The Front Range is a corridor of the Rocky Mountains and surrounding land stretching 200 miles from the Wyoming border on the north to the Arkansas River on the south. The western border of the Front Range consists of a collection of high mountain ranges, from the Medicine Bow and Laramie Mountains in the north to the Pikes Peak massif in the south. The western border of the Front Range consists of an assortment of mountain ranges, including a group of peaks between Georgetown and Silverthorne, as well as the Indian Peaks, Mummy Range, Laramie Mountains, Medicine Bow Mountains, Kenosha Mountains, Tarryall Mountains, Rampart Range, and Pikes Peak. The region’s eastern boundaries are somewhat less clear, generally consisting of the foothills of the mountains and the western edge of the Great Plains.
The Front Range has a long history of human migration and habitation, as it offers access to the resources of both mountains and plains, as well as shelter from the extreme weather of both environments. Today, the corridor has a population of 4.5 million and is the site of Colorado’s largest cities, including Fort Collins, Boulder, Denver, and Colorado Springs.
Stone tools and other artifacts found at the Lindenmeier archaeological site in northern Larimer County indicate the presence of indigenous hunter-gatherers along the Front Range as early as 12,300 years ago. On the eastern slope of Pikes Peak, archaeologists have found evidence of human occupation dating to 5,000 years ago, and some etchings in the rocks at Garden of the Gods date back at least 1,000 years.
By AD 1500, the Front Range was home to the Ute, a nomadic people who spent the summers hunting in the high country and wintered in camps at the base of the mountains. After the Ute obtained horses in the mid-seventeenth century, some bands began hunting buffalo on the plains. In the early nineteenth century the Utes along the Front Range were joined by the Arapaho and Cheyenne, two peoples who had been pushed out of their homeland in the upper Midwest. The Arapaho ranged farther into the mountains than the Cheyenne and became enemies of the Ute as the two groups competed for game and other resources in the high mountain valleys. Other indigenous groups that frequented the Front Range plains in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries included the Jicarilla Apache, Comanche, Kiowa, and Lakota.
These people’s identities are inextricably linked to the geography and ecology of the Front Range. Pikes Peak, for instance, figures prominently in the Ute creation story in which the Creator built their nation around the mountain. The band that most commonly frequented the area around Pikes Peak knew the mountain as “Tava,” or “sun mountain,” and called themselves the “Tabeguache,” the “People of Sun Mountain.”
The Arapaho shared with the Ute a reverence for the mountains of the Front Range. They knew Pikes Peak as “heey-otoyoo’,” or “long mountain,” and at least one Arapaho hunter made a habit of ascending Longs Peak in today’s Rocky Mountain National Park to hunt eagles. Meanwhile, the identity and spirituality of both the Cheyenne and Arapaho were tied to the plains, the realm of the all-important bison and horse.
Early American Era
Early American explorers such as Lieutenant Zebulon Pike in 1806–7 and Major Stephen Long in 1820 saw the Front Range as part of the so-called Great American Desert and unfit for farming. What Pike and Long had seen was a land baked by sun, with too little moisture to sustain the agricultural way of life they were familiar with in the east.
From the summit of Pikes Peak in 1893, Katharine Lee Bates saw the region differently. She was so impressed by the view that she penned the words to “America the Beautiful.” The 20,000 square miles of Front Range before her had indeed changed in seventy-five years since Major Long had seen it. Farmers had come to seed the “amber waves of grain” and irrigated agriculture had supplanted beaver and bison pelt hunting primary industry on the “fruited plain.”
When gold was discovered on Ralston, Dry, and Clear Creeks in 1859, the region’s economy and history were forever altered. Thousands of would-be miners swarmed into the Front Range, propelling Denver’s growth and sparking the emergence of towns such as Boulder, Idaho Springs, Central City, and Black Hawk. The gold boom was short lived, but miners and the men who supplied them were here to stay.
To support the mining boom, Front Range towns imported tools, clothing, and building materials from Midwestern cities such as St. Louis and Chicago. But food was more difficult to import, so farmers followed the gold seekers to Colorado to work the land along the streams of the Front Range.
Growing crops in Colorado was not easy. The Front Range offered plenty of sunshine and warm winter Chinook winds, but the growing season was short, rainfall was scarce, and unpredictable spring blizzards wiped out many harvests. Though it was difficult, farming along the Front Range had its rewards. Miners were hungry, railroad crews needed provisions, and land was plentiful thanks to a campaign that relocated the Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapaho to surrounding states. Propaganda from Colorado’s earliest boosters maintained that irrigation was “not a burden but a pleasure” and that water constantly flowed from the mountains to the plains, furnishing a reliable supply of nutrient-rich soil. Later generations would find that this was mostly untrue—the water supply was hardly limitless—but in the early days of settlement the propaganda made life on the Front Range seem downright Edenic. Believing the area to be free from “Hay Asthma,” where one could be cured of chronic bronchitis and “tubercular or scrofulous consumption,” land-hungry easterners suffering from the repeated economic recessions of the nineteenth century poured into Colorado seeking a healthful and productive place to live.
But the real stimulus to irrigated agriculture came from those who believed that cooperative agricultural societies in the west could be a profitable and harmonious alternative to the industrial competition and aggressive individualism of the east. Although he knew relatively little of the west, Nathan Meeker, the agricultural editor of the New York Herald Tribune, led a committee to Colorado in search of a site for a farming community in 1869. They found a 12,000-acre parcel on the Cache la Poudre River, four miles upstream from its junction with the South Platte. Before the year was out, ground had been broken on the Union Colony, the beginnings of present-day Greeley. Towns such as Arvada, Boulder, Broomfield, and Wheat Ridge all developed along a similar model—growing crops to feed miners—in the mid- to late nineteenth century. In 1870 the Colorado territorial legislature designated Fort Collins as the site of the Agricultural College (now Colorado State University), which researched and helped implement best practices for irrigation and crop production across the state.
As overhunting led to a sharp decline in the buffalo herds during the late nineteenth century, rangy longhorn cattle began to fill the empty space on the plains. Driven up from Texas in herds of 2,000 to 3,000 along the Goodnight-Loving Trail, the cattle were sold to Indian reservations, mining communities, and railroad crews or driven east to markets in Kansas City or Chicago. The era of large-scale, free-range ranching along the Front Range was short lived, however; a severe summer drought in 1886 was followed by early snows and freezing temperatures that decimated the cattle herds, paving the way for much of the former grazing land to be fenced off and sold into private ownership.
Gold, Steel, and Beets
By the early twentieth century, three major developments injected new life into the Front Range economy, broadening the region’s financial and industrial base: a new gold rush at Cripple Creek, Colorado Fuel & Iron’s steel mill in Pueblo, and the rise of the sugar beet industry.
The gold discoveries in the Cripple Creek and Victor areas in 1890 came at just the right time. The great silver boom of the 1870s and 1880s was snuffed out when the nation returned to the gold standard in 1893, but Cripple Creek was a gold strike, and its mines were the single most important reason for Colorado’s rapid emergence from economic depression. The money that poured into Colorado Springs from the mines on the other side of Pikes Peak financed the Broadmoor Hotel’s construction and covered the dome of the capitol building in Denver with gold leaf. It also created millionaires who went on to build department stores, railroads, tunnels, and other industries and infrastructure in the state.
To the south, Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I) turned Pueblo into the “Pittsburgh of the West.” Through employment in its mines and mills, the company attracted thousands of immigrants to Colorado and permanently altered the social milieu of the southern end of the Front Range.
While the Cripple Creek mines and CF&I placed their faith in the seemingly endless mineral wealth of the Rockies, the Great Western Sugar Company gambled on a crop that was unfamiliar to most Colorado farmers in the early twentieth century. Sugar beet agriculture had not been a great success in Grand Junction, where Great Western built its first factory in 1899, but the altitude, soil, and mild winters of the Front Range seemed ideally suited to this crop. Front Range farmers were eager to plant beets because they were a cash crop whose market price was guaranteed at the time of planting. In 1909 farmers harvested 108,000 acres of beets; ten years later they harvested 166,000 acres. In just one decade, Colorado had become the largest producer of sugar beets in the nation.
However, converting fields from cereal grains to water-intensive beets and other vegetable crops put a strain on the available water supply. From 1925 to 1933, many of these crops received less than half the water they required, and sizable acreages received no water at all. When a drought hit in the 1930s, Great Western Sugar became one of the principal proponents of the Colorado–Big Thompson project (C-BT) a transmountain water diversion project that imported water from Colorado’s Western Slope by pumping it under the Continental Divide. When it was completed in the mid-1950s, the C-BT not only allowed farmers to continue growing water-intensive crops along the Front Range but also increased the supply of drinking water for the region’s expanding urban population.
The 1920s and 1930s were hard times for the Front Range and the state as a whole. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl decimated the region’s agricultural industry, and thousands of farmers and ranchers were forced to abandon their homes and fields. In the late 1930s, New Deal programs addressed problems of unemployment, overused land, schools, airports, roads, and other public facilities. But it was not until World War II that the Front Range experienced its next economic boom. This time, assistance came from the Department of Defense.
World War II launched Colorado into the industrial age. The Denver Ordnance Plant, Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Denver Shipyard, and Lowry Air Field were all established in Colorado by the Department of Defense as part of the war effort. Front Range universities received funds for training soldiers in language and intelligence specialties.
Following the war, the Front Range received national attention during the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953–61), partly because the president and his wife spent a lot of time in Colorado and partly because federal funds continued to pour into the area. The North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) built its missile detection center in the bowels of Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, while Denver became the regional home of a variety of federal agencies. Meanwhile, Denver’s position as a regional transportation hub brought Interstate 70 and Interstate 25 together just north of the city’s rapidly expanding downtown.
By 1960, Colorado was the ninth fastest-growing state in the nation with the fourth-largest population increase since 1950. Ninety percent of the gain was confined to the Front Range between Pueblo and Fort Collins, while many counties on the Western Slope continued to lose population. A backlash to the progrowth doctrine of the mid-twentieth century occurred in the 1970s. Recognizing the steep environment costs of progrowth policies, antigrowth coalitions came together to shut down Colorado’s bid to host the 1976 Winter Olympics in protest.
By 1989 more than 2.3 million people called the Front Range home. Securing an adequate water supply for such a quickly growing population had always been a major concern, but under President Jimmy Carter (1977–81), federal money for water projects was almost entirely cut off. Colorado was on its own and was unprepared to pay the full cost of the diversion, storage, and treatment projects that seemed necessary to support sustained population growth and a booming agricultural economy.
The biggest problem the Front Range faced at the time was that most of the state’s water fell in the form of snow on the other side of the Continental Divide. Diversion projects that drew water from the Western Slope successfully secured enough water to sustain the Front Range, but they also led to animosity between those living on the west and east side of the Continental Divide. Those living on the western side believed the Front Range was sucking up all of their water. Tensions still run high over the issue of how much water should be diverted from the Western Slope to the Front Range, resulting in fierce debates between farmers, environmentalists, recreationalists, and city and county officials over how to manage such a critical and scarce resource.
Toward the Future
The Metro Denver area continues to expand, and communities such as Broomfield and Thornton have purchased water rights from farmers to meet their growing urban needs. As farmers evaluate options for the future, local communities may have to come up with plans to prevent the remaining prime agricultural land along the Front Range from drying up.
Some Coloradans are less than enthusiastic about spending taxpayer money to promote tourism, but people who are familiar with state finances know that it is a multibillion-dollar industry that is increasingly becoming the lifeblood of many communities. In 2014, for instance, the tourism industry set records by attracting 71.3 million visitors who spent a total of $18.6 billion in Colorado. Since 2014, revenue associated with the state’s legalization of recreational marijuana has also helped the tourism economy, especially in Denver.
As the Front Range continues to grow, questions remain about how to secure an adequate water supply and how to address the unequal distribution of economic growth in the state. As Colorado faces the challenges of a changing climate and an uncertain future, residents will need to figure out how to forge a more solid sense of unity and cooperation. Still, with the state’s reputation for producing hearty, pragmatic citizens, Colorado’s future shines almost as brightly as its capitol’s gilded dome in the summer sun.
This article is an abbreviated and updated version of the author’s essay “The Colorado Front Range to 1990,” distributed in 2006 as part of Colorado Humanities’ “Five States of Colorado” educational resource kit.