Denver: The Beginning

In 1858, a group of miners established the town of Auraria on the southwest side of Cherry Creek, near its confluence with the South Platte River. The following year, William H. Larimer and company established a rival camp on the opposite side of the creek. Larimer named his new town Denver, after the governor of Kansas Territory.

Auraria was a true mining camp, run by a consortium more interested in making it rich than establishing anything permanent. Larimer recognized that tales of gold finds in the area would cause a new gold rush, like the one in California just ten years prior. Such an influx of people into a wilderness would require a steady flow of supplies, so Larimer established an exclusive contract with the Pike’s Peak Express Company for 53 town lots and shares in the town company. Such foresight made Denver a commerce hub for the entire area. By 1860 Auraria and Denver merged, with the Auraria lots on the west side of the creek becoming West Denver.

Most of the people who traveled west under such banners as “Pikes Peak or Bust” did indeed go bust and went home. But enough stayed to ensure the area would continue to grow. Those who remained got congress, distracted by the increasing tensions between north and south, to approve a new territory—for a short while called Jefferson Territory, before being changed to Colorado, because some people felt no other president should be given equal status to Washington.

It wasn’t until 1867 that Denver became the territorial capitol, and by that time it was a true town, complete with hotels, restaurants, schools, and churches, city, county, and state offices, and a thriving sin district centered on and around Holladay Street. The city founders had named the street in honor of Benjamin Holladay, who’d created the Overland Stagecoach Company. Stagecoach and freight companies were the lifes blood of western towns. But by the 1880s the name Holladay was so closely associated with prostitution that, at the family’s request, the city changed the street’s name to Market.

In the late 1860s Denver was still a small town, whose prospects were diminished by the drying up of placer gold (surface mining), and the decision to route the Transcontinental Railroad through Cheyenne, 100 miles to the north. Without rail to move equipment and ore, investors were unwilling to bring in the big equipment necessary for extracting gold from rock. While, by that time, there was little doubt Denver was here to stay, the question was, in what form?

Carl Ubbelohde, Maxine Benson, and Duane A. Smith, A Colorado History: Tenth Edition, Westwind Press, 2015.

Stephen J. Leonard and Thomas J. Noel, A Short History of Denver, University of Nevada Press, 2016.

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