Denver’s Beginnings. In the summer of 1858, a small group of prospectors from Georgia crossed the great plains of the Colorado Territory and made a region-changing discovery at the base of the Rocky Mountains. Gold. And although not much of the precious metal was found, the mere whisper of the word was enough to start a veritable stampede into the region. After all, the California Gold Rush had occurred just nine years earlier.
The legendary Buffalo Bill Cody was one of the many colorful characters who spent time in Denver during its early Wild West days.
After the Civil War, the all Black military units known as the Buffalo Soldiers were stationed in and around the Mile High City. It wasn’t long before tents, tepees, wagons, lean-tos, and crudely constructed log cabins lined the banks of the South Platte River as prospectors and fortune-seekers poured into the area. They came from all over the country, traveling on foot, in covered wagons, by horseback, and even pushing their belongings in wheelbarrows. Pikes Peak, a 14,000-foot mountain to the south of the mining camp served as both a landmark and a rallying cry for weary travelers. The “Pikes Peak or Bust!” gold rush was in full force.
However, gold wasn’t the only way to strike it rich in the boomtown that was springing up on the banks of the South Platte. Those who arrived early enough could simply stake out a claim of land, lay out city streets, and then sell the lots to those arriving after them. General William H. Larimer didn’t arrive early but followed the plan perfectly. He claim-jumped the land on the eastern side of Cherry Creek, laid out a city and, in hopes of gaining political favor, named the city after Kansas Territorial governor James Denver. What he didn’t know was that Denver had already resigned.
By the spring of 1859, there were cities on both sides of the South Platte. The situation was tenuous and filled with confusion, as tensions between the cities grew and nearly led to bloodshed. Horace Greeley described the rapidly growing metropolis as a “log city of 150 dwellings, not three-fourths completed nor two-thirds inhabited, nor one-third fit to be.” Finally, a torch-lit meeting was held, and on the one bridge over Cherry Creek, for the price of a barrel of whiskey, all other names were dropped and the settlement in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains came to be known as Denver.
Just when people began settling into their new lives in Denver, a huge gold strike was discovered in the nearby mountain town of Central City. And as quickly as they came to Denver, the fortune-seekers packed up and headed to the hills – leaving the city nearly deserted. Gradually, people returned to Denver as they battled harsh weather conditions in the mountains, figuring there were better ways to make their fortune. They were the first to discover and enjoy the mild, year-round climate Denver had to offer and began growing the city as a trade center.
Like any city, Denver suffered its growing pains in its early years. During the Civil War, a Confederate army from Texas marched on the state in hopes of seizing the gold fields. A volunteer army was hastily put together in Denver and, although they were hardly trained and badly outnumbered, they managed to defeat the Rebels from Texas at the Battle of Glorietta Pass, saving Colorado for the Union. And that was just the beginning of the challenges the city would face.
A great fire burned much of Denver’s business district to the ground in 1863. The following year, a flash flood swept down Cherry Creek, killing 20 people and causing a million dollars in damage. And shortly after that, an Indian war broke out, cutting stage stations and supply lines and leaving Denver with just six weeks of food.
The early hardships only solidified the resolve of Denver’s citizens and made them more determined to not just survive but to thrive. When the Union Pacific Railroad bypassed Colorado on its transcontinental route, Denverites raised $300,000 and built their own railroad to meet the Union Pacific in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Soon after, the Kansas Pacific Railroad crossed the plains to Denver and, when a major silver strike was hit in Leadville, Denver was a boomtown once again.