|Denver's history as a boom and bust town began
with the desire for a simple precious metal: gold. In 1858, a group of
prospectors were exploring the Kansas Territory, which then encompassed
what is now Colorado, and discovered piles of the almighty metal at the
confluence of the Platte River and Cherry Creek. One of the prospectors,
William Larimer, established Denver City in an area then populated by the
Arapaho tribe, who camped along the banks of Cherry Creek while hunting
and gathering. Over the next two years, a new gold fever penetrated the
pulse of the eastern states. 100,000 hopefuls pioneered across the harsh
landscape to the territory, seeking instant prosperity. The influx
uprooted the Native Americans and forced them to move on. The settler
population soared further, causing the federal government to create the
Colorado Territory. So began Denver's first boom, inspiring its mythical
image as a Wild West town ruled by material obsession.
In 1859, at the peak of the rush, Denver's first notable figure strolled into town with a vision well beyond the price of gold. William N. Byers moved to Denver from Ohio, via Omaha, and founded the Rocky Mountain News. Through the newspaper, he tried to calm the hysteria and instability associated with the gold rush and promoted settlement on the high desert frontier. Byers proceeded to create an illusion of Denver, proclaiming the city to be the "Queen City of the Plains" and the new steamboat capitol of the West, ready for a river full of industry. Unfortunately, the small, shallow Platte River couldn't live up to Byers' grand words. The ports of wealth never materialized, and the even smaller Cherry Creek soon declined into a cesspool of mining pollution. Byers, who also founded the city's Chamber of Commerce, might have gone on to a great career in politics. Sadly, his chances dissipated during an adulterous scandal, culminating in typical Wild West style, with a shooting in the middle of a downtown street.
In 1865, Denver City was deemed capital of the new Territory. In 1881, five years after Colorado gained statehood, it was chosen over Golden, Colorado Springs, and Boulder as the official capital. During this period, Denver blossomed rapidly. Railroad-borne business transformed a one-dimensional mining mecca into a more balanced industrial and agricultural "cow town." Even so, the city experienced its first bust in 1893, after the Silver Crash crippled Colorado's silver-producing economy. A tough ten-year depression followed. Despite the hardships of the times, city leaders managed to construct the beautiful neo-Classical Colorado State Capitol Building and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. From 1904 until 1918, when the entire nation was in the process of revitalizing itself, energetic civic leader Robert Speer took Denver's mayoral reigns and vowed to create an "American Paris." During this era, known nationally as the City Beautiful period, Denver curbed its unchecked growth with a solid urban plan. Some of the city's most recognizable landmarks date from this time, including the City and County Building and Washington and City Parks. Speer conjured a four-part plan for city improvements, beginning with Civic Center Park. He wanted Denver to boast a beautiful city center with lush walkways and focal points of extravagant architecture. Thus, Civic Center Park, between the Colorado State Capitol Building and the entrance to downtown, is embellished with impressive gardens, a serene thoroughfare, and a Greek-style outdoor amphitheater. Speer also sought to bring shade to the desert. He initiated the planting of over 100,000 trees, creating numerous boulevards lined with oaks and elms. Through a prolonged effort, even the polluted Cherry Creek was transformed into a verdant greenway, and new mountain and city parks further enhanced the beauty of the area.
Speer faced harsh criticism for some of these projects, especially for the boulevard that bore his name and meandered from downtown to the country club district. But it was nothing compared to the wrath his successor, Benjamin F. Stapleton, faced for building Denver's first airport. Stapleton, notorious for his membership in the Ku Klux Klan, was captivated by flight. He strove to end the city's isolation on the plains by laying the foundation for Denver Municipal Airport in 1929. Critics went wild, calling the plan downright stupid, and saying the location was so far out east of the city that it might as well be in Kansas. Ultimately, the airport was a success. After the Great Depression of the 1930s, the city and Stapleton focused on the mountain parks, calling for the creation of a "rock garden" in the nearby hills. Years of diligent planning and painstaking construction carved the jagged red rocks into an intimate, natural amphitheater with impressive acoustics. The Red Rocks Amphitheatre continues to inspire awe in concertgoers and musicians alike.
The 1930s and 1940s also brought a military and federal government presence to Denver, with the opening of Lowry Air Force Base and the Denver Federal Center. This initiated a trend continuing over the next forty years. Denver and the Front Range became home to Fitzsimmon's Army Hospital, the Air Force Academy, and Buckley Air Field. Now, Denver supports the largest Federal employee population outside of Washington, DC.. As the Cold War progressed, Denver gained a high-tech military installation in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, as well as the infamous plutonium-producing Rocky Mountain Flats. Although these sites boosted Denver's economy and population, they have also caused an enormous amount of controversy. With the end of the Cold War, defense cuts have closed the majority of Colorado's major military sites.
During the 1950s, "black gold" struck the hearts of Denverites, sending the economy into another boom, and creating millionaires overnight. Oil companies from around the globe to set up shop in Denver, inspiring Mayor Quigg Newton to reevaluate the city's "cow town" persona. The city rode the oil boom long enough to use the steady flow of tax revenue to revitalize schools, institute cultural amenities, and reinvent the central business district. In 1969, the revitalization campaign led to the controversial decision to bulldoze Auraria, Denver's oldest and poorest neighborhood. Originally a separate township, Auraria was a rival to Denver City back in the gold rush days. The two entities eventually settled differences and merged into one, under the name of Denver. From the dust the wrecking crews, a beautiful urban educational center arose, known as the Auraria Campus. The area now holds three city colleges along with a collection of original neighborhood landmarks, including the Tivoli Brewing Company, St. Elizabeth's Church and St. Cajetan's Church.
The city then turned toward cleaning up rundown areas of downtown. This time, the money ran short. Dismantled lots sat vacant and overgrown until the early 1980's.
Another boom followed, this time bringing the towering icons of corporate wealth: skyscrapers. The new oil boom at last transformed the city into a modern metropolis, with immense highrises sprawling along the Front Range and a mobile population almost completely dependent upon the automobile. Unfortumatley, like everything else associated with the Mile High City's bipolar history, this boom was also bound to bust.
In the mid-1980s, the price of oil plummeted from $39 a barrel to $9, sending the city into a devastating recession. The downtown skyscrapers stood empty, and the central streets of the city soon resembled a ghost town. Much of the populace fled to better opportunities elsewhere.
Federico Pena, Denver's first Hispanic leader, fought tooth and nail to change the city's identity in the late 1980s. Pena reinstated the Chamber of Commerce and directed new funding into Denver's cultural institutions, including the Denver Zoo and the Denver Art Museum. Tourists were already passing though Denver in route to the world-class skiing in the mountains, but Pena wanted the town to offer more variety and substance to out-of-towners. Thus, the Mile High City began the slow process of washing away an unsightly industrial past in favor of the glitz associated with a tourist and service oriented town.
Perhaps Pena's greatest feat was paving the way for the construction of Denver International Airport. Pena's successor, Wellington Webb, Denver's first African American mayor, faced intense scrutiny over the airport site. Located in what is often termed "the middle of nowhere" by locals and tourists alike, the airport is one of the world's largest and is consistently one of the busiest.
Denver's shiny new look fueled yet another economic boom that ignited an urban renaissance under Mayor Webb's watchful eye. The city was awarded a major league baseball franchise in the early 1990s. Planners opted to build a new stadium in the heart of an old warehouse district, banking on the "If you build it, they will come" philosophy. New businesses, restaurants, and shops were enticed to restore many of the remaining historical structures in the area that had somehow survived the wrecking balls and years of vacancy. The end result: an upscale entertainment district called LoDo, cluttered with old buildings given a second or third chance at success and anchored by Coors Field, a beautifully designed, old-fashioned ballpark. Of course, the people came. So many, in fact, that developers infiltrated the area and transformed the old buildings into elegant lofts. The success of LoDo spilled into downtown and the surrounding areas, creating an infusion of inner growth. The promotion of luxurious urban living served as an antidote to some of the area's agressive suburban sprawl. Denver's population now soared at a rate comparable to that of its suburban rivals.
Denver emerged as a lively sports town and entertainment metropolis, attracting gaggles of tourists that never seemed to leave. They simply came to visit, fell in love with the mountain setting and prosperous city energy, and set up camp. In 1993, over 30,000 inhabitants of California flooded the Front Range, sending the population over two million and creating growth issues as rapid development took up former open space to house the new arrivals. This is widely known as the California immigration. New high-tech computer and telecommunication businesses also sought refuge in Denver's endless sunshine.
As the 1990s pushed on, the city continued to focus inward, moving the beloved historical amusement park, Elitch Gardens, to the central Platte Valley just south of LoDo. In 1999, Colorado's Ocean Journey, an interactive aquarium, opened in the central Platte Valley. The same year saw the opening of the Pepsi Center, a new brick and glass structure radiating the historic charm of LoDo. The center is the home to the Denver Nuggets and the Colorado Avalanche.
Denver's boom and bust cycle has allowed the city to continually reinvent itself, fluctuating from a gold town to a cow town, from an oil town to a tourist town. With each change the city history becomes more complex and vibrant. No one can predict when the next bust will come, but Denver will most likely continue to find new and unique ways to propel itself forward.