THE QUEEN CITY OF THE PLAINS
By JOHN COTTON DANA
DENVER has historic background. Behind its own brief chronicles we note the outline of the story, full of the
good work of strong men, of the exploration and civic conquest of the wide country between the Mississippi River
and the Pacific coast. To ask of Denver's beginnings is to go back of 1858 and the hopeful Aurarians by the ford
at the mouth of Cherry Creek, to government explorations, California gold seekers, Mormon emigrants, trappers and
traders, and Spanish pioneers.
The incidents which lead up to Denver's origin took place here and there in a great mid continental area so vast
as to make those incidents seem at first sight isolated, unrelated to one another. But there is a sithplicity of
plan in that great country which, taken with the gold of the west coast and the migrant spirit of the early settlers:
of the Mississippi Valley, makes the early ventures across the plains seem natural enough and binds them to one
another. Given the country and the factors mentioned, and a great central coti, at once a focusand distributing
point for all that lay across the plains, the Denver of: today, was foreordained.
Westward of the Mississippi lie six hundred miles of plains, fertile and attractive on their eastern edge, a desert:
waste beyond, ending abruptly in rocky mountains. The mountains, dropping here and there into high and barren tablelands,
roll on a thousand miles to the Pacific. From the Canadian to the Mexican boundary, plains and mountains thus dispose
themselves and make the arena for the drama of the Anglo Saxon conquest of the new West, a conquest of a not too
unwilling nature by energetic and efficient men. The scene was remote; the land, generous when once subdued, was
repellent if not hostile in its aspect, and added to the barrier of a desert waste upon its border the deterrents
and terrors of the unknown. The Indians who claimed the soil, chiefly Arapahoes and their allies near Denver, and
their hereditary foes, the Utes, in the mountains did all in their power to make a seemingly inhospitable nature
yet more inhospitable. They were never large in number. They were foredoomed to defeat. Their presence in this
vast area added more of romance than of difficulty and danger to the coming of the white man. Some of their travel
worn paths among the mountains, like the old Navajo trail of Southwest Colorado, may still be traced, can still
arouse sympathetic interest in a people for whom the modern man could not wait, and despised as laggard. From Aztec
Springs, across Lost Canon over the Dolores River near its big bend, out upon Dolores Plateau to Narraguinnep Spring
and the borders of Disappointment Valley, and then on and on again, so runs the old Navajo trail; here a single
foot path up the canon side, there deep triple and quadruple ruts worn by men, women, horses, and dragging teepee
poles. With no signs of permanent habitation on its way, out of wild nature it comes, into wild nature it goes;
significant of the passing of the people who made it and of the petty trace they left on the world about them.
The Spanish had carried their religion and their rule' up into the southern margin of this great area longbefore
the first settlements were made on Massachusetts Bay. Coronado pushed as far northeast as Kansas in 1541. The towns
which the Spanish established, many of them three centuries and more ago, led to the brief romance of the old Santa
Fe trail, and still give a peculiar flavor to the story of the southern border. But save for a few small towns
whose lack of root in the soil is evidenced by the ruins of their churches, churches so far forgotten that our
own historians have called them remains of prehistoric times the Spanish invasion was an invasion always, not a
settlement, not an appropriation of even the margin of the vast area we are considering.
Lewis and Clark went northwest to the Columbia in 1803; Pike went up the Arkansas in 1806; and that young man's
simple tale of the things he dared and the sights he saw in his march from the Mississippi to the lone fort he
built on the banks of the Conejos in the San Luis Valley is charming and adventurous. He was the American pioneer
of the future Colorado. Wandering trappers and hunters had preceded him; but none told what they had seen.
Long, with his expedition, in July, 1820, crossed the spot where Denver now stands. Long was an explorer, not a
pioneer. Pioneers are prophets, and see the fences and barns that are to come. To Long all west of the Missouri,
"agreeably to the best intelligence that can be had is throughout uninhabitable by a people depending upon
agriculture for their subsistence. . . . This re~ gion, however," he says, "viewed as a frontier, may
prove of infinite importance to the United States, inas much as it is calculated to serve as a barrier to prevent
too great an extension of our population westward, and secure us against the machinations or incursions of an enemy,
that might otherwise be disposed to annoy us in that quarter."
This opinion, widely circulated, perhaps helped to defer the day of actual occupation of that Great American Desert
which, after Long's report, took possession, on our maps, of nearly all the country whose history is Denver's prehistoric
Then came Sublette and his like, and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, the Santa Fe trail, trappers, Indians; and
these also, beginning about 1822, would furnish material for romance, were the simple story thereof not romance
Bonneville in 1832 vanished from sight in the Northwest for three years; and many others, among them Irving, Bonneville's
historian, sought profit, adventure, or knowledge in the new land. In '42, Fremont, the Pathfinder, on his first
expedition pushed out nearly to the site of Denver. And Fremont's travels, the romantic note in them heightened
by the presence of Kit Carson, prince of pioneers, what color they add to our chronicles of exploration! Five times
he set forth. Once he camped on the site of Denver, with 160 lodges of Arapahoe Indians near by. Once he nearly
perished with all his party in the Sangre de Cristo range.
Kearney's military expedition to Santa Fe at the time of the Mexican War; Gunnison's exploration for a railroad
route to the Pacific, in 1853; Marcy's incredible midwinter march from Fort Bridger, across the very backbone of
the continent, south to New Mexico; all these were great deeds, and all served to add to that knowledge of the
still wild West which brought about its final conquest.
To speak feelingly of the Morman exodus, of that venture into the, western wilderness of a few men of our own blood
and faith, is to be misunderstood. Some day that flight of a few brave exiles for conscience sake, from their brother
men to the heart of a continent, where a relentless nature seemed, with her isolation and her desolation, doubly
equipped for cruelty, some day that flight, worthily and justly told, will find a place in history. The gold seekers
of California, who crossed by thousands the land the outline of whose human history we are trying to sketch, these
have, perhaps, received their due.
Such, then, in broadest outline, is the background of Denver's history. It is almost depressing to consider how
little the outline holds of that recognition element which makes "historic" for us a country, a scene,
a person, an event. Here is a wide and wonderful country; here have been done great deeds by brave and true men.
Coronado, Escalante, Pike, Lewis and Clark, among explorers; Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, the Bents, Jim Baker, among
scouts, trappers, and traders; the names could be multiplied many times. Their deeds are fit to provoke emulation
or national pride. But mention of either names or deeds stirs the emotions only of the few. This. is inevitable.
They are not yet part of universal knowledge. They are not yet types of men or actions, as are Ulysses, Agamemnon,
Hampden, and the voyage of the Mayflower. Things are not "historic" until later generations have made
them so. Perhaps the dominance of Old World types in literature and art, together with the swift rush of affairs
of the passing day, will crowd much of the story of America's development out from the domain of history as known
to men at large. If so, the story of the taking by our forebears and our brothers, of the great West beyond the
Mississippi will always remain as little "historic," as barren in its emo tional content, as it is today.
This were a pity, tho' perhaps best. But even then it would seem propcr to suggest, in the bare outline I have
drawn, the historic possibilities which lie back of, lead up to, explain, the Denver of today.
It is 1857; the country has become vaguely known, many have crossed it; the Mormons have taken possession of
the Salt Lake basin; from the mountains across the plains there float back rumors of gold; and the region which
has been simply a desert to be crossed begins to be a region to be explored, perhaps to be settled. Who first found
gold it is idle to inquire. A party of Cherokees from the gold regions of Georgia were perhaps the first to get
traces on the Platte. Certain men of Lawrence, Kansas, prophets perhaps, boomers probably, certainly addicted to
the town site habit, and abounding in hope, went up the Arkansas in 1858; tried to start a town on Monument Creek
under the shadow of Pike's Peak; wearied soon of waiting for a population which did not come, and crossed the divide
north to the Platte; staked out a town, Montana, on that stream a few miles above the site of Denver, and disbanded.
Of this party a few moved down the Platte to the mouth of Cherry Creek, and there in the bottom, among the cottonwoods,
just where the old military road crossed the creek, laid out the town of St. Charles. Another party, from Iowa,
in the same year, settled across the creek on its west side and soon laid out a town and called it Auraria. Then
came another party over the divide from the Arkansas, found the St. Charles town site promoters were absent, saw
the city that was to be, jumped the site, and organized a company to build a town thereon to be called Denver in
honor of the then Governor of Kansas. And so, in the winter of 1858-59 Denver found itself, on what proved to be
"Section 33 and the west half of section 34, in township 3 south of range 68 west of the 6th principal meridian."
How fatal to the romantic element in the beginnings of the Western city are the transit and the chain! What can
there be of mystery or poetry in "Sec. 33 and W. 1/2 of Sec. 34, Tp. 3 S. of R. 68W. 6th P. M."?
Denver was a rival of Auraria. Her supremacy was settled early in 1859 by thirty wagons which came up the Platte
and unloaded their merchandise on the Denver side of Cherry Creek. In the spring of 1859 a large coinpany, perhaps
1000, were already camped in and about the new towns. The Pike's Peak excitement became intense. A new gold fever
was on. Mr. William N. Byers reached Denver April 21, 1859, with a printing outfit and issued the first number
of the first paper printed in Colorado, April 23d. On his way across he met the returning tide. Report says 150,000
started that spring across the plains; 50,000 turned back; 100,000 went on to the mountains; not over 40,000 of
them stayed. The early months of 1859 were troublous times. Foolish, reckless gold seekers, led West on half knowledge.
tried to lay the blame for their own folly on the shoulders of others. Gold in paying quantities was as yet far
from common. Horace Greeley crossed the plains in July, looked over the ground with care, reported favorably on
the country in the Tribune, and, in good local phrase, "gave Denver the best advertisement she ever had."
The city, now under way, attained little importance until after 1870. Rival trade centres attracted attention.
Mining camps scattered through the mountains drew most of the population. After the Leadville excitement in 1878
and 1879, it rose in 1880 to 35,000, by fairly steady growth to 106,000 in 1890, was checked by the panic kind
hard times about 1893, and yet rose to 133,000. in 1900.
Once established as the leading distributing point of the mining regions of the New West the city's growth was
assured, and followed in the main the lines of many other Western cities. Peculiar to itself were a few incidents
due to its position, to ignorance of the climate, its isolation and the difficulty of extending Eastern railways
to so remote a point Early in 1863 a great fire destroyed much of the business portion of the city. The summer
following, the plains were burned by a terrible drought The barrenness of the wide stretches about the city was
intensified. To this day the sun burnt plains of midsummer sweep up to Denver's very door yards, mock at the blue
sky above them, and speak unutterable things of hunger, thirst, and death. In the early '60's' it was easy to imagine
that they spoke in earnest Then came a winter, cold beyond all experience. Many suffered. Cattle died. The pride
some had felt over the balminess of previous winters was forgotten. With early spring, Cherry Creek, the miserable,
despised bed of . sand which crept through the town, scorned as a possible stream and used for building sites over
all its wide bottom, rose in fury, rolled down from the divide, swept away the cheap bridges that simply served
to aggravate the flood,, killed twenty persons, and destroyed nearly a million dollars' worth of property. Nor
was this the end of troubles. For in 1864 the Indians planned a general massacre, killed a few people near Denver,
destroyed stage stations, cut off communication with The East, and left Denver unspeakably alarmed and with only
six weeks' supply of food.
In these first years gold seemed the one excuse for the white man's presence in Colorado. Several million dollars
were taken out from easily worked placer mines before 1863. The supply then seemed exhausted. All efforts to get
the gold from veins were ineffectual. Millions were spent by the overzealous in machinery and mills not adapted
to the country's needs. But over this, as over all other obstacles, the triumph was sure; and by 1871 new and proper
processes of mining and ore reducing had been successfully adopted.
The fertility of Colorado soil under irrigation was not, realized fully for nearly a decade after the founding
of Denver. But before 1870 the agricultural possibilities, were demonstrated; the cattle industry continued to
thrive; and the region north of Denver lying under the several streams which issue from the mountains within sight
of the city began to grow into the garden spot it now is, and to lend stability to Denver's factors of growth.
The Union Pacific reached "the city 'via Cheyenne in June, 1870, and the Kansas Pacific soon after. Of that
wonderful railway to whose growth Denver owes so much, the Denver & Rio Grande, the first, rails were laid
What is now Colorado was variously known in early days of its settlement as "Pike's Peak," "Arapahoe
County," "Jefferson Territory." The story of the settlement of its governmental difficulties; its
miners' and its people's courts; its independent government; the dramatic career of that prophet of the great divide,
William Gilpin, first Governor of Colorado; in his headstrong yet wise hand ling of difficult problems in the opening
days of the Civil War, all this is full of interest, of excitement, of adventure, is instructive to the student
of institutions, and full of confirmation for those who have faith in the civic genius of the American people.
The city of Denver lies fifteen miles east of the mountains on the Platte. Its elevation is 5280 feet above sea
level. It is the meeting point of nine railroads. It has 165 miles of street railways. It is well paved and its
health is well cared for. In parks, churches, journals, schools, hospitals, banks, and kindred institUtions it
is well supplied. Its manufactured products, including smelter output, amount to over $50,000,000 a year.
What one may call the natural history of Denver's people ii interesting and, perhaps, explanatàry of some
things in its history. To it have come in good measure the vigorous and energetic. They have brought with them
the ideas and customs of all parts of the United States. In the first two decades, the formative period, about
half of all comers were from the upper Mississippi Valley, largely of New England descent; and one fourth each
from the extreme East and the South. Among these were many invalids. All were young; and old men are still rare
in Denver. Put these elements together in a climate of sune shine and dry tonic air; separate them by six hundred
miles from all that is old and conventional; give them wide opportunity of choice in occupation, agriculture, stock
raising, mining of precious metals, iron, coal, and stone, and the building of a city and a State; let their city
be, much as Paris is France, politically, socially, and financially, the entire State, containing, as it does,
nearly one third of' all the latter's population; and you may look for, and you will find, courage, swiftness of
execution, easy adjustment of conflicting ideas and habits, tolerance on all matters save those affecting general
local interests, where a certain natural State patriotism blooms into a fine bigotry, quick adoption of all modern
improvements in living, and a readiness to try any promising social experiment. You would expect politics to be
continually threatened with reform; an occasional economic heresy to get a passing boom; newspapers to be wide
awake, vituperative, and not greatly influentiaL And you would expect to find Denver, as you do find it, a brilliant,
active, inspiring city, full of promise in itself and possessed by a people who being chiefly of American stock
and wrought upon by a climate which is the climate of the States intensified in their alertness and in their intensity
perhaps speak of the American citizen as this continent of ours will sometime mould him.