William Henry Dickens (c. 1842–1915) was a homesteader, farmer, and businessman in the St. Vrain valley. A prominent early citizen of Longmont, Dickens built the Dickens Opera House, established Farmers National Bank, and helped organize the Farmers Milling and Elevator Company, among other ventures.
In 1915 Dickens was shot and killed in his Longmont home. The high-profile murder drew law enforcement officers from all over the state. Although Dickens’s son Rienzi was initially convicted, he was later freed, and the murder remains unsolved to this day.
William H. Dickens, a distant relative of the English novelist Charles Dickens, was born during his family’s crossing from England to the United States in the early 1840s. He lived with his family in Canada and Wisconsin, where his father and two sisters died. Dickens’s mother married Alonzo Allen, and hard times in the 1850s convinced Allen to join the Colorado Gold Rush in 1859.
Allen took his seventeen-year-old stepson with him to Boulder, which at that time was a rough-and-tumble mining settlement. The pair had little luck prospecting, so in 1860 they left the mountains and built a cabin near the confluence of St. Vrain and Left Hand Creeks, near the site of present-day Longmont. Allen’s cabin happened to be near a strategic crossing of St. Vrain Creek, and the area soon attracted dozens of other homesteaders.
Soon after their cabin was built, Dickens began farming hay while Allen prospected in the mountains. In 1863 Allen’s wife, Mary, and their children arrived, and the family set up a tavern and inn along the stagecoach route between Denver and Wyoming. By then the area was known as Burlington. In 1865 Dickens built a stable barn for the family inn, and in 1869 he built Independence Hall, an early drugstore and community center. Sometime between 1865 and 1869, Dickens filed for a 102-acre homestead near his stepfather’s cabin.
When the Chicago-Colorado Colony established the city of Longmont just north of Burlington in 1871, most of the early homesteaders picked up and moved to the new town. Dickens moved his family’s stable barn and Independence Hall to Longmont. In 1876 he married Ida Kiteley, the daughter of John Kiteley, another early St. Vrain homesteader. The couple had five children: William, Rienzi, John, Mary, and Artalissa.
The Dickenses eventually expanded their homestead to 1,280 acres on which they farmed and raised livestock. In 1881 Dickens moved Independence Hall to another lot and built the two-story Dickens Opera House at Third Avenue and Main Street. In 1891 Dickens founded Farmers National Bank, which was headquartered at the opera house until it moved into its own building in the early 1900s. He was also one of the founders of the Farmers Milling and Elevator Company, which in the early twentieth century challenged tycoon John K. Mullen’s near monopoly on Colorado’s flour industry.
In 1904 Dickens and his family moved into a large house at Third Avenue and Coffman Street, which later became the St. Vrain Hospital and has since been converted into apartments.
In November 1915, an elderly William Dickens was reading in his home when a rifle bullet burst through the window, killing him. News of the murder traveled quickly along the Front Range, and law enforcement came from as far away as Colorado Springs to help track down the killer. They had little luck, however, until it was found that Dickens’s son Rienzi purchased a rifle and silencer earlier that month. Rienzi Dickens was arrested and initially found guilty of murdering his father in 1915, but his lawyers demanded a retrial. Rienzi was freed by a jury in Greeley in 1921 and immediately left for California. The crime was never officially solved.
Today William Dickens’s legacy lives on in his opera house, which remains a popular venue for food, drink, and entertainment. The Dickens Tavern operates on the first floor, while the second floor continues to host concerts, plays, and other events. Dickens’s Independence Hall building, one of the earliest community structures in the St. Vrain valley, still stands at 329 Third Avenue. As one of Longmont’s earliest and wealthiest citizens, William Dickens played an essential role in the city’s rapid development into one of Colorado’s most important agricultural centers.