OLD COLORADO CITY
by Jonathan S. Evans
I walked around Old Colorado City on the day after Christmas; many of the shops were closed after the seasonal sales and Christmas decorations were everywhere. Not to be confused with Colorado City, where I live, Old Colorado City is one of the oldest communities and townships in Southern Colorado, being established as a settlement in the mid- nineteenth century long before Colorado became a state and was still known as a Territory. It was founded on May 22, 1859, when the Colorado Town Company, a group mainly from Denver and Auraria, laid claim to two square miles of land. In the old days, the town must have been a pretty wild scene with bars, brothels and stores for the early settlers in the area. In 1861 Old Colorado City, through some fancy footwork in Washington, D.C. actually became Colorado’s Territory’s first capitol. However, Colorado City effectively functioned as the capital for only five days. When the second territorial legislature met at Colorado City on July 7, 1862, in a log cabin that still stands on Colorado Avenue, they found the accommodations so inadequate that they voted to adjourn on July 11 and reconvene in Denver on July 16. The legislators met there only once, and decided the colourful atmosphere was not representative of a Territory Capitol and the town was never recognized by the Federal government as the territorial capital. By the summer of 1860, newly built roads from Denver to South Park and the Blue River had diverted most of the traffic to and from the mines, and Colorado City commerce instead shifted towards serving the agriculture of Colorado’s eastern plains.
The following years were disastrous for Old Colorado City. The Civil War and accompanying national depression brought incoming traffic to a standstill. In 1864 a great flood wiped out half the local crops, and a month later millions of grasshoppers finished the job. On top of all that, Old Colorado City had been built on an Indian crossroad, a natural boundary between the Sioux, Arapahos and Cheyenne’s of the Great Plains, and their historic enemies, the Utes of the mountains. As such, it was in the front line for all the action between these tribes and in many instances, the settlers found themselves in the center of a war zone. There were many tense moments as differences were settled in the immediate area, with little consideration given to any of the new immigrants who happened to be in the way.
The upper class easterners responsible for founding Colorado Springs and Manitou Spring (1872) wanted little to do with Colorado City and its rowdy reputation- or at least that was the official line. More private stories, however, tell of a system of tunnels under Colorado City leading from the “good” side of the street to the other, with many an honorable gentleman having occasion to use the tunnels.
Colorado City was booming again with the discovery of gold in Cripple Creek a few miles to the west, prompting the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush. As traffic up the pass increased, Colorado City’s revenues from the toll increased too. Four processing plants were built in the immediate vicinity to take care of the Cripple Creek ore, which also contributed to the local economy.
Most of the buildings in existence today date from this period of renewed growth. Old Colorado City uses the building much as they were used originally. The ground floors are shops and stores, restaurants and bars; the upper floors are offices, meeting rooms and residences. There are numerous restaurants, tourist and gift shops, fine art galleries and clothes shops. One of the most unique and interesting is Michael Garman’s Americana gallery where small, very life-like figures re-enact the lore of the old west world.
In 1917, Old Colorado City was annexed into the city of Colorado Springs and in 1977 was designated a National Historic district. The Old Colorado City Development Corp. was then formed to obtain the necessary financial resources for the restoration and revitalization of the area. Flourishing again today, extensive landscaping and the types of businesses located in Old Colorado City all contributed handsomely to the historical atmosphere you will enjoy as you spend time in this unique shopping city, now with over 120 shops and restaurants.
Today, Old Colorado City is a national historic district and represents the best in shopping, dining, and entertainment while keeping the friendly, homespun flavor of the west. It is a target for tourists in the area, has its own Pioneer Days street festival in the early summer and manages to straddle its historic past and current relative affluence comfortably. It is one of those shopping spots that shouldn’t be missed when you’re in the area.