Pueblo history

Colorado Fuel and Iron mill in Pueblo
The Colorado Fuel & Iron Co's steel mill dominated Pueblo's skyline and economy for decades. The company was controlled by the heirs of John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould. | Photo from 1908 by Detroit Publishing Co.

By Sue Deans

In the 1840s, traders and trappers helped build a plaza known as El Pueblo or Fort Pueblo, hoping to promote settlement and trade along the Arkansas River, then a border with Mexico.

The few families who lived there traded with Native Americans for hides and other items. A raid by Utes and Apaches in 1854 killed more than a dozen residents, and the post was abandoned, to be resurrected a few years later during the 1859 Colorado Gold rush.

Five flags in the city’s official seal represent the five countries and territories the Pueblo area belonged to – France, Mexico, Texas, Spain and the United States.

In the early 1900s, Pueblo became noted for making saddles.

The Great Flood of June 3, 1921, devastated Pueblo, killing nearly 1,500 people. Property loss was estimated at more than $20 million, and most of the downtown area was destroyed.

A cloudburst 10 miles west of the town swelled the Arkansas River, and at the same time, a downpour overfilled Fountain Creek 30 miles to the north. Where the rivers met in the center of town, waters rose to more than 15 feet and floodwaters covered more than 300 square miles.

Many stories of bravery emerged amid the disaster, including telephone operators who moved to the third floor of their building so they could keep sending warnings to people downstream and relaying distress calls from those trapped by the floodwaters. The operators survived and their bravery saved hundreds of lives.

Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, the decline of the American steel industry led to further economic troubles.

The Colorado Fuel & Iron Co.’s Steel mill was Pueblo’s main industry for many years and was largely owned and controlled by John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould’s financial heirs by 1903. But the 1982 steel crash led to the decline of CF&I, and the company was later sold and has changed its name to Rocky Mountain Steel Mills. Only the steel production (electric furnaces, used for scrap recycling), rail, rod, bar, and seamless tube mills are still in operation. A wire mill still produces products such as fence and nails under the CF&I name.

On the economic plus side, Vestas, a Danish manufacturer of wind turbines, has opened a major plant in Pueblo’s industrial park. The company employs about 1,500 people in Colorado and says the Pueblo plant, completed in 2010, is the world’s largest wind tower manufacturing plant. The solar energy industry is also growing in and around the city, blessed with abundant sunshine.

Another major employer in Pueblo is the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo, founded in 1879 as the Colorado State Insane Asylum and later known as the Colorado State Hospital. A new Forensic Medium and Maximum Security Center, the only forensic psychiatric hospital in the state, opened in 2009.

Pueblo has long been famous as a place where Americans could write to get helpful information from the federal government to help solve common consumer problems. The Federal Citizen Information Center sent out pamphlets and other information from the Government Printing Office in Pueblo, and had its own well-known ZIP code, 81009. Since 1970, FCIC has focused on helping consumers interact with the Federal government by phone, print and electronic means. Its website is www.pueblo.gsa.gov

Pueblo is home to Colorado State University-Pueblo, formerly the University of Southern Colorado, with about 6,000 students. Pueblo Community College is a two-year community college with about 5,000 students, one of 13 in the Colorado Community College System, operating campuses in Pueblo and Canon City as well as the Southwest Colorado Community College with locations between Mancos and Cortez, and in Durango.