Denver: History

Discovery of Gold Brings Settlers to Denver Area

For centuries, the mountains and plains of Colorado were used as hunting grounds by Native Americans, and eventually the more sophisticated, agricultural tribes like the Anasazi established villages. In the sixteenth century, the Spanish explored the region where Denver is now located, but no Europeans established permanent settlements until the mid-1800s, when gold was discovered at Pikes Peak. In 1858, a supply center for the mining towns was established on the site of a tribal village at the junction of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek. The town was called St. Charles; later it was renamed Denver City after James W. Denver, governor of the Kansas Territory, and was incorporated in 1861.

The gold boom soon ended, but some of the fortune hunters stayed on to settle in the new town. During the 1860s, much of the town was destroyed by fire; a ravaging flash flood killed 20 people; and the citizens repelled frequent attacks from the Plains tribes and even an assault by a Confederate Army. With the arrival of rail transportation in 1870 a steady influx of settlers insured the future of the thriving town, and when Colorado attained statehood in 1876, Denver was named the state capital. By 1879 it boasted a population of 35,000 people and the first telephone service in the West.

Silver Boom and Bust; Economy Diversifies

A silver boom in the 1880s ushered in another period of rapid growth, filling Denver with the Victorian mansions of silver barons and making it the most elegant city in the West. The collapse of the silver market in the panic of 1893 staggered the city's economy, so the city began to diversify. By the early 1900s, Denver had become the commercial and industrial center of the Rocky Mountain region, as well as a leader in livestock sales, agriculture, and tourism.

Denver sustained a period of relatively slow development until the 1930s. Prior to World War II, when such federal government agencies as the Geological Survey, the U.S. Mint, Lowry Air Force Base, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Air Force Accounting Center were established in the area, Denver experienced another population surge that continued through the 1950s. During the 1960s Denver lost population as residents moved to the suburbs to escape inner city deterioration. Growth slowed again in the mid-1970s as a result of the oil industry crisis. The effects of this downturn, however, were ultimately positive. As a result of efforts to diversify the economy, Denver became known as "the energy capital of the west," with a focus on alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power. In fact, by 1980 approximately 1,200 energy companies were located in Denver.

Growth slowed again in the mid-1980s when plans for oil shale development were curtailed; construction of high-rise office buildings downtown nevertheless continued unabated. A sleek, modern landscape has emerged in Denver where a Western frontier town once stood. As Denver entered the twenty-first century, it reflected the economic downturn due to the high-tech industry but has since stabilized and strengthened to remain the principal commercial, financial, and industrial hub of the Rocky Mountain region.

Historical Information: Colorado Historical Society, Stephen H. Hart Library, 1300 Broadway, Denver, CO 80203; telephone (303)866-2305; email