Longmont is a city of about 92,000 along the Front Range in eastern Boulder County. Named after the prominent Longs Peak to the west, the city was founded in 1871 by members of the Chicago-Colorado Colony, near the confluence of Left Hand and St. Vrain Creeks.
After its founding, Longmont quickly developed into an agricultural hub where local farmers and ranchers brought produce to be processed and shipped out on rail lines. Beginning in the 1960s, the Longmont economy diversified to include high-tech and other industries, and the population swelled to 71,000 by 2000. Today, even though agriculture is more a part of Longmont’s past than its present or future, the city maintains a hard-working, industrious spirit, with a large population of blue-collar and service industry workers and a thriving artist and professional class.
The sheltered and well-watered region along Colorado’s Front Range has drawn human populations for millennia, as far back as the Paleo-Indian and Folsom peoples about 12,000 years ago or earlier. By the nineteenth century, the Arapaho and Cheyenne people lived in the area, making winter camp near the sites of present-day cities such as Boulder and Fort Collins. Left Hand Creek is named for the Arapaho leader Niwot, or “Left Hand,” who encountered the first white prospectors in what became Boulder County.
St. Vrain Creek, Longmont’s other main waterway, was named after Ceran St. Vrain, a fur trader of French descent who came to the area in the early nineteenth century.
Beginnings at Burlington
The Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59 brought thousands of white settlers to the Front Range. The first to settle near present-day Longmont were prospector Alonzo Allen and his seventeen-year-old stepson, William Henry Dickens, who in 1860 built a cabin on the south bank of St. Vrain Creek.
In 1862 Allen and Dickens filed for adjacent homesteads on St. Vrain Creek. Allen’s cabin was located near a convenient ford of the creek, so it soon became a stage stop and post office. Allen’s wife, Mary, arrived in 1863, and they set up a tavern and inn that served passengers on stage routes between Denver and Laramie, Wyoming. A small settlement of 150 took shape around Allen’s stage stop and was named Burlington. The community added a school in 1864 and a newspaper in 1871, but frequent flooding stunted its growth.
The Chicago-Colorado Colony Company incorporated in Chicago on November 20, 1870, with the goal of establishing an agricultural community in what was then Colorado Territory. A committee headed by former lumberman Seth Terry and Rocky Mountain News founder William Byers arrived in Denver in January 1871 to search for a suitable location for the colony. Byers, along with the group’s secretary, Cyrus N. Pratt, were investors in the Denver Pacific Railway and wanted the colony to buy land from the railroad.
After a tour of the Front Range that included a visit to Horace Greeley’s Union Colony, Terry bought 23,000 acres near the Burlington settlement from the Denver Pacific’s National Land Company. In early March 1871, Terry led a group of about 250 settlers to the confluence of St. Vrain and Left Hand Creeks.
Terry surveyed and platted a town, naming it Longmont after the stunning view of Longs Peak to the west. The colonists immediately set to work digging ditches and building homes.
Like the Union Colony, the Chicago-Colorado Colony was envisioned as an agricultural utopia where colonists would farm the land and share the benefits of their work. Temperance was written into the colony’s constitution although it was quickly challenged, and saloons became legal as early as 1873. The colonists had plans for churches, parks, a library, a college, and even a county courthouse, as they hoped to take over the county seat from Boulder.
Longmont never became the county seat, but many of the colonists’ other plans quickly came to fruition. The city’s first church, the United Methodist, was founded in 1871. Lake Park, one of Colorado’s earliest public parks, was completed just west of Main Street that same year. The park was supposed to hold a lake, but it was eventually filled in and made into a horse racing track. Elizabeth Thompson, a wealthy East Coast philanthropist, financed the construction of Colorado’s first public library in Longmont in 1871. The library doubled as the city’s first schoolhouse.
Longmont absorbed the older community of Burlington in 1871 and incorporated in 1873. The Chicago-Colorado Colony all but dissolved with Longmont’s incorporation. That year the Colorado Central Railroad arrived from Golden, allowing Longmont to ship farm products to miners in the mountains.
Some of the Burlington homesteaders became leading citizens of Longmont, the most famous being William Henry Dickens. He built the Dickens Opera House at Third Avenue and Main Street in 1881, which served for decades as the social hub of the city, hosting not only concerts, plays, and operas but also dances, club meetings, political rallies, and other events. Among other ventures, Dickens also founded Farmers National Bank, which helped local farmers secure funds for land and farm equipment.
A year after Dickens built his opera house, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad arrived in Longmont, giving the city its second rail line and easier access to markets in Chicago, Kansas, and elsewhere.
In 1887 entrepreneur Thomas Callahan and his wife Alice arrived and opened a dry goods store on Main Street called the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule was immediately successful, and Callahan soon opened other locations throughout the Front Range and Wyoming. In 1892 the Callahans acquired and improved the large mansion at the corner of Third Avenue and Terry Street, now known as the Callahan House. Meanwhile, the local Presbyterian synod built Longmont’s first college on East Sixth Avenue in 1886, but only had enough money to complete one building, now known as The Landmark.
As Longmont developed, pro- and anti-drink crowds battled over temperance. Saloons were first allowed in Longmont in 1873, but liquor was periodically banned and allowed between 1875 and 1916, when Colorado enacted statewide prohibition. During these decades, the Longmont Ledger, a weekly newspaper dating to 1877, was one of the loudest voices for temperance, while the Longmont Call, founded in 1893, defended saloons. The situation became so heated that in 1903 a group of pro-liquor Longmontians moved north and established the new town of Rosedale, also known as North Longmont. Rosedale welcomed not only saloons but also gambling and prostitution. After a lengthy and controversial annexation process, Longmont officially absorbed Rosedale in 1913. Legal booze finally won out in Longmont with the lifting of national prohibition in 1933.
Longmont had a flour mill as early as 1872, but its days as a processing center for local produce were only beginning. In 1889 Denver businessman John Empson opened the Empson Cannery in Longmont and began buying up local farmland to grow vegetables. The cannery helped anchor the city’s growing economy, and in 1891 Empson’s money and canned pumpkin helped make Longmont’s first annual Pumpkin Pie Days a success. Empson’s company became one of the leading producers of canned peas in the world, and in the 1920s, it merged with the successful Kuner Pickle Company of Denver.
Longmont’s economy received another major boost when the city gained a sugar beet factory in 1903. City trustee Frank M. Downer led the campaign for the factory. He formed the Longmont Sugar Company, and local businessman Henry O. Havemeyer agreed to provide funds for the plant. With Thomas Callahan supplying the bricks, the Longmont beet factory was built just southeast of downtown. At the time of its completion, it was the largest beet factory in Colorado, employing more than 700 men, women, and children.
At its peak, the factory processed 3,650 tons of beets and produced more than one million pounds of sugar per day. The Longmont Sugar Company was soon acquired by the Great Western Sugar Company, the agricultural titan that dominated the sugar beet industry in Colorado for nearly seven decades.
Beet farms needed labor, and Longmont’s sugar beet boom brought hundreds of newcomers from all parts of the world. Germans from Russia joined Japanese and Mexican families that either worked in the beet fields or set up farms of their own.
In 1900 the US census recorded no one with a Spanish surname living in Longmont, but by 1920 the city had thirty-one households headed by a person with a Spanish last name. Great Western built a small colonia—a cluster of barely adequate company houses—near its factory, and Latino beet workers spent winters there until the 1940s. In 1907 German Russians established Longmont’s first German-speaking church, the Evangelical Lutheran. The first generation of Japanese farmers in the St. Vrain valley arrived between 1915 and 1920. One prominent early Japanese farmer was Goroku Kanemoto, who moved his family to a large farm near Terry Lake in 1919.
As one of the most prosperous agricultural hubs in Colorado, Longmont enjoyed continued growth even during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, events that hollowed out other farm communities. In 1934 some 380 of Boulder County’s 1,500 farms reported crop failure, yet the city’s population kept rising, reaching 7,406 by 1940.
Diversification and Growth
Continued growth through the postwar years gave way to economic diversification in the 1960s and 1970s. State Highway 119 between Boulder and Longmont was paved and straightened in 1960, allowing more Longmont residents to commute to university and other non-farming jobs in Boulder. The US government built an air traffic control center in Longmont in 1962 and IBM added a large facility southwest of the city in 1965.
As the ranks of commuters grew and government and tech jobs arrived, agricultural and industrial jobs dried up. Outdated equipment and infrastructure forced the Kuner-Empson cannery to close in 1970 and decades of corporate mismanagement led to the closure of the Longmont sugar factory in 1977.
Economic transformation proved to be a boon for Longmont, as the city’s population exploded from 11,489 in 1960 to 42,942 by 1980. Longmont developers were quick to seize the demand for new housing. After the IBM campus opened, the Kanemoto family stopped farming and built the 700-home Southmoor Park neighborhood on some of their land. The neighborhood was one of several Kanemoto developments in town. In the 1980s, the old Longmont College building was converted into apartments, and developer Roger Pomainville turned the old brick warehouses of the Kuner-Empson cannery into apartments.
Redevelopment of Longmont’s downtown district also began in the 1980s. The city council formed the Longmont Downtown Development Authority (LDDA) in 1982, and over the next two decades the authority invested more than $45 million in new buildings and renovations along Main Street. The LDDA also oversaw the construction of pedestrian-friendly alleys and crosswalks, the planting of trees and flowers, and other beautification efforts.
Alongside downtown development came historic preservation, in the form of two historic districts located east and west of Main Street. The districts were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986–87.
The city’s Latino community grew along with the city, as the changing economy attracted more people from elsewhere in the United States and immigrants from Mexico and Central America. When IBM first set up its facility, the company did not hire many Latinos, but a discrimination lawsuit in 1971 changed that. By the middle of the decade, Longmont was home to some 101 Latino professionals, many of whom worked at IBM or the University of Colorado. Hundreds more Latinos worked in service or industrial jobs such as the Longmont turkey processing factory, which was known for poor working conditions.
Although Latinos were a fundamental part of the city’s culture and economy, they faced discrimination and police harassment throughout the twentieth century. In August 1980 a Longmont police officer shot and killed two unarmed Latino men during a routine traffic stop. In response, Latino community leaders formed El Comité, a group that demanded reform of the Longmont Police Department and increased dialogue between the police and the Latino community. El Comité’s efforts were largely successful, and the group continues to advise Longmont police today on behalf of a Latino community that now makes up 25 percent of the city’s population.
Today Longmont’s population boom continues, mirroring the explosive growth of the Front Range. Housing developments continue to spring up, such as the 115-unit Roosevelt Park Apartments and Pomainville’s 220-unit Mill Village. Like its Front Range neighbors Boulder and Fort Collins, Longmont has also developed a thriving craft beer industry, anchored by Left Hand Brewery and Oskar Blues. More affordable than nearby Boulder, Longmont is home to many working-class residents who commute to the affluent county seat for jobs in construction and service or at the University of Colorado.
Though it has seen plenty of changes over the last 150 years, Longmont remains dedicated to preserving its heritage. The Longmont Museum, which opened in 2002 south of downtown, is one of the more robust museums along the Front Range. In 2008 its permanent exhibit Front Range Rising won History Colorado’s Josephine H. Miles History Award and the Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History. Still in touch with its agricultural roots, Longmont is home to the Boulder County Agricultural Heritage Center, along Ute Highway at the west end of town.
After three decades of redevelopment, downtown Longmont is now a hub for restaurants, brewpubs, coffee shops, and boutiques. In addition to The Landmark and the Empson cannery, which still house apartments, many of the city’s oldest buildings remain in use. The Dickens Opera House continues to offer live entertainment on the second floor and dining on the first, while the city-maintained Callahan House welcomes visitors and hosts a variety of public and private events.