In the summer of 1858, during the Pike's Peak Gold Rush, a group of gold prospectors from Lawrence, Kansas established Montana City as a mining town on the banks of the South Platte River in what was then western Kansas Territory. This was the first historical settlement in what was later to become the city of Denver. The site faded quickly, however, and by the summer of 1859 it was abandoned in favor of Auraria (named after the gold-mining town of Auraria, Georgia) and St. Charles City.
On November 22, 1858, General William Larimer and Captain Jonathan Cox, Esquire, both land speculators from eastern Kansas Territory, placed cottonwood logs to stake a claim on the bluff overlooking the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek, across the creek from the existing mining settlement of Auraria, and on the site of the existing townsite of St. Charles. Larimer named the townsite Denver City to curry favor with Kansas Territorial Governor James W. Denver. Larimer hoped the town's name would help make it the county seat of Arapaho County but, unbeknownst to him, Governor Denver had already resigned from office. The location was accessible to existing trails and was across the South Platte River from the site of seasonal encampments of the Cheyenne and Arapaho. The site of these first towns is now the site of Confluence Park near downtown Denver. Larimer, along with associates in the St. Charles City Land Company, sold parcels in the town to merchants and miners, with the intention of creating a major city that would cater to new immigrants. Denver City was a frontier town, with an economy based on servicing local miners with gambling, saloons, livestock and goods trading. In the early years, land parcels were often traded for grubstakes or gambled away by miners in Auraria. In May 1859, Denver City residents donated 53 lots to the Leavenworth & Pike's Peak Express in order to secure the region's first overland wagon route. Offering daily service for "passengers, mail, freight, and gold," the Express reached Denver on a trail that trimmed westward travel time from twelve days to six. In 1863, Western Union furthered Denver's dominance of the region by choosing the city for its regional terminus.
The Colorado Territory was created on February 28, 1861, Arapahoe County was formed on November 1, 1861, and Denver City was incorporated on November 7, 1861. Denver City served as the Arapahoe County Seat from 1861 until consolidation in 1902. In 1867, Denver City became the territorial capital. With its newfound importance, Denver City shortened its name to Denver. On August 1, 1876, Colorado was admitted to the Union.
Although by the close of the 1860s, Denver residents could look with pride at their success establishing a vibrant supply and service center, the decision to route the nation's first transcontinental railroad through Cheyenne, rather than Denver, threatened the prosperity of the young town. A daunting 100 miles away, citizens mobilized to build a railroad to connect Denver to the transcontinental railroad. Spearheaded by visionary leaders including Territorial Governor John Evans, David Moffat, and Walter Cheesman, fundraising began. Within three days, $300,000 had been raised, and citizens were optimistic. Fundraising stalled before enough was raised, forcing these visionary leaders to take control of the debt-ridden railroad. Despite challenges, on June 24, 1870, citizens cheered as the Denver Pacific completed the link to the transcontinental railroad, ushering in a new age of prosperity for Denver.
Finally linked to the rest of the nation by rail, Denver prospered as a service and supply center. The young city grew during these years, attracting millionaires with their mansions, as well as the poverty and crime of a rapidly growing city. Denver citizens were proud when the rich chose Denver and were thrilled when Horace Tabor, the Leadville mining millionaire, built an impressive business block at 16th and Larimer as well as the elegant Tabor Grand Opera House. Luxurious hotels, including the much-loved Brown Palace Hotel, soon followed, as well as splendid homes for millionaires like the Croke, Patterson, Campbell Mansion at 11th and Pennsylvania and the now-demolished Moffat Mansion at 8th and Grant. Intent on transforming Denver into one of the world's great cities, leaders wooed industry and enticed laborers to work in these factories. Soon, in addition to the elite and a large middle class, Denver had a growing population of German, Italian, and Chinese laborers, soon followed by African-Americans and Spanish-surnamed workers. Unprepared for this influx, the Silver Crash of 1893 unsettled political, social, and economic balances, laying the foundation for ethnic bigotry, such as the Red Scare and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as corruption and crime.
of Denver, 1898
Between 1880 and 1895 the city experienced a huge rise in corruption, as crime bosses, such as Soapy Smith, worked side by side with elected officials and the police to control elections, gambling, and bunco gangs. The city also experienced a depression in 1893 after the crash of silver prices. In 1887, the precursor to the international charity United Way was formed in Denver by local religious leaders who raised funds and coordinated various charities to help Denver's poor. By 1890, Denver had grown to be the second-largest city west of Omaha, Nebraska. In 1900, whites represented 96.8% of Denver's population.
Between the 1880s and 1930s, Denver's floriculture industry developed and thrived. This period became known locally as the Carnation Gold Rush.
In 1901, the Colorado General Assembly voted to split Arapahoe County into three parts: a new consolidated City and County of Denver, a new Adams County, and the remainder of the Arapahoe County to be renamed South Arapahoe County. A ruling by the Colorado Supreme Court, subsequent legislation, and a referendum delayed the creation of the City and County of Denver until November 15, 1902.
Early in the 20th century, Denver, like many other cities, was home to a pioneering Brass Era car company. The Colburn Automobile Company made cars copied from one of its contemporaries, Renault.
From 1953 to 1989, the Rocky Flats Plant, a DOE nuclear weapon facility that was about 15 miles from Denver, produced fissile plutonium "pits" for nuclear warheads. A major fire at the facility in 1957, as well as leakage from nuclear waste stored at the site between 1958 and 1968, resulted in the contamination of some parts of Denver, to varying degrees, with plutonium-239, a harmful radioactive substance with a half-life of 24,200 years. A study by the Jefferson County health director, Dr. Carl Johnson, in 1981, linked the contamination to an increase in birth defects and cancer incidence in central Denver and nearer Rocky Flats. Later studies confirmed many of his findings. Plutonium contamination was still present outside the former plant site as of August 2010 , and presents risks to building the envisioned Jefferson Parkway, which would complete Denver's automotive beltway.
Downtown Denver cityscape, 1964. Includes Denver's oldest church (Trinity United Methodist), first building of the Mile High Center complex, Lincoln Center, old brownstone part of the Brown Palace Hotel, and Cosmopolitan Hotel – since demolished.
In 1970, Denver was selected to host the 1976 Winter Olympics to coincide with Colorado's centennial celebration, but in November 1972, Colorado voters struck down ballot initiatives allocating public funds to pay for the high costs of the games, which were subsequently moved to Innsbruck, Austria. The notoriety of becoming the only city ever to decline to host an Olympiad after being selected has made subsequent bids difficult. The movement against hosting the games was based largely on environmental issues and was led by State Representative Richard Lamm, who was subsequently elected to three terms (1975–87) as Colorado governor. Denver explored a potential bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics, but no bid was submitted.
In 2010, Denver adopted a comprehensive update of its zoning code. The new zoning was developed to guide development as envisioned in adopted plans such as Blueprint Denver, Transit Oriented Development Strategic Plan, Greenprint Denver, and the Strategic Transportation Plan.
Denver has hosted the Democratic National Convention twice, in 1908 and again in 2008, taking the opportunity to promote the city's status on the national, political, and socioeconomic stage. On August 10–15, 1993, Denver hosted the Catholic Church's 6th World Youth Day, which was attended by an estimated 500,000, making it the largest gathering in Colorado history.
Denver has also been known historically as the Queen City of the Plains and the Queen City of the West, because of its important role in the agricultural industry of the High Plains region in eastern Colorado and along the foothills of the Colorado Front Range. Several US Navy ships have been named USS Denver in honor of the city.