The town of Mount Vernon was established in 1859 at the base of Mount Vernon Canyon, west of Denver. The town is best known as the home of Robert W. Steele, who made it the de facto capital of the unofficial Territory of Jefferson while he was governor in 1859–61. Today two early stone houses remain just south of Interstate 70, and much of the original town plat is preserved in Matthews/Winters Park.
De Facto Capital and Transportation Hub
When the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59 brought thousands of prospectors to what is now Colorado, the land where they settled was still part of Kansas Territory. The territorial capital lay hundreds of miles to the east. By the spring of 1859 the settlers around Denver were growing frustrated at the lack of any real government in their part of Kansas, so they called a meeting for representatives from the region’s mining districts to discuss the possibility of organizing a new territory. That October the Territory of Jefferson was born, complete with a territorial constitution and a slate of officers, including Governor Robert W. Steele.
Steele lived at the base of Mount Vernon Canyon in the foothills west of Denver, where he had settled earlier in 1859. He named the area after George Washington’s estate in Virginia. Steele had a handful of neighbors there, including the clergyman Joseph Casto, who platted the town of Mount Vernon in the fall of 1859. Casto’s ultimate goal was to capitalize on John Gregory’s recent gold discovery at what is now Central City and Black Hawk. To do this, he and three others started the Denver, Auraria, and Colorado Wagon Road Company, which built a toll road from Denver through Mount Vernon and up the canyon to Gregory’s gold strike. Casto would make money from travelers who paid the toll to use his road, and those travelers would also turn his town of Mount Vernon into a thriving transportation hub.
Casto’s plan worked for about two years. Steele conducted most public business from Mount Vernon, making the town the de facto territorial capital, and as many as fifty wagons reportedly passed through the town daily on their way to mountain mining camps. By the summer of 1860 the town already had several dozen cabins and offered a blacksmith, a grocery, a saloon, a school, and two hotels. That year, George Morrison—who later founded the town of Morrison a few miles to the south—built a stone house at Mount Vernon. Constructed of plastered freestone, the two-story house has been expanded several times and served over the years as an inn, a stage station, post office, general store, and now a private residence.
The federal government never recognized Jefferson Territory. Instead, in 1861 Congress created Colorado Territory, and President Abraham Lincoln named William Gilpin as its first governor. Steele gave up his post. His house in Mount Vernon burned down—a monument still marks the site—and he moved a few miles north to Apex, where he invested in a rival toll road to the mountains that went up Apex Gulch. The Apex Road and others like it soon took over traffic from the Mount Vernon Road because they were shorter and not as susceptible to washing out.
Mount Vernon declined after it lost its short-lived prominence in politics and transportation, while cities like Golden and Denver began to dominate territorial life. For a while the town continued to serve as a stage stop along the Mount Vernon Road and limped along with about fifty residents, a few stores and hotels, and a school. When railroads started to head into the mountains from Denver in the 1870s, however, they bypassed Mount Vernon Canyon’s steep grades in favor of alternative routes such as Platte Canyon and Clear Creek Canyon. Stage traffic on the Mount Vernon Road declined, and after 1885 Mount Vernon was no longer listed as a stage stop.
Eventually, William Matthews and his large family were the only residents who remained in Mount Vernon. In 1870 Matthews had acquired George Morrison’s stone house, known as the Mount Vernon House. He gradually expanded his holdings by buying old town lots, including the Baugher Residence, a two-story limestone house across Mount Vernon Creek from the Mount Vernon House. Originally built in 1871–72 for William Nelson, it was remodeled in the 1930s for members of the Matthews family.
Interstate 70 and Matthews/Winters Park
In the twentieth century Mount Vernon Canyon regained its prominence as a major transportation corridor between Denver and the mountains. In 1880 Jefferson County acquired the old toll road up Mount Vernon Canyon, but the road was never paved. In the 1920s the dirt road became part of US 40 and a small gas station was built near the Mount Vernon House. In 1937 the highway was rerouted to the north side of the canyon, above the creek and away from the few remaining Mount Vernon houses.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the construction of Interstate 70 in Mount Vernon Canyon threatened the town’s remaining structures. The main part of the town plat and the Mount Vernon House and Baugher Residence were saved thanks in part to lobbying by the Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado). Today, the Mount Vernon House and the Baugher Residence are the town’s only remaining stone buildings, located along the creek just south of where the interstate turns west into the canyon.
The opening of the interstate led inevitably to new plans for development in the Mount Vernon area. In 1970 the Galen Development Company bought more than 500 acres at Mount Vernon and planned to build a large residential and commercial development. That year the Mount Vernon House became the first Jefferson County site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Soon William and Joan Winters acquired Galen Development’s land and sold it to the new Jefferson County Open Space (JCOS) program for preservation. JCOS later expanded its holdings at Mount Vernon by acquiring more than 350 acres from Matthews family descendant Nicholas Matthews.
The land JCOS acquired at Mount Vernon became Matthews/Winters Park—named for the Matthews and Winters families. In addition to preserving the Mount Vernon town site, the park also helps preserve the landscape near Red Rocks and Dinosaur Ridge, two iconic Front Range sites. It is now a popular area for hiking, running, and mountain biking. The two surviving nineteenth-century stone houses from Mount Vernon, which remain privately owned, are located on a small road just west of the Matthews/Winters parking area, and the historic Mount Vernon Cemetery can be reached via a short hike on the Village Walk trail.