst being the Spring Creek Flood of 1997. The flood inundated much of western Fort Collins, including the CSU campus, killing five people and causing about $200 million in damage. Afterward, the city spent $5 million on recovery and an advanced flood warning system. Regional flooding in September 2013 narrowly missed the main part of the city, serving as another reminder to residents that living in such a scenic place does not come without risks.
Today, Fort Collins remains one of the fastest-growing and most popular cities in Colorado. The well-preserved Old Town Historic District serves as a hub for shopping, restaurants, and nightlife, as well as a reminder of the city’s agricultural and frontier history. The city continues to attract a multitude of tourists annually, and Colorado State University is recognized as one of the nation’s preeminent research institutions. Several technology companies, including Hewlett Packard, Intel, and AMD, maintain large facilities in Fort Collins.
To help improve transportation between the expanding residential developments south of downtown and the old heart of the city, Fort Collins established the MAX Bus system in 2014. As it grows, Fort Collins will continue to face challenges related to water availability, flood control, and transportation, but its status as one of the premier cities along Colorado’s Front Range is unlikely to change anytime soon.