Thursday, April 4, 2013

Denver Colorado: The City Built by Miners

Panning for Gold. Photo by US Dept. of Agriculture
The history of the City of Denver, Colorado, began with the sweat, tears, 
lost, and found fortunes of miners, and the moment someone first shouted "gold!"

Sometimes I think I was a miner in my past life. I spent my childhood hiking through old mining camps in Colorado with my family and they are as familiar to me as my childhood town. When I research mining and mining towns, I feel confident, comfortable, as if I am at home. I enjoy this research, and I hope you enjoy this story, because the story of Denver is a remarkable tale of strong, determined men and women who struggled to survive fires, floods, and wild times in the Wild West, and to me, the characters in this story are like old friends--I know them well. 

In 1849, William Green Russell and six friends headed for California to deliver a herd of horses, but the Russell party wasn't really interested in horses, they were seeking the dense, soft, shiny metal pioneer settler John Sutter found in his California mill--gold!

As they moved through Kansas territory, The Gregory party camped for the winter where the Platte River meets the Cherry Creek and the banks are covered in chokecherry trees. It was a bitter cold winter, but they spent their time ankle-deep in water, panning for gold. They found enough to pique their interest, but not enough to make them stay, and continued on to California to join the rest of the Forty-niners.

In 1857, Russell and his friends sold their interests in their investments in California and headed back to Georgia. Gold miners, however, rarely tire of searching for gold, and the friends made plans to return to the Platte River and Cherry Creek. In May of 1858, the original seven returned to the place where they had spent their winter so many years before, and this time they brought four friends with them.

The Birth of a Mining Town

The group did not stay together. A few men worked their way up Boulder Creek and others followed the Fall River, but they all found gold. Eventually, they returned to Cherry Creek for the winter where they split up and some of the men started north for supplies. On the east bank of the South Platte, Russell and the remaining men established a mining camp called Montana City. Six miles away, a second mining camp was formed on the banks of the Cherry Creek, and it was named Auraria.

It didn't take long for the word to get out when gold was found. Claims were filed to prevent claim-jumping, and eager reporters posted the details. In fact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rocky Mountain News was first published by William Newton Byers on the banks of the Cherry Creek in 1859!

Denver, Colorado in 1859.

Soon, the banks of the rivers were teeming with men shaking their pans from left to right and sweeping away the worthless sand to expose the heavier gold at the bottom. As they worked the river from dawn to dusk the unclaimed land around them was quickly occupied by merchants and vendors, their wagons painted with the popular slogan "Pikes Peak or Bust." Pikes Peak, a pink granite mountain named for explorer Zebulon Pike, was a long way from the mining camps, but it could be seen from the mining camps and the area was known as Pikes Peak territory.

A few years later, on September 17, 1851, the Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed between the United States government and the Cheyenne, Sioux, Arapaho, Navajo, Crow, and numerous other Indian nations. As Geoffrey C. Ward explained in The West, the government supplied all attending tribes with a "mountain of gifts" and guaranteed annuity of $50,000 in supplies every year for fifty years as long as settlers were guaranteed safe passage through Indian along the Oregon Trail. However, like most treaties in the 1800s, the Treaty of Fort Laramie was quickly dissolved, this time to accommodate the rush of miners to the area.

Early Denver Merchants

In the Auraria mining camp, according to Joan Swallow Reiter's The Women, Katrina Murat opened the first hotel, the Eldorado, along with her second husband, Henri, and a partner, David Smoke. The Eldorado was 17 by 20 feet of cottonwood log walls and dirt floor, a few pieces of furniture and piles of buffalo skins and blankets for beds. The Eldorado was so busy that miners slept in the beds in shifts. David Smoke was in charge of cleaning the hotel and Henri served as barber for the miners and promoter for the hotel--he rode out to great incoming wagons with advertisements.

Woman skinning buffalo--National Archives.
Buffalo skins tossed on a bare floor were used as beds for miners. 

The first business not associated with some form of entertainment, according to Wheeler's The Townsmen, was Blake & Williams General Store. Next came the enterprise of Mr. J.D. Ramage, watchmaker and jeweler. The first hardware store was opened by Kinna and Nye. Of course, an assay office was a necessity in a mining town, and Luther Kountze found space for such a business in the back room of Walter Cheesman's drug store.

According to Colorado State Archives, Horace and Augusta Tabor were also among the first settlers in the territory, arriving on June 20, 1859. Although Horace Tabor did pan for gold, the Tabors sensed a need for services and quickly established a storefront selling tents and groceries to the miners and offering postal service.

The actions of the Tabors--dividing their efforts between gold panning and services--was wise considering 90% of mining operations failed, according to The Real West's "Boom Towns to Ghost Towns." The Tabors, however, struck it rich during the silver boom in nearby Leadville and later returned to Denver, investing heavily in businesses to repay the community for supporting them in their early days.

Gamblers set up tables in the early mining camp, and whiskey salesmen set up tents as they waited to gauge the size of the strike before investing in building saloons. Depending on the size of the strike, a lumber mill would appear providing wood for houses to replace the rough-hewn cabins and saloons.
According to The Townsmen, saloons were one of the more lucrative business establishments in early mining towns. They generally stayed open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A building was vital to the business as it helped the saloon owner control the amount of violence from drunken miners. Buildings were not always built, though. They could also be purchased through mail order catalogs from places, such as Lyman Bridges of Chicago, and arrived by freight wagon, box car, or riverboat.

Prostitution in Early Mining Towns

There was always money to be spent in mining camps, and money attracts all types of services. Prostitutes arrived in wagons almost as quickly as the miners and in places where men often outnumbered women nine to one, these "soiled doves" were enthusiastically welcome. Prostitutes paid rent to the madam averaging $5 a week. They sometimes received a cut from the drinks they managed to convince miners to buy while they were still downstairs.

Prostitutes were also expected to dress fashionably, and the madam received kickbacks from dressmakers, as well. The madam paid the bouncer, bartender, piano player and kitchen staff. According to Reiter's The Women, in Denver, a "quick date" was five dollars, while a night of romance could cost a miner as much as $30, The fee was split evenly with the madam. The madams were always much wealthier than the prostitutes, but it was not uncommon for prostitutes to marry their customers.

General Larimer Has A Plan

As the merchants and prostitutes set up their tents and buildings, yet another mining camp formed where the South Platte River and Cherry Creek join--St. Charles. The St. Charles settlers returned to Levensworth to register their claim and restock supplies.

Soon thereafter, General William H. Larimer arrived with a group of settlers. His arrival in Denver was delayed by a sudden blizzard in the prairie lands and he was disappointed to find all the good land was already taken.

James W. Denver, Governor of the Kansas Territory.

Larimer decided to jump the St. Charles land claim, platted out streets and named his town Denver after the governor of the Kansas territory, James Denver. He also sent riders to Levenworth to file his claim before the St. Charles group arrived, and they succeeded in this task. Larimer's bid for favoritism failed as James Denver was replaced as governor before the claim was filed, but the Denver name remained, and Larimer and his group of settlers kept the land.

Cripple Creek, the Next Big Strike, Feeds Business to Denver

The gold in the rivers soon disappeared and newspapers around the country dubbed Denver/Auraria a ghost town while its inhabitants, more than 300 miners and merchants, still walked the streets. There seemed to be a nagging problem with the mining town--a distinct lack of minerals to be mined
The problem was resolved in 1859 when John Gregory found gold in the area that is now known as Cripple Creek, thirty miles to the west. Gregory, who panned for gold in the California strike in 1849, was undeniably thrilled by his discovery. Within a week he had $972.

Welcome to Cripple Creek sign. Photo by David Shankbone. 

Within two weeks, "Gregory Gulch" had 30,000 miners and the usual entourage of service providers. These fortune seekers arrived so quickly that Gregory didn't have time to protect his find. "Boom Towns to Ghost Towns," quotes Gregory as saying, "I believe I am the only human being who has not benefited by this discovery."

Soon after Gregory's strike, however, Horace Greeley, editor of The New York Tribune, arrived for a visit. He took a tour of Gregory Gulch and even stopped to pan for gold, then reported favorably on the people and location. The Cripple Creek strike was dubbed "the richest square mile on earth."

Engraved portrait from Appleton' Cyclopedia of American Biography.

Denver/Auraria once again began to grow by servicing the outlying mining camps. According to The Townsmen, by 1860, between the two towns, Denver/Auraria had 29 wholesale and retail establishments; fifteen hotels and boarding houses; 23 saloons; eleven restaurants; two schools; and two theaters. They also had numerous lawyers, doctors, tailors, and barbers, but only one newspaper, 
The Rocky Mountain News.

On April 3, 1860, the publisher of The Rocky Mountain News, William Newton Byers, proposed a joining of the two towns. The proposal passed, and the City of Denver was born.

Denver, the City Built by Miners, Today

In The Townsmen, Keith Wheeler lists the 1874 population of Denver at 14,197. According to the Metro Denver Forecast, the 2011 population of Denver, the city built by miners, will be around 2,900,000.

Denver Skyline, 1915.

The original Montana Mining Camp is called Grant-Frontier Park in honor of Grant Junior High School, which is now Grant Middle School. The students of Grant Junior High School discovered and restored the site while studying the Montana City Mining Camp for a school project.

Walter Cheesman and the Haunted Cheesman Park

Walter Cheesman, owner of Denver's first drug store, later financed the construction of the Denver Pacific Railroad connecting Denver to Cheyenne, Wyoming, founded the Denver Chamber of Commerce, and was responsible for Denver's water infrastructure. There is now a park, reservoir, canyon and pavilion named in his honor.

Cheesman Park in winter with Denver skyline in background.

According to the Denver Public Library Website's Western History and Genealogy section, Cheesman Park was built on top of Prospect Hill Cemetery, the first organized cemetery in Denver. It was also located on a burial ground once used by the Arapaho. The area is now believed to be haunted. Russell Hunter, the author of the horror film The Changeling, starring George C. Scott, claimed his story was based on numerous actual events that occurred while he lived across the street from Cheesman Park

Farewell Rocky Mountain News

Sadly, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rocky Mountain News posted its farewell to Denver on February 27, 2009 and closed for business, but I will discuss William Byers and the Rocky Mountain News later this month in another post.


  • "Boom Towns to Ghost Towns." The Real West. Episode 20:1993. History Channel, February 28, 2011.
  • Cappa, Jim. "History of Mining in Colorado." Colorado Geological Survey. Retrieved February 20, 2011.
  • "Denver Area Cemeteries: Historical Background." Western History and Genealogy. The Denver Public Library. Retrieved May 28, 2011.
  • Denver-Colorado Tourist Guide.Com. Retrieved February 20, 2011.
  • "Ghosts of Cheesman Park in Denver." Legends of America. Retrieved May 26, 2011.
  • "Goodbye Colorado." Rocky Mountain News. Retrieved April 19, 2011.
  • Reiter, Jean Swallow. The Women: The Old West. Time Life Books. New York, Canada: 1978.
  • Wallace, Robert. "The Halls of the Mining Kings." The Miners: The Old West. Time Life Books. New York, Canada:1976.
  • Wheeler, Keith. The Townsmen: The Old West. Time Life Books. New York, Canada: 1976.


Kathleen Jennette said...

Its hard to picture so many people in such an area through the "ghost" towns of the past, today. I am glad some still exist to visit today. The history is fascinating.

JoJo said...

My ex and I spent a couple days in Denver on our way moving west in 89, mostly down in CO Springs and we did drive all the way out to Cripple Creek, which of course made us think of the song by The Band, even though that Cripple Creek was obviously down south.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Yes, although Denver is a very large city today, there are still areas of excavation where you can visit the original campsites of the miners that built the city, the small encampments that eventually merged to form one city with the guidance of William Byers, publisher of the Rocky Mountain News. To me, that's one of the most fascinating points--all those little encampments and it was a newspaper publisher that pulled them together to form what would eventually become the capital city and largest city in Colorado.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I have a funny story for you. I spent most of my life in Colorado and Denver was the only large city I visited. My oldest son moved to The Woodlands, Texas, just north of Houston. When my grandson was born I drove to my son's house--a two day drive. I reached The Woodlands and the highway suddenly became SIX LANES ON EACH SIDE! I nearly fainted! I saw my turnoff, but no one would let me over! I ended up in downtown Houston in the middle of the evening rush hour, mainly because there was so much traffic that I could not find a turnoff. It took me two hours to find my son's home. I tried to sleep that night, but every time I closed my eyes all I could see was lines, like ocean waves, of cars and trucks that seemed to go on forever. In Texas, there are five cities that are at least twice as big as Denver, generally three times larger. Houston is five times larger than Denver. After five years experience driving to my son's house, I now realize that Denver is STILL very much a wonderful, historical, somewhat smaller historic miner's town. The focus of Denver's government is on restoring the historic areas, excavating the mining camps, pioneer camps, Native American Indian settlements, nearby mining ghost towns--it truly is an American treasure.

Shane Joseph said...

I appreciate the details...makes me wonder why they did not name Denver's NFL team "The Miners" instead of "The Broncos" (lol).
The entourage that accompanies the new territories being inhabited makes it so real...loved the photo of the woman skinning buffalo. Thanks Darla

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I never thought of that before--The Miners would be a great name! Yes, there were many people who followed the miners, and when you think about it, it does make sense. Of course they would need food, supplies, entertainment. I guess I never thought of it that much when I explored the old mining camps as a child and in my teens. I pictured large groups of men working until their fingers froze, sleeping beneath trees, wearing their clothes down to bare threads. Then again, there probably were men who lived that way, too. Men who did not strike gold, spent all their money, and barely survived.

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...