|It has taken Boulder almost 150 years to
develop into an eccentric town two steps off the beaten path. But in the
early going, it resembled just about every other western mountain town
appearing overnight, displacing the natives, and evolving into a boom and
bust paradise colored by silver and gold.
When the first tribes meandered into the Boulder Valley, most passed it by for destinations further southwest. Although the open plains presented a wealth of hunting opportunities, the harsh winters and fierce winds ultimately detoured most of the migratory clans from permanent settlement. Drawn to the pristine rivers, protective terrain and the massive quantities of buffalo roaming the prairie, the Southern Arapaho, lead by Chief Niwot, took a chance on the valley, utilizing the area as a winter camp. The tribe remained basically unhindered, minus the occasional spat with neighboring enemies, until 1803 when then-American president Thomas Jefferson scored the monumental $15 million bargain known as the Louisiana Purchase.
Although the acquisition more than doubled the size of the existing nation, early scouts exploring the new territory deemed the land uninhabitable, especially for any sort of agricultural endeavor. But digging for gold didn't require anybody to plant crops. It didn't require much more than a shack to bed down in, a few tools for mulling about the rocks and a fever for riches. So, when scout William Gilpin wandered into the river valleys of the Front Range and claimed gold might lie in the surrounding hills, the rush was on.
The first specks of gold, discovered at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River in present-day Denver, sparked a surge of westward movement. Hopeful pioneers came kicking, scratching and clawing across an angry, unexplored landscape in search of instant wealth.
A prospecting party captained by Thomas Aikins set up camp at the entrance of Boulder Canyon in 1858, becoming the first non-native settlement to call the valley home. Chief Niwot confronted the clan before the first night passed, fearing the paleface gold seekers would pillage the Arapaho camp. But after a hearty dinner and a few passes of the pipe, they all opted to peacefully coexist. Unfortunately, Niwot's good nature would come back to haunt him. A mere six years later, while peacefully encamped at Sand Creek on the eastern fringe of Colorado, Niwot and a good portion of his tribe were brutality slaughtered and scalped by the new white settlers.
Four short months after bedding down in the valley, Aikins and his boys discovered golden flakes floating in a small canyon creek. When word wandered back east, some 2000 gold seekers flooded the Front Range seeking fortune. While the frenzied masses ultimately followed the flow of gold up into the mountains, crippling a good number of lowland settlements, Boulder sought to develop a stable economy and attract residents for the long haul.
In February of 1859, shortly after the initial gold find, the Boulder City Town Company was established. It is hard to believe today, with stop growth initiatives filling the city's current law books, but Boulder once sought to expand. Of course, it was just starting out. So A.A. Brookfield, the company's first president, along with 56 shareholders divvied up 1280 acres into 4044 lots and sold them for an exorbitant $1000 each. When this price failed to bring in the homesteaders, the company slashed the cost. Although the cut still failed to create the desired population surge, it helped Boulder avoid the typical boom and bust cycles affecting neighboring towns. Thus, Boulder, which was incorporated in 1871, started budding into a real town complete with a city hall, newspaper, railroads and brothels. By the late 1800s, the town developed into a hub for miners moving from dig to dig and a haven for local farmers.
In 1876, Colorado became a state and Boulder became a college town. After losing to Denver in the race for state capital, Boulder managed to snag the State University. The following year the University of Colorado came to life in the form of Old Main, the initial building, which encompassed the entire campus.
Just when things in Boulder were looking up and the town was carving out an identity came the unusually long and harsh winter of 1894. The snow piled high well into the warm season when the spring rains began to fall. And on May 31, the rains would not stop. The snow pack melted instantly, running into nearby rivers until they swelled beyond the banks and wiped out most of Boulder. Washed away were the dreams of gold and other remnants of the city's mining heritage, including the notorious red light district.
Given a fresh start, Boulder sought a new vision of city development, one based on the preservation of open space and tourism. A few years after the flood, a gaggle of Texas teachers wandered into town looking to set up a summer Chautauqua, a prominent movement filtering out of New York that promoted cultural and educational gatherings in open-air settings. The Texans opted for Boulder and locals quickly passed a bond issue to construct a park, auditorium, and dining hall at the base of Flatirons. Originally called Texado Park in honor of the founders, the name ultimately changed to Chautauqua Park. Over the next few years, approximately 60 cottages popped up around the park to house the incoming summer guests. Chautauqua presented an array of events ranging from musical concerts to lectures on politics and culture to operas. Perhaps the most important element of the movement, in relation to Boulder, was the emphasis on health and outdoor pursuits. Visitors to the park flocked to join the Climbers Club, a curious group that trekked about the local mountains in search of enjoyment rather than gold. In 1906, thrill seekers Floyd and Earl Millard pitched their way up the east face of the Third Flatiron, igniting an adventure craze forever synonymous with the word Boulder. Today, the jagged red rock Flatirons possess some of the finest beginning rock climbing routes in the world, and the surrounding El Dorado and Boulder canyons present more technical challenges.
Chautauqua was the first step in Boulder's long history of buying surrounding land for parks and open space. Under the guidance of Robert Law Olmstead, Jr., son of the famed creator of New York's Central Park, Boulderites developed an environmental conscious. They sought to remain 'green' regardless of the desires of outside developers, and created an economic environment suited to 'clean industry.'
By the early 1900s, the area population was brimming around 10,000. The university district, known as 'The Hill,' was thriving with small businesses. Tourism was booming. And the town's environmental conscious suddenly developed a sense of morality. In 1907, thirteen years before Prohibition, Boulder elected to ban liquor sales in public places. This included bars, pubs, and restaurants. Somehow, the city remained clean and sober until 1969, when the local watering hole Catacombs started pouring spirits again.
In the 1950s, after two world wars and a depression, the 'clean industry' pursuits paid dividends when the National Bureau of Standards moved to Boulder. Beech Aircraft followed suit and set up an aerospace division on the north side of town. Ball Brothers Research headquartered its aerospace operations on the east side in the new Boulder Industrial Park. The business outlook appeared bright with technology and research firms peppering the valley. Soldiers on the GI Bill filled the University of Colorado and the opening of the Boulder turnpike allowed easy access to neighboring Denver. But, the population soared uncontrollably and a once modest community of 20,000 residents in 1950 transformed into a bustling city of 67,000 by 1960. This caused discontent, as the local residents had to compete for the industry jobs. And although glad that the new companies, along with the university, jolted the economy, the local population didn't want unchecked growth to scar the natural landscape that set Boulder apart from other towns. So in 1959, the organization PLAN-Boulder came onto the scene, paving the way for future initiatives to block development and limit growth. PLAN-Boulder developed a comprehensive policy to limit city water service to within specified boundaries. Later, in the 1970s, the group helped push through an ordinance placing height restrictions of 55 feet on all new constructions. Boulder has since prevented countless attempts to build shopping malls, golf courses and hotels by simply buying the land and deeming it open space.
National Center for Atmospheric Research joined Boulder's hopping research industry in 1960. The architectural gem designed by I.M. Pei, watches over the city from its roost on Table Mesa. Other research and government firms and technology conglomerates found Boulder to be an attractive setting for business. Inevitably, the population continued to increase.
The college town came of age in the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s. Student protests and riots occurred in response the Vietnam War. The predominantly peaceful hippies encamped in the center of town gave way to angry revolutionaries insistent upon being heard. Buildings burned and bombs blasted away Boulder's innocence.
Meanwhile, the town expanded east, continuing to preserve land but also building new shopping centers and allowing more development. IBM, Storage Technology, and homegrown tea maker Celestial Seasonings anchored the new fringes, giving Boulder a significant position in the high technology arena. Tibetan monk Chogyam Trungpa established the Naropa Institute in 1974 to ponder the liberal arts from the spiritual perspective. Poets Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman later formed the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetry at the institute. The Pearl Street Mall, a pedestrian utopia gracing the heart of downtown, also opened in 1974 to rave reviews. The project brought back the city's small town ideals and provided an attractive civic center full of cafes and retail shops.
People still flocked to the town, even though a 2% growth plan went into effect in the mid 1970s, and a diverse community was slowly beginning to take shape. Today, outdoor purists and adventure seekers mingle with hippies (known in Boulder as "Granolas.") Computer techies, college professors and scientists shop with postmodern Buddhists, health nuts, and every sort New Age fanatic. And everybody takes time out for a massage. The Boulder School of Massage Therapy formed in 1976 and prompted an all-consuming rage that continues in Boulder today. Although Boulder incorporates a wide range of ideals, from liberal to conservative to down right alternative, the residents have managed to coexist and grow as one community.
Major corporations continue to relocate to Boulder. Sun Microsystems, US West, Lucent Technologies, and NeoData are prominent figures in the recent business boom. Although Boulder has sufficiently fortified itself behind 25,000 acres of unspoiled open space, the town still struggles with development issues and growth problems. The population now hovers around 100,000 and the rapidly growing neighboring towns of Louisville and Broomfield only add to the problem. In recent years, Boulder has also faced an onslaught of negative national and international media attention for the handling of one of the world's most infamous unsolved crimes'the Jon Benet Ramsey murder.
Through it all, Boulder remains an outdoor oasis protected from a Front Range drowning in suburban sprawl. The mountain setting still draws Olympic athletes, free thinkers, and distressed urban hipsters. The unemployment and crime rates are low, but the unbearable cost of living forces even the most educated to pinch pennies in order to stay within the city limits. Thus, it is not unlikely to have PhDs serving coffee or research scientists delivering pizza. It is simply a means to an end to live in such an ideal location blessed with unparalleled scenery and more than 300 days of sunshine.