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Guidebook of the Western United States: Part E. The Denver & Rio Grande Western Route


The traveler who is unfamiliar with the West will find much to interest him in and about Denver. The city has sprung up in a short time; it is, indeed, but little more than 50 years old. Its population, according to the census of 1920, was 256,491. The traveler who may have thought of Denver as a city in the center of a great mountainous empire may be disappointed in finding, when he arrives there, that it is a city on the plains, 15 or 16 miles east of the foot hills and 50 to 60 miles east of the Continental Divide, or the main crest of the Rocky Mountains. (See Route map, sheet 1, p. 32.)

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Although it is on the plains, Denver, in common with many towns in and near the mountains, owes its first settlement to the discovery of gold, which was found in the sand of Cherry Creek by a band of prospectors who were bound to the mountain region. The sand was not commercially productive, but the camp established for the purpose of working it has grown and is to-day a fine city with broad streets, great manufacturing plants, large stores, numerous business blocks, commodious hotels and residences, and beautiful boulevards and parks.

The exploration that led to the founding of the city of Denver, like those that led to the founding of many other cities, is shrouded more or less in mystery. Gold was certainly the lure that brought the explorers here, but when and where gold was first discovered in what is now Colorado are not certainly known. There are many legends that the precious metal was found in the foothills and the mountains of Colorado prior to 1850, but most of these legends are vague and unreliable. What appears to be the first authentic account of an exploration in this vicinity is a story that a party of Cherokee Indians, in the spring of 1849, went to the Pacific coast by way of the old trail up the Arkansas Valley across the Squirrel Creek divide (just east of Palmer Lake), and down Cherry Creek to the South Platte at the site of the present city of Denver. The story goes that the Indians found some gold in the Rocky Mountains but not enough to deter them from continuing their trip to California. When they reached the coast they did not find gold as abundantly as they had expected, so they returned to Georgia fully convinced that there were opportunities in the Rocky Mountains just as promising as they had seen in California.

In 1858 the Cherokees again organized a gold-seeking expedition, which was joined by many white men. This party, which was known as the Green Russell party, went to Cherry Creek, where the Indians had found some gold on their previous visit: They prospected along Cherry Creek and South Platte River, and many people flocked to their camp. Little gold was found, but the camp persisted, and several settlements sprang up on or near the site later occupied by the city of Denver. The first town established in this vicinity was on South Platte River 6 miles above the mouth of Cherry Creek. It was called Montana and consisted of about twenty log cabins, but it did not survive a year. The first town on the actual site of Denver was called St. Charles. It was organized September 24, 1858, and, like most towns of this period, it existed at first only on paper; it was not until October that the first structure was erected. This structure consisted of a few logs piled up and surmounted with a wagon cover, and this was probably the first building on the site of Denver. About the middle of October Georgians established a town on the west side of Cherry Creek which they called Auraria, after a small mining town in Georgia.

The town of St. Charles made no progress until the 17th of November, when Gen. William Larimer and Richard E. Whitsett arrived there and rechristened it Denver City, in honor of Gen. J. W. Denver, the governor of the Territory of Kansas, which then included that part of the present State of Colorado which lies east of the crest of the Rocky Mountains. The first house in Denver is said to have been erected by Gen. Larimer on the banks of Cherry Creek, between what are now Blake and Wazee streets. The towns of Montana and Auraria soon disappeared or were swallowed up by the more rapidly growing "City of Denver," as it was known in the early days.

Denver, though not a mining city, has long been the financial and distributing center of an immense mining region, including the Rocky Mountains from northern Wyoming to southern New Mexico. It has become also a great railroad center, partly because it is a center of distribution and partly because most tourists making a trip to the Far West desire to pass through or stop in this flourishing city. The city has the wonderful health-giving climate of the mountain region, and many who have found the humid, heavy atmosphere of the East depressing have each year sought and been benefited by the dry, exhilarating, and rarefied air of Colorado.

Denver is now the metropolis of the Rocky Mountain region. It is noted for its broad, clean streets, its handsome residences, and the beauty and number of its public parks. Grass and trees are not natural to Denver, so the people there take the greatest interest in them and are willing to spend time and money freely for a beautiful lawn and a growth of trees. Farther east, where such things are abundant, they are not prized so highly and are generally neglected, so that they do not grow in the perfection that they attain in the semiarid region, where irrigation is possible.

One of the best known of Denver's parks is the Capitol Grounds and Civic Center, shown in part in Plate II. The Civic Center has recently been acquired by the city and made into a beautiful park. The largest of Denver's playgrounds is City Park, which contains 320 acres and has been beautified by trees, flowers, lakes, and fountains until it is the equal of almost any other artificial park in the country. In it is a zoological garden and a museum of natural history. Washington Park also is becoming one of the beauty spots of the city. Cheesman Park is noted for the magnificent view of the mountains which may be had from its pavilion. Here on a clear day the traveler may obtain a sweeping view of the great Front Range from Longs Peak, 60 miles away on the north, to Pikes Peak, 80 miles to the southwest. To assist the traveler to recognize the more prominent peaks a brass plate, upon which are engraved the names of the peaks and the lines of sight pointing toward them, has there been set on a pedestal. This diagram, together with a fairly good map of the State, enables one to place accurately all the more striking mountain features in the vicinity.

PLATE II. STATE CAPITOL, DENVER. This building of Colorado gray granite, stands on a terrace overlooking the business part of the city and commands a fine view of far-away mountains. It is surrounded by a wide stretch of lawn that includes the Civic Center and the grounds of the public library. Photograph by L. C. McClure, Denver.

Another excellent vantage point from which to view the mountains is the dome of the Capitol (Pl. II). This fine building, which is constructed of native granite and marble, stands on a commanding terrace facing the west. The dome is 276 feet high, and from its balcony on a clear day a vast extent of the mountain front may be seen.

Fronting the Capitol is the Public Library and the United States Mint, both constructed of Colorado granite and both massive buildings, which serve as a fitting setting for the State Capitol. The library is interesting as a piece of Grecian architecture and the mint as the place of manufacture and the storage of vast sums of Government coin. The new Federal post office, a beautiful building, which occupies an entire city block, is built of Colorado marble. This stone is just becoming well known and is being used in many parts of the country, notably in the new Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C. It is taken from quarries about 40 miles south of Glenwood Springs. Another public building that attracts attention is the great auditorium, built to accommodate the Democratic national convention of 1908. It seats 12,000 persons and contains one of the finest theaters in the United States, seating 3,500 persons.

Denver is an active industrial city, and its manufacturing plants make many and various articles ranging from railroad cars to radium salts. Perhaps the most interesting plant to the average traveler is the smelter for the reduction of the ores of the precious metals. A description of a smelter is given on pages 252-254. There are also brick and clay works, railroad shops, and other works.

Denver is noted for the excellence of its public schools and for the beauty and serviceableness of its school buildings. It is a center of higher education also, for the State University is at Boulder, less than 20 miles northwest of the city; the State School of Mines is at Golden, 16 miles west of it; and Denver University is in the city.

The residential part of the city is very attractive. The houses are substantial and are surrounded by velvety lawns diversified and beautified by flowers and shrubs. No frame buildings can be erected within the city limits.

Although the extremes of temperature at Denver are rather great, the summer temperatures reaching 95° F. or more and winter temperatures touching the zero point, the climate is not hard to bear, for the air is so dry that the extremes of either summer or winter are not felt as they are in a more humid climate. According to seven years' records of the Weather Bureau the mean annual precipitation is 13.7 inches and the mean annual temperature is 50°. The dryness of the air may be better appreciated by comparing it with that of the Atlantic coast, where the mean annual precipitation is 45 to 50 inches.

The description of the scenery along the line of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad begins on page 22.

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Last Updated: 16-Feb-2007