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Denver: A City Built by Rail

While the “Pike’s Peak or Bust” gold rush brought many to Denver, the railroad was the city’s greatest success.

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Denver is the state capital of Colorado and is known as “the Mile High City.” It got its nickname because when the elevation is measured from the 15th step of the state capitol building’s west side, it is one mile (5,280 feet) above sea level. Like many other booming towns, the city got its start on the map after the discovery of gold. And, also like other territories in the U.S., before the gold rush that brought European settlers, indigenous peoples populated the area.

Arapaho and Cheyenne roamed the plains for generations before the first European decided to explore the territory and start to settle there. In 1858, a small group of prospectors from Georgia crossed through the Colorado territory and discovered gold at the base of the Rocky Mountains. The California Gold Rush started just nine years earlier, so this newest find brought hopefuls from all over to try their hand at collecting the shiny stuff.

In June of the same year, two rival towns were founded on the opposite side of Cherry Creek: Auraria and St. Charles. At that time, all a person had to do was take some land and start putting in roads and buildings, and then sell it to someone who might want to build a town. In this case, the claim of St. Charles was “jumped” by William Larimer, Jr., who renamed it to Denver City in honor of the governor of the Kansas Territory, James W. Denver.

“Pikes Peak or bust” gold rush, named after the mountain where the precious metal was found, brought many more settlers and miners to the area and resulted in Auraria consolidating with Denver City in 1860. The next year, the Colorado Territory was established, and Denver City became Denver.

During this time, William N. Byers moved to Denver from Ohio. He had a dream of building up the town and tamping down the fears that a gold rush brings to an area. He founded the Rocky Mountain News and used the media resource to try and promote the city, claiming it to be the “Queen City of the Plains.” He even said it was the new steamboat capital of the West; however, the small Platte River could not hold up to the promise. Unfortunately, Byers had a scandalous affair, which resulted in a shootout in the middle of a downtown street.

In 1863, a fire ripped through the city, devastating it. Before the people could fully recover from that disaster, a flash flood the next year swept away many of the buildings, including the city hall. Add to that, during the 1860s, uprisings by the Cheyenne and Arapaho caused havoc until the Native Americans were forcefully removed from Colorado.

In 1867, Denver became the capital city, but citizens were still struggling to bring more business to the area. The transcontinental railway was built and went through Wyoming, skipping the city. Citizens decided to take matters into their own hands and organized their own railway, which was completed in 1870. The city’s railway connected with the Union Pacific at Cheyenne; the Kansas Pacific Railroad reached Denver shortly after that. The bold move was a success, increasing the population from 4,759 in 1870 to 106,713 in 1890, and framing it for what it is today.

Kelli Ballard

National Correspondent at and Kelli Ballard is an author, editor, and publisher. Her writing interests span many genres including a former crime/government reporter, fiction novelist, and playwright. Originally a Central California girl, Kelli now resides in the Seattle area.

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