Established in 1861 between Green Mountain and the hogback known as Dinosaur Ridge, Rooney Ranch is the oldest property continuously operated by the same family in Jefferson County. It was also the county’s largest cattle ranch ever and has one of the oldest stone buildings in the county. Today the ranch is increasingly hemmed in by suburban development, but it remains in the hands of Rooney descendants, who continue to live at the historic ranch compound and raise cattle on their land.
The founder of Rooney Ranch, Alexander Rooney, probably came to Colorado from Iowa in the spring of 1860. In search of gold, he did some prospecting along the Blue River, then went to New Mexico to work as a miner during the winter of 1860–61. Returning to Colorado in April, he set up a dairy farm near the Swan River. That fall he led his cattle down to Denver to find winter pasture and establish a permanent ranch.
For his ranch, Rooney selected a grassy valley with good water between Mt. Hendricks (now known as Green Mountain) and the long hogback just east of the foothills (now known as Dinosaur Ridge). After claiming the land and building a log shelter, he went back to Iowa and married Emeline Littlefield. In 1862 he and Emeline returned to Colorado with Emeline’s brother, Thomas Littlefield, who would become Rooney’s ranching partner.
Ranching in Rooney Valley
The Rooney family initially lived in the ranch’s log shelter, but by about 1865 Rooney and Littlefield had built a two-story stone ranch house near what is now Bandimere Speedway, using limestone and sandstone from south of the ranch. The ranch house still stands on Rooney Road south of West Alameda Parkway. The original horsehair plastered walls have been replaced by modern drywall, and the house also has a new porch and modern heating and plumbing, but the house retains much of its historic integrity even after 150 years.
The Rooney family and ranch grew steadily over the late nineteenth century. The Rooneys had six children, and the ranch expanded to a maximum size of more than 4,400 acres. Extending east as far as what is now Union Boulevard in Lakewood, it was the largest cattle ranch in the history of Jefferson County. Alexander Rooney became an important member of the Colorado cattle industry; in the 1870s he was active in the Colorado Stock Growers Association (now the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association), and he later imported Galloway cattle from Missouri, becoming the first in Jefferson County to raise the shaggy Scottish breed.
The Rooneys regularly interacted with bands of Nuche people who passed through the ranch. The ranch’s Iron Spring had long been used by Nuche or Ute people, who kept coming to the spring after the Rooneys settled the area. The Ute leader Colorow held his councils under a large ponderosa pine known as Inspiration Tree (or Council Tree) on the slope of Dinosaur Ridge. In the 1930s and 1940s, after West Alameda Parkway was extended past the tree, Alexander Rooney’s grandson Alex cleared a picnic area and built a dance pavilion beside the tree, where the family held steak fries and square dances.
After several decades of prosperity, the Panic of 1893 and the economic depression that followed forced the Rooneys to sell about two-thirds of their ranch, leaving them with 1,380 acres. The family continued to raise cattle but also began to diversify. Coal had been discovered on the ranch in 1872, and the family leased land to various mining companies from then into the twentieth century. Clay mining on the hogback near the ranch settlement started in 1901 and continued until the 1960s, and there were also limestone quarries in the early twentieth century. In 1908–10 the ranch served as a setting for several silent cowboy movies made by the early Western star Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson.
Alexander Rooney died in 1895, and Emeline followed in 1900. The ranch passed to their son Otis, who later passed it to his son Alex. In the late twentieth century, the ranch was owned jointly by Alex’s four sons, Albert, Otis, George, and John. In addition to the original stone ranch house, the property included a sandstone springhouse built at Iron Spring in 1867, and a stone barn first built in the 1860s and rebuilt in 1890 in the ranch’s distinctive uncoursed rubble style, in which coarsely cut stones are stacked in a seemingly haphazard fashion. Other uncoursed rubble ranch buildings, such as a granary, a blacksmith shop, a garage, and several houses, date to the twentieth century.
In the 1860s, Rooney Ranch was relatively isolated, nearly fifteen miles west of Denver, six miles south of Golden, and three miles north of Morrison. Rooney Road, which passed through the ranch on its way from Golden to Deer Creek, was not completed until 1870. In the 1930s, West Alameda Parkway was extended through the ranch and over Dinosaur Ridge on its way to Red Rocks, bringing the ranch more closely into Denver’s orbit. Since at least the 1970s, and especially since the completion of C-470 near the ranch compound in the 1980s, the development of the Denver suburbs has gradually encroached upon what is left of the ranch. At the same time, however, the ranch has been increasingly recognized and preserved for its historical significance.
Jefferson County Open Space has acquired parcels of Rooney Ranch land on or near Dinosaur Ridge to protect them from development, including the house that now serves as the Dinosaur Ridge Visitors Center. In 1975 the ranch was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1976 it became a Jefferson County Landmark, and in 1987 it was named a Colorado Centennial Ranch. In 2010 the ranch’s founders, Alexander and Emeline Rooney, were inducted into the Jefferson County Historical Commission Hall of Fame.
Development in the area accelerated in the 2000s, as new housing and other projects began to expand west across Rooney Valley toward C-470. In 2007–8 Jefferson County used land donated by the Rooney family to build a new interchange at West Alameda Parkway and C-470. The county also rezoned 112 acres around the interchange with the hope of creating a “Tech Center West” that could eventually have 2,100 housing units, 1.5 million square feet of office space, and 8,000 jobs. These plans were put on hold as a result of the Great Recession, and as of 2016, Lakewood’s Solterra housing development has been the only new construction in Rooney Valley.
Meanwhile, the fifth generation of the Rooney family continues to own and manage what remains of the family’s historic ranch. Randy Rooney raises cattle on the ranch under the name Laramie Cattle Company, while Rich Rooney has continued the family’s construction tradition with Rooney Hardwood Floors.