Boulder history

Boulder in 1900
Boulder is shown at around 1900 in this panoramic photochrome from the Detroit Photographic Co.

Staff writer

The long history of the lovely Boulder Valley, and the entire West, might be summed up in one word: displacement. The vast inland seas that covered the area for millions of years were shoved aside by the violent upthrust of mountains. Sea and coastline creatures and plants gave way to those adapted to the high plains, foothills and stony mountains. The original human visitors, likely descendants of Asians who trailed across the Bearing Land Bridge, stayed on the go, following herds of mastodon and mammoth. Later, many native tribes visited the area in search of clay, turquoise and fossilized seashells. Comanche and Kiowa settled in until they were driven out by Cheyenne and Arapaho, who had been in turn driven out of their Great Lakes homes by the Sioux. Utes claimed the mountains and all enjoyed the plentiful game, mild weather and the natural hot springs now called Eldorado Springs.

Gold brought the first Europeans to the area, tides of Spanish and French who alternatively claimed the territory as their own. President Thomas Jefferson settled the issue when he bought the huge region known as the Louisiana Purchase from France, although he was roundly criticized by his own countrymen for taking a risk on an unexplored land. Adventurers, traders and trappers trickled into the West. Farmers followed and began plowing up virgin prairie and building sod homes.

In 1858 a Missouri farmer named Capt. Thomas Aikins led a group of settlers westward. From a distance, Aikins spotted “the loveliest of all the valleys” and led his group to set up camp at the mouth of Boulder Canyon. Southern Arapaho Chief Niwot, whose clan had made the Boulder Valley their home, encouraged the white interlopers to move along, but the immigrants were here to stay. The resigned Niwot predicted that “Boulder Valley is so beautiful that people will want to stay and their staying will be the undoing of the beauty,” a comment shortened in local lore into Niwot’s Curse – that once visitors had seen the beautiful valley they would not be able to leave.

The newcomers created a town company, dividing 1,280 acres along Boulder Creek into 4,044 lots. Once town shareholders had received 18 lots each, the rest were offered at the unheard of price of $1,000 each (other homestead land was selling for $1.25 an acre), a foreshadowing of Boulder’s costly real estate. In 1860, the Colorado territory’s first schoolhouse was built in Boulder at the southwest corner of Walnut and 15th streets.

The rough settlement, built upon supplying miners in the mountains to the west and farmers on the plains to the east, incorporated as Boulder City in 1871 and was designated Boulder County seat in 1867. A courthouse erected at the current site on the Downtown Boulder Mall in 1883 burned to the ground in 1932, destroying many county records. The current Art Deco courthouse was built in 1934 and still houses many county functions.

Gold mining gave way to silver, then tungsten. The peak year of Boulder County mining was 1892, with more than $1 million in ore clawed from the mountains. In 1918, Boulder was the main producer of tungsten in the United States.

Boulder was connected to the larger world with train service in 1873 and telegraph in 1874. The original train depot has been moved from its original location at 14th and Water streets (now Canyon Boulevard) to 30th and Pearl streets where it will be incorporated into a transportation hub for the modern city.

Boulder’s merchant identity began to change in a big way when the town became the home for the state’s first university. In 1872, the Territorial House promised $15,000 for a university in Boulder if the town would match the pledge. Capt. David Nichols, speaker of the Territorial House and controversial leader of a murderous attack on a peaceful native American encampment, jumped his horse and rode overnight from the capital in Denver and roused Boulder’s financial leaders. The town rallied with a monetary match and 44.9 acres of land on a barren hilltop. The University of Colorado opened in 1877 in a small brick building called Old Main that housed 44 students, one instructor, the president’s family and a janitor. It was a small start, but led to Boulder becoming an internationally known center of thought, research and education, thanks to CU and the federal labs and innovative businesses that followed it.

In 1894, a 60-hour spring rainfall on top of heavy winter snowpack in the mountains sent a huge surge of flood water down Boulder, St. Vrain, Jim, Four-Mile and Lefthand creeks, tearing out bridges, crushing building, submerging train tracks, ripping out telegraph and telephone poles and making a lake of downtown Boulder. Remarkably, no one was killed in the flood, although the town was cut off from the world and divided north from south for five days.

Boulder’s mild and arid climate drew tuberculosis patients at the end of the 18th century to a sanitarium built on the city’s western edge. It is now a center for sports medicine for the many professional and amateur athletes attracted in their turn by the town’s climate, altitude and attitude.

The next wave was educators from Texas, determined to escape the heat and humidity of their home state and to take part in the Chautauqua movement of summer gatherings to celebrate culture, art, educate and recreation. Boulder’s Chautauqua, nestled against the foothills off Baseline Road, still remains, the only year-round chautauqua and the only one open to the public. With the Boulder Chautauqua came an electric streetcar to move the visitors from Chautauqua to downtown Boulder.

Boulder comfortably sustained itself with tourism, local businesses and little industry, but in 1905 town leaders determined the city needed a hotel to maintain the flow of outside dollars. With a fund created by contributions from local business owners, the Hotel Boulderado was built and still welcomes visitors. The Catacombs bar in the basement of the Boulderado was the first establishment to serve liquor when Boulder’s prohibition ordinance was overturned in 1969, after 60 dry years.

When World War II inevitably impacted the sleepy town, the University of Colorado campus became a training ground for new military officers and more than 4,000 young men and women from the area went to service. The University Memorial Center on the CU campus was built in their memory.

Following the war, Boulder bustled with returning soldiers and a growing flood of clean industry and research highlighted by the arrival of the National Bureau of Standards and its atomic clock. Now named the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the agency shares a sprawling campus off south Broadway with other Department of Commerce agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Together, they explore areas from electromagnetics, quantum physics, time and frequency to weather and earth systems.

By 1952, Boulder and Denver were bound together by U.S. 36, the first toll road in the nation to pay for itself, 13 years faster than expected. Industry began to move to the town and Boulder found itself with a population crisis. Between 1950 and 1960, the town’s population tripled, to almost 67,000. Alarmed by the gush of new residents, a group of citizens came together to protect the town’s iconic mountain backdrop. Calling themselves PLAN-Boulder, the group succeeded in pushing creation of the Blue Line in 1959, an elevation along the foothills above which no city water services would be provided. In the decades since, PLAN-Boulder has continued to be a powerful voice for environmental preservation.

An exception to the Blue Line came just one year after it’s establishment, when the National Center for Atmospheric Research was built on 530 acres of mesa land donated by the state, the striking building designed by architect I.M. Pei. NCAR has become an internationally known center for climate research and visitors are invited to tour public areas and enjoy the hiking trails that spider out from the building (which you may recognize from the Woody Allen movie “Sleepers”).

Boulder citizens backed up their small-town, environmental ethic with a self-imposed sales tax to buy a belt of natural land around the city, constricting sprawl, protecting wildlife habitat and providing recreation opportunities. The initial tax has been supported by bond issues since that 1967 election.

In the national turmoil of the 1960s, hippies discovered an idyllic center for their alternative lifestyle, initially camping in Central Park and spreading around downtown, to the bemusement of long-time residents. The gentle gathering grew and became more militant, leading to a series of bombings and riots on University Hill protesting the war in Vietnam. Police responded with tear gas and arrests. Mexican-American activism followed with marches and a take-over of an administrative building at CU. Six Chicano activists were killed in car bombings at Chautauqua Park and in the parking lot of a 28th Street store. Police concluded that the young activists in the cars were making bombs for other targets; activists claimed the cars were blown up by political opponents.

The next upheaval centered on gay rights. A liberal Boulder City Council, elected following passage of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which lowered the voting age to 18, passed a gay rights ordinance in 1973. The measure’s most outspoken supporters on council –Mayor Penfield Tate and Councilman Tim Fuller – received death threats and Fuller was recalled from office. The ordinance was overturned by voters, but reinstated in 1987, the only such measure in the nation approved by popular vote.

Boulder County Clerk Clela Rorex presaged the current same-sex marriage debate by issuing several marriage licenses to homosexual couples. When a cowboy brought in his horse, Dolly, demanding similar treatment, Rorex turned him down – the horse was underage, she explained. The Colorado attorney general ruled the marriage licenses illegal in 1975, but the city has since established a domestic partnership registry, gays are among those protected from discrimination by the city’s Human Rights Ordinance and Boulder was among the opponents who took the state’s constitutional amendment barring equal rights for gays to the U.S. Supreme Court – and won.

The 1970s and 1980s brought another surge in population, this time thanks to high-tech industry, attention-drawing athletic events like the Red Zinger Bicycle Classic, Eastern religion (Naropa University is the nation’s only Buddhist university) and general celebrity.

In 1976, the nation’s bicentennial and Colorado’s centennial, Boulder’s downtown was revived when Pearl Street was closed between 9th and 14th streets, creating the popular downtown pedestrian mall.

Boulder has maintained it’s popularity, both among visitors and Niwot-cursed residents, who would likely give up a limb for the $1,000 asking price for prime creekside real estate of 1858. The city’s dedication to maintaining a cohesive community and the area’s desirability have created a town that is whiter and wealthier than its neighbors or the state as a whole. Fitting for the home of the territory’s first schoolhouse, Boulder’s is a highly educated population struggling with issues of attracting and maintaining diversity, encouraging affordable housing, increasing it’s green ethic and preparing for the next displacement.