SEARCH   SmallTownGems:

History of Estes Park, Colorado

Click this link to return to town page for recommended Best Small Town.

Town History

The first tourists to visit Estes Park were not from Texas, Kansas, New Jersey, California or Nebraska. They did not arrive by car, in a bus, RV, motorcycle, bicycle or any other modern mode of transportation.

The archaeological record shows that humans have lived in the area for at least 12,000 years. Remains from the Clovis culture, the first known people to cross the Bering Strait land bridge from Asia into North America, have been found within the park. Later, around 2,000 B.C., the McKean people, one of the Paleo-Indian cultures, conducted game drives in which animals were funneled towards natural "traps" where they would be descended upon by groups of eagerly awaiting hunters.

It was only 10,000 years ago that this popular family vacation destination first attracted Ute and Arapaho Indian families who summered in the Estes Park area and wintered in the Middle Park region south of Grand Lake. Remnants of the trail they used to cross the Continental Divide still are visible in Rocky Mountain National Park.

In about 1800, the first of the many adventurous explorers from the east arrived, including the intrepid "mountain men" who came in search of beaver pelts and bear skins. One of the first organized explorations to see the Rockies was led by Major Stephen H. Long in 1820. As head of the Yellowstone Expedition, his mission was to probe the secrets of what was a very new and wild part of this country. Longs Peak, the 14,000-foot centerpiece of the park, is named in his honor though he never scaled the peak.

When gold was discovered in Colorado in 1859, significant numbers of people began to make their way into the Estes Valley. Although most of the gold mining was south of here, one miner did wander into the area: Joel Estes, the man for whom the village was named. 

Estes, a Kentucky-born adventurer who had struck it rich in California a decade earlier, "discovered" the Estes Valley in 1859. A year later, he moved his wife and 13 children along with a herd of cattle to a beautiful meadow area along the east side of the mountains where they lived from 1860 to 1866.

In 1864, William Byers, the owner and editor of the Rocky Mountain News, visited the area and named it Estes Park in honor of his host. However, Estes found the high altitude and short growing season made cattle ranching impractical, so he sold his homestead to Griff Evans who established a dude ranch. One of Evans' guests, the Earl of Dunraven, was so enamored of the area he decided to buy the entire valley for his own resort and hunting preserve. Dunraven's questionable actions to achieve that goal eventually were thwarted by area ranchers and mountain men. Colorful characters like Mountain Jim and Isabella Bird (a Victorian lady from Great Britain who chronicled her visit to the area in A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains) dot the area's history.

Large cattle ranches were established in the 1870s by individuals like Alexander Q. MacGregor, who brought in prized herds of Aberdeen Angus. The MacGregor Ranch and Museum occupy the site of the founder's operation and is still a working ranch. Another settler, W. E. James, built the Elkhorn Lodge and supplemented his income with a "fish ranch." James and his sons would catch 500 to 800 trout a day for restaurants in Denver.

F. O. Stanley, originally a guest at the Elkhorn Lodge, came from Massachusetts in 1903 seeking a cure for tuberculosis. Stanley is credited with developing a critical photographic process and co-inventing the Stanley Steamer automobile with his twin brother F. E. Stanley. The mountain air proved so beneficial that he settled here and built the Stanley Hotel as a luxury travel stop. The facility, which opened in 1909, cost more than half a million dollars to build and the publicity created a boom in the area's resort business. In an effort to capitalize on the growing numbers of people taking vacations by train, Stanley ran regular "mountain bus" trips up the Big Thompson Canyon, probably one of the first shuttle services in the Rocky Mountain region.

Since those early days, Estes Park's reputation as a resort destination has grown. Millions of people have stayed and enjoyed vacations here since Stanley's days, including Pope John Paul II the Emperor of Japan and President George W. Bush.

What the visitor sees downtown today is vastly different from what was visible two decades ago. In 1982 a man-made earthen dam burst in Rocky Mountain National Park, sending the river out of its banks and into downtown Estes Park. The result was major destruction along the main street. The community used the disaster as a catalyst for major renewal of the downtown core and earned the nickname "The Gutsiest Little Town in Colorado." Today, visitors are greeted by a main street lined with Victorian lights, trees, mountain flowers and sidewalk benches, walkways alongside the riverfront and lakefront and a landscaped riverside sculpture garden.

The entrances to Rocky Mountain National Park are 10 minutes west of Estes Park. Now more than 80 years old,  "Rocky" stands as one of the crown jewels of the nation's national park system. With its alpine tundra, rugged mountain grandeur, cascading waterfalls, tranquil meadows, massive glaciers, towering peaks, thousands of species of wildflowers, birds and wildlife, it is hard to imagine the area as anything else but a national park.

Brief History of Rocky Mountain National Park

Although some evidence exists to indicate that man was in these mountains 10,000 years ago, Indians did not play a major role in the Rocky Mountain National Park region. The Utes, who lived in the mountains of western Colorado, frequented Grand Lake and occasionally came across the Continental Divide to hunt bison on the plains. The Arapaho, who migrated westward as Americans moved out from the Appalachians, were plains Indians who came to the Estes Park area frequently in the summer, regarding it as prime hunting ground. With the arrival of Americans, Indians seem to have avoided the Estes Park and Grand Lake area, for there were almost no contacts in this region between Americans and Indians.

Major Stephen H. Long came to the mountains on an official government scientific expedition in the summer of 1820. Leaving the Missouri River, he followed the Platte River -- and then the South Platte -- across the plains lying east of the mountains. The morning of June 30 the mountains rose into view, including the mountain that today bears the name of Major Long. Turning south parallel to the range (celebrating the 4th of July on the site of today's Denver) they reached the Pikes Peak area, where three members of the party became the first Americans to climb the Peak, and then turned eastward toward the Mississippi.

The fur trade seems, by and large, to have bypassed the Park area. The annual Green River Rendezvous, as implied by its name, was held in the Green River country of southwestern Wyoming and northeastern Utah. True, there were trading forts established along the South Platte in the 1830's -- Fort St. Vrain, Fort Lupton, Fort Vasquez, Fort Jackson -- but the trade was largely a trade with the Indians in buffalo robes, for by then the beaver market had been decimated by the popularity of the silk top hat.

The first documented American visitor to this region was Rufus Sage who spent 3 years roaming the Rockies, his activities centered about the fort of his friend, Lancaster Lupton. Sage visited Estes Park in the fall of 1843, spent a month hunting deer (for deer hides were bought at Fort Lupton for $2 apiece), and described his visit in his book "Scenes in the Rocky Mountains" which was published in Philadelphia in 1846.

The first settler was Joel Estes. Joel, a Kentuckian, was a wanderer who moved to Missouri and then set forth on several journeys to the west, some as far as California and Oregon. But in 1859 he brought his family to Colorado as a part of the 1859 gold rush and eventually settled as a farmer near the crumbling Fort Lupton. In the fall of 1859, as the mountains were mantled with the red and gold of the aspen, Joel and his son set forth on a hunting expedition. Following the trail of a bear, they came out on a high promontory and looked down into a beautiful valley that became the home of the Estes family in the summer of 1860. But winters were difficult for the cattle, so they sold out and left for a warmer climate in the spring of 1866.

Within a year, the Estes holdings came into the possession of a Welshman, Griff Evans, who added an extra cabin or two to his ranch and began to take in guests -- the first tourist accommodation in Estes Park.

Life was quiet in Estes Park until the arrival of Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin, the Fourth Earl of Dunraven, in December of 1872. The Earl had come for "sport" and unquestionably the hunting in Estes Park was remarkable. He came again in 1873, and by the time he returned in 1874 be had begun to envision a feudal estate, a private hunting preserve for himself and friends, so he began to acquire land by various legal -- and illegal -- devices. Homesteads, sometimes acquired by men who had never been in Estes Park, ended up in Dunraven's domain. In 1877, here in the middle of the wilderness, he built a remarkable hostelry -- the Estes Park Hotel, though it was always referred to locally as the "English Hotel".

Legitimate homesteaders -- Horace Ferguson, Abner Sprague, Elkannah J. Lamb, the James family, Alexander MacGregor -- arrived about the same time as the Earl of Dunraven, and they of course resented (and fought bitterly against) the Earl's illegal acquisition of lands, particularly those that encompassed the streams and thus blocked access to water by the settlers' cattle. Finally the Earl became tired of these battles as well as the gradual intrusion of tourists into his private domain -- by the middle of the 1880's there were sometimes 200 tourists a summer in Estes Park! It seems he last visited Estes Park about 1886 though he retained ownership of the land until the early 20th century.

Before leaving Estes Park and the 19th century, we must note the passing of two important visitors. Isabella Bird, an Englishwoman whose extensive travels and writings earned her the first female membership in the Royal Geographic Society, visited Estes Park in the fall of 1873. Her book, "A Ladies Life in the Rocky Mountains", gives a fascinating description of life in Estes Park in the 1870's though we might wish a more complete description of her romantic relationship with "Rocky Mountain" Jim Nugent, a rough but surprisingly well-educated mountain man. Frederick Chapin visited Estes Park for several consecutive summers in the 1880's and described his various explorations in his book titled "Mountaineering in Colorado" though almost the entire book is directly related to his adventures in the Estes Park region.

Though Judge Wescott moved to Grand Lake in 1867, farmers and ranchers preferred the lower elevations of Middle Park, which were more hospitable to ranching. A few homesteads were established in the upper Colorado Valley in the 1880's but most were claimed in the 1890's and some after the turn of the century.

The western slope did not escape the gold and silver fever of the 1880's. Some discoveries were made at the head of the Colorado Valley in 1879, and by 1880 the rush was on for Lulu City. For a time it appeared there might be good ore -- some gold, mostly silver -- and the town boomed. By 1881 the sale of town lots had doubled; the town had several stage lines, 2 sawmills, a general store, a mining supply store, a grocery store, a barbershop, a clothing store, an assay office, a hotel and restaurant -- by the end of the summer there were 40 houses in Lulu. But the decline was already apparent to some. Businesses that were expected in 1882 never appeared, by 1883 the town was nearly deserted, and on November 26 -- officially acknowledging that the town was dead -- the U. S. government closed the post office. Dutchtown, established at timberline in Hitchings Gulch by some overly-inebriated miners who had shot up the town and were driven out of Lulu City, fared no better; by 1884 it too was deserted and abandoned.

With the prospects for mineral wealth essentially gone and a climate not overly conducive to ranching, slowly the ranches of the upper Colorado Valley converted to the tourist business, and dude ranching was the primary occupation by the 1930's.

A giant boost was given to tourism in Estes Park after the turn of the century by the arrival of F. O. Stanley. Stanley, co-inventor with his brother of the Stanley Steamer, came to Estes Park for his health in 1903. Impressed by the beauty of the valley and grateful for the improvement of his health, he decided to invest his money -- and himself -- in the future of Estes Park. The first requirement was a first-class hotel so in 1909 he opened the Stanley Hotel. He built an electric plant on the Fall River to provide electricity to the hotel, donated a considerable sum of money for road improvement, and when everything was ready, transported visitors from the railroad into Estes Park by Stanley Steamer buses.

Largely due to the efforts of F. O. Stanley, the Estes Park Protective and Improvement Association was established in 1906 for the purpose of protecting the wildflowers and wildlife and improving roads and trails.

But there was one who had an even larger view of the future. Enos Mills, born in Kansas, came to the Longs Peak area when he was only 14 years old. He became Colorado Snow Observer, was appointed Government Lecturer on Forestry by President Theodore Roosevelt, bought the Longs Peak Inn from which he conducted nature walks, and began to write the earliest of many books about the natural history of the area.

In 1909 the Estes Park Protective and Improvement Association began discussion of some sort of game preserve, and eventually Mills proposed the establishment of a national park. At first they called it the Estes National Park and Game Preserve, but they finally settled on Rocky Mountain National Park. Most of the local civic leaders -- F. O. Stanley, C. H. Bond, Abner Sprague -- supported the idea, as did the Denver Chamber of Commerce and the newly-formed Colorado Mountain Club. Those in opposition were the mining, logging, irrigating, and grazing interests.

As a result of the publicity and political pressure developed by Mills and his friend Horace McFarland of the American Civic Association, Secretary of the Interior Fisher assigned Robert B. Marshall, Chief Geographer of the U. S. Geological Survey, to study the area and prepare a report. On January 9, 1913 Marshall submitted his report, supporting a national park of some 700 square miles, embracing roughly the area in today's Park plus the Indian Peaks to the south. James Grafton Rogers -- Yale graduate, distinguished Denver lawyer, and first president of the Colorado Mountain Club -- had been making a detailed study of legislation creating existing national parks, so he responded promptly when Marshall invited him to submit to Secretary Fisher a draft of the bill creating Rocky Mountain National Park. The bill was introduced in the House of Representatives on February 6, 1913 by Representative Rucker of Colorado and in the Senate the next day by Senator Thomas of Colorado.

Throughout the next two years, Mills fulfilled many speaking engagements, wrote many articles, and worked vigorously to gain support for the Park from additional groups, both local and national. But Mills, who had a fiery temper, often antagonized his own supporters if they did not fully agree with him and was unwilling to recognize the fact that considerable compromise was necessary to placate those opposed to the Park. That task was assumed by James Grafton Rogers, a negotiator with considerable influence and skill in both Colorado and Washington politics.

Mills had envisioned a huge national park extending all the way from the Mummy Range, past Longs Peak, down to Mt. Evans. Rogers knew that business interests would bitterly oppose the inclusion of the southern part of this area in the national park, for it included regions such as Central City where great mineral wealth had been produced and where some believed more remained to be discovered. So when Rogers drafted the bill, he included only what is essentially today's Rocky Mountain National Park except for the Never Summer Range that was added in 1929. This brought about the final break in their relationship, and Mills on more than one occasion accused Rogers of consorting with the "enemy". The Park bill as drafted by Rogers passed the Senate on October 9, 1914, the House on January 12, 1915, and President Wilson signed the bill on January 26, 1915.

Preparations had been underway for weeks as the communities of eastern Colorado vied to see which could provide the greatest delegation to the Park's dedication in Horseshoe Park on September 4, 1915. It was foreordained that Denver would be the winner; for days Denver newspapers had urged motorists to meet at the Majestic hotel at 7:30 for the run to Estes Park. But other cities were determined not to be left out. The Fort Collins Weekly Courier urged residents to get out and go: "Put banners on your machines ... so other may know Fort Collins is on the way. Make it clear to Denver that the National Park is not owned by Denver". And so they came -- some said it was the largest gathering of automobiles yet in the State of Colorado, but they came also in carriages, in wagons, on horseback and even on foot.

Enos Mills opened the ceremonies just as the rain began. Stephen Mather, Associate Secretary of the Interior and soon to become the first Director of the National Park Service, donned a raincoat for his speech. But as the program continued the rain stopped, the clouds parted, the sun emerged, and Longs Peak -- resplendent in a new coat of snow -- came into view. Somehow it seemed symbolic of that glorious afternoon when 2000 people came together in this meadow to dedicate this land -- and to dedicate themselves to its preservation.

History of the Stanley Hotel

In 1903, Stanley, who was co-inventor of the Stanley Steamer automobile, came to Estes Park for his health. Stanley suffered from tuberculosis and came West at his doctor's suggestion. The doctor arranged for Stanley and his wife, Flora, to stay in a cabin in Estes Park for the summer. Immediately, they fell in love with the area and Stanley's health began to dramatically improve. Impressed by the beauty of the valley and grateful for the improvement in his health, he decided to invest his money and his future there. In 1909, he opened the elegant Stanley Hotel, a classic hostelry exemplifying the golden age of touring.

After spending the summer in the cabin, Flora wanted a home like the one she had left in Maine. Their home was built about one-half mile west of where the Stanley Hotel would later be built. Today the house is a private residence.

Stanley built the hotel on land that he had purchased from the Irish Earl of Dunraven and Mount-Earl. Dunraven came to the area in 1872 while on a hunting trip. He built a hunting lodge, cabin, and hotel for his guests and illegally homesteaded up to 15,000 acres (61 km²) in an unsuccessful attempt to create a private hunting preserve. Dunraven was finally run out of the area after trying to swindle people out of their land and money.

In 1907, construction started on the Stanley Hotel. Wood and rock were obtained from the nearby mountains and the hotel was built in the Georgian architectural style, which experienced a revival in the early Twentieth century. Equipped with running water, electricity, and telephones, the only amenity the hotel lacked was heat, as the hotel was designed as a summer resort.


Many believe the Stanley Hotel is haunted, having reported a number of cases of ghostly activity, primarily in the ballroom. Kitchen staff have reported to have heard a party going on in the ballroom, only to find it empty. People in the lobby have allegedly heard someone playing the ballroom's piano; employees investigating the music purportedly find nobody sitting at the piano. Employees believe that particular ghost is of Freelan O. Stanley's wife, who used to be a piano player. In one guest room, people claim to have seen a man standing over the bed before running into the closet. This same apparition is allegedly responsible for stealing guests' jewelry, watches, and luggage. Others reported to have seen ghosts in their rooms in the middle of the night, simply standing in their room before disappearing.

The Syfy television show Ghost Hunters was invited to investigate the hotel. The manager showed them the various places where these alleged ghost activity has occurred. Ghost Hunters discovered some rational reasons for the various phenomena, such as wind and pipes. However, they could not decipher incidents in the ballroom. Ghost Hunters also claimed to experience other paranormal occurrences, such as seeing people in hallways then hiding and hearing children running and playing on the floor above them. The biggest alleged occurrence was that during changing of the film in the camera, a table jumped two feet in the air. Ghost Hunter Jason stayed the night in the room with the "ghost thief"; he stated that the bed moved, the closet doors unlocked and opened and his thick glass by the bed cracked open on the inside. The Stanley Hotel was also the lockdown site for the TV show Ghost Adventures on October 15, 2010.

Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society conducted an investigation into the various claims made about the property. They found nothing paranormal but many natural reasons for the claims: a raccoon climbed in a upper window during the night and loose window panes as well as many amateur ghost hunters prowling around the property looking in windows during the wee hours of the morning. Page 23 of RMPRS's investigation into the Stanley Hotel shows the lightweight, unstable table that the Ghost Hunters claim jumped two feet in the air during their investigation.

After hearing claims that paranormal activity at the hotel are due to the geological makeup of the property, Rocky Mountain Paranormal contacted the USDA for information on the site. The scientists' conclusion, based on a satellite survey of Colorado, showed "nothing unusual about the aeromagnetic data in the area of Estes Park as compared to that general area of the Rockies". After this request for geological information, the government sent soil scientists to do a thorough soil survey on the property. The results showed the soil is mainly crumbled schist containing nothing radioactive. No large deposits of quartz, limestone or magnetite were evident.

Stephen King got the idea for The Shining after staying in room 217 in the almost empty hotel on the night before it closed for an extended period.

In Skeptical Inquirer's Naked Skeptic column by Karen Stollznow she discusses RMPRS's investigation of The Stanley Hotel, "During the investigation, The Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society researched popular beliefs and claims; they solved some mysteries, they performed valuable outreach, and they maintained the historical integrity of the Stanley Hotel. However, they didn’t discover any anomalous phenomena. They found a leak in the ceiling but no ghosts. But this is no reason to give up the ghost (investigations)."

Popular culture

The neoclassical hotel was the inspiration for the fictional Overlook Hotel in Stephen King's novel The Shining. While he and his wife were staying at the Stanley, King conceived the basic idea for the novel. The 1997 television miniseries version of The Shining was filmed at the Stanley, and it has been used as a location site for other films as well, most notably as the "Hotel Danbury" in Dumb and Dumber.

In May, investigators with The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) investigated the hotel for the SciFi program Ghost Hunters. TAPS returned to the hotel on October 31, 2006 for a live, six-hour follow-up investigation. Premiering in July 2010, Ghost Hunters Academy had the finale of the second season take place in The Stanley Hotel. In November 2008, UK channel LIVING broadcast Most Haunted's investigation of the hotel.

Ghost Adventures also filmed an episode there in the 4th season.

History of Larimer County

Larimer County was created in 1861 as one of seventeen original counties in the Colorado Territory; however, its western boundary was disputed. Controversy existed as to whether Larimer County ended at the Medicine Bow Range or at the Continental Divide thirty miles farther west. An 1886 Colorado Supreme Court decision set the boundary at the Continental Divide, although the land between the Medicine Bow Range and the divide was made part of Jackson County in 1909.

Unlike that of much of Colorado, which was founded on the mining of gold and silver, the settlement of Larimer County was based almost entirely on agriculture, an industry that few thought possible in the region during the initial days of the Colorado Gold Rush. The mining boom almost entirely passed the county by. It would take the introduction of irrigation to the region in the 1860s to bring the first widespread settlement to the area.

Early history

At the time of the arrival of Europeans in the early 19th century, the present-day county was occupied by Native Americans, with the Utes occupying the mountainous areas and the Cheyenne and Arapaho living on the piedmont areas along the base of the foothills. French fur trappers infiltrated the area in the early decades of the 19th century, soon after the area became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase and was organized as part of the Missouri Territory. In 1828 William H. Ashley ascended the Cache la Poudre River on his way to the Green River in present-day Utah. The river itself received its name in the middle 1830s from an obscure incident in which French-speaking trappers hid gunpowder along its banks, somewhere near present-day Laporte or Bellvue. In 1848 a group of Cherokee crossed through the county following the North Fork of the Poudre to the Laramie Plains on their way to California along a route that became known as the Cherokee Trail.

The area of county was officially opened to white settlement following negotiations with the Cheyenne and Arapaho in the 1858 Treaty of Fort Laramie, by which time the area was part of the Nebraska Territory. The first U.S. settlers arrived that same year in a party led by Antoine Janis from Fort Laramie. Janis, who had visited the area near Bellvue in 1844 and proclaimed it "the most beautiful place on earth", returned to file his official claim and helped found the first U.S. settlement in present-day Colorado, called Colona, just west of Laporte. Nearly simultaneously, Mariana Medina established Namaqua along the Big Thompson River just west of present-day Loveland. The first irrigation canals were established along the Poudre in the 1860s.

In 1862 the settlement established by Janis became a stagecoach stop along the Overland Stage Route that was established because of threats of attacks from Native Americans on the northern trails in Wyoming. In 1861, Laporte was designated as the first county seat after the organization of the Colorado Territory. In 1862, the United States Army established an outpost near Laporte that was designated as Camp Collins. A devastating flood in June 1864 wiped out the outpost, forcing the Army to seek a better location. At the urging of Joseph Mason, who had settled along the Poudre in 1860, the Army relocated its post downstream adjacent to Mason's land along the Overland stage route. The site of the new post became the nucleus of the town of Fort Collins, incorporated in 1873 after the withdrawal of the Army. By that time, Mason and others had convinced the Colorado Territorial Legislature to designate the new town as the county seat. In 1870, the legislature designated Fort Collins as the location of the state agricultural college (later Colorado State University), although the institution would exist only on paper for another decade while local residents sought money to construct the first campus buildings. In 1873, Robert A. Cameron and other members of the Greeley Colony established the Fort Collins Agricultural Colony, which greatly expanded the grid plan and population of Fort Collins.


One of the primary goals of the early citizens of the county was the courting of railroads. County residents were disappointed when the Denver Pacific Railroad bypassed the county in 1870 in favor of Greeley. The first railroad finally arrived in the county in 1877 when the Colorado Central Railroad extended a line north from Golden via Longmont to Cheyenne. The town council of Fort Collins designated right-of-way through the center of town (and through the campus of the unbuilt college) for the line, creating a contentious issue to this day.

Along the new railroad sprung up the new platted towns of Loveland and Berthoud, named respectively after the president and chief surveyor of the Colorado Central. Likewise Wellington (founded in 1903) was named for a railroad employee. The Greeley, Salt Lake and Pacific Railroad arrived three years later as a subsidiary of the Union Pacific Railroad, with the intention of creating a transcontinental line over Cameron Pass. Although the line was never extended over the mountains, it opened up the quarrying of stone for the railroad at Stout, furnishing another industry for the region. The brief attempt at the mining of gold in the region centered at the now ghost town of Manhattan in the Poudre Canyon.


The early growth of agriculture, which depended highly on direct river irrigation, experienced a second boom in 1902 with the introduction of the cultivation of sugar beets, accompanied by the construction of the large processing plant of the Great Western Sugar Co. in Loveland. In the following decade, the sugar beet industry brought large numbers of German emigrants from the Russian Empire to the county. The neighborhoods of Fort Collins northeast of the Poudre were constructed largely to house these new families.

A significant increase in the agricultural productivity of the region came in the 1930s with the construction of the Colorado Big Thompson Project following the Great Depression, sort of a third boom for the agricultural industry around Fort Collins. This project collected and captured Western Slope water, and carried it over to the Front Range Colorado counties of Boulder, Larimer and Weld, along with an extensive water storage and distribution system, which significantly extended the irrigable growing season and brought substantial additional land under irrigation for the first time.


Just when it was that man first came into Larimer County is of course impossible to determine with any certainty, but we can make some good guesses by looking at the earliest and latest possible dates. The earliest date would be soon after man first entered the new world, while the latest date is the same as the earliest date for which we have firm archaeological evidence of mans presence in the area.

The question of just when man entered the New World is a controversial one. There is plenty of evidence for man's presence some twelve to thirteen thousand years ago. The predominant theory is that nomadic hunters first entered America over a land bridge that connected Alaska to Asia during the ice ages. This land bridge appeared when sea levels dropped because vast amounts of water were locked up in huge polar glaciers. With climatic fluctuations, the glaciers melted and the seas flooded over the land bridge, only to recede again with the next ice age.

So most archaeologists would agree that men crossed over this land bridge during the last Ice Age. But were these the first men in the Americas? Perhaps not. Growing evidence supports the theory that men were in fact here earlier, perhaps much earlier. More and more sites are being reported from 25,000 and even 50,000 years ago. As might be expected from such early sites, dateable material is sparse and therefore the dating is controversial.

Surprisingly, some of the earliest sites are being reported from South America. This suggests that these earliest inhabitants either arrived by a route other than the land bridge, or they spread very rapidly after entering the New World. Both theories have their adherents, and each group has both weak and strong points in their arguments, but the issue is too ill defined to belabor here.

We can conclude then that the earliest date for man in Larimer County may be as far back as 50,000 years ago, but such an early date is considered implausible by many. Most archaeologists would agree however that the area was probably inhabited by 13,000 to 15,000 years ago. Now let's turn to existing evidence for the earliest proven presence of man in Larimer County. The Lindenmeier site, located in northern Larimer County about one mile south of the Wyoming border, is the oldest site in the county for which we have a firm date. Two radiocarbon dates from different parts of the site yielded dates of 10,780 and 11,200 years ago. The radiocarbon method does not yield an exact date, but the dates given are thought to be accurate within about 400 years one way or the other. So we can say with some certainty that Larimer County was occupied by about 11,000 years ago.

These early inhabitants lived in a land that we would find quite strange, yet hauntingly familiar, if we could be transported back through time to their world. The mountains had the same peaks and valleys, but forests were found on lower slopes than they are today, and the high valleys still held creeping tongues of glacial ice. The high mountains stood white and gleaming even in the summer sun, ice everywhere except on the cliffs so steep not even ice could cling to them. Rivers like the Poudre and Big Thompson would run opaque with brown glacial silt through the summer, following courses not unlike they do today, though differing in detail, the sinuous curves snaking across different parts of their valleys. Overall, temperatures were cooler, but not so extreme that you would notice on a day-to-day basis. There was probably a little more rain, and deeper more persistent snows. The foothills had more trees then, and small groves were scattered out on the plains where later only grasses grew. Most astonishing to our eyes would be the wildlife. Huge bison, a good 25% larger than modern buffalo and with heads twice as large as their modern counterparts roamed over the plains in massive herds. Even stranger beasts, mammoths and giant groundsloths, could be found. Most of the animals we know here today could also be found here then, from rabbits and birds through antelope and deer. Also, there were animals that we know from other areas but no longer see in Larimer County, like grizzly bears.

The people who lived in this area at that early time were hunters of big game animals, especially the bison. Little is left of the material culture of these peoples, mostly stone tools and a few bones, but their culture was probably much richer than is indicated by these few imperishable scraps that have withstood the ravages of time.

The climate was such that shelter and warm clothing were essential to survival, so it is likely that the hides of the animals they hunted were used for these purposes. They probably constructed small huts with a framework of branches and covering of rush or hides or both. When they were in regions with caves or natural rockshelters they undoubtedly utilized these for shelter.

They also must have had some means of preserving food, most likely through drying and storage in hide containers and perhaps woven baskets. There would be an abundance of food in the summer, but when the winter snows fell it was more difficult to obtain sustenance, so they most likely at least supplemented their winter food supply with stored goods.

It is obvious from the remains of their camps that they relied heavily on big game animals for food, but it is likely that a large part of their diet consisted of plant foods, including greens, roots, nuts and berries. The technology required to gather and prepare these foodstuffs is much less likely to be preserved in the archaeological record because of the perishable nature of the materials involved.

These early Native Americans were apparently nomadic, traveling from one place to another in order to take the best advantage of the scattered resources on which they depended for their livelihood. It seems likely that they formed large summer camps with many families cooperating to hunt the big game animals, especially those found in herds such as buffalo. These are most efficiently hunted by large groups who can manipulate the movement of the herd through carefully planned, coordinated action. In this way dozens of animals can be killed at one time, and the work of butchering, hiade treatment, and drying excess meat, can be shared.

In the winter time these large groups would have to break up into smaller units of a few families each. These small groups would spread out over the land to take best advantage of the scarcer resources.

One very important archaeological site in Larimre County is known to date from this early "paleo-indian" period, the Lindenmeier site. The site was named for the family whose land it was found. Archaeological reconstruction of the events that led to the formation of the site suggest that it was occupied between 11,000 and 11,500 years ago. The site was probably used repeatedly for a few weeks in autumn as a meeting place and campsite. It looks as if at least two independent bands met here to join forces for a communal hunt, one coming down from the north and the other moving up from the south. With enough hunters assembled, they could kill many of the oversized buffalo at one time, and share in the butchering, drying the meat and curing hides. They probably used either the surround method or forced the animals into some kind of natural trap, to effect their kill with long thrusting spears (bows and arrows had not been invented yet). Carcasses would be partially butchered at the kill site, then the hides and chunks of meat brought back to the camp for further processing.

That lifestyle did not change drastically for thousands of years. In time though, the human population grew and previously little used parts of the environment were occupied. Some researchers believe that as early as seven to nine thousand years ago, two distinct cultures could be found in northern Colorado. One group, nomadic hunters of the plains, relied heavily on herd animals for their subsistence. Another group occupied the mountainous areas and western Colorado. Their subsistence would have been more diversified, with reliance on a mixed bag of small and large game, and plant resources. Larimer County, straddling the border between the two zones, would have been a point of contact between the two groups.

By about five thousand years ago there is some indication that a fundamental form of horticulture was being practiced along the Rocky Mountain foothills in Colorado, but it is not clear if this trend reached as far north as Larimer County. By some 3500 years ago the plains influence once again dominated, and there is no further sign of horticulture.

Sometime between two and four thousand years ago the bow and arrow was probably introduced, lending a new technological thrust to their hunting methods. Hunting continued to be the prime form of subsistence activity until about 700 A.D. when the Easterners moved in. Called High Plains Woodland Culture by archaeologists, these people were less nomadic than their predecessors. They relied heavily on agriculture, possessed pottery, and seem to have carried on trade with their Western neighbors of the Fremont Culture.

Pottery, agriculture and the settled way of life all disappeared from the Rocky Mountain foothills when the horse was introduced. Originally brought into Mexico (New Spain) by the Spanish in the 16th century, use of the horse spread rapidly northward, probably reaching northern Colorado sometime between 1650 and 1700 A.D.

With the new mobility offered by the horse, many Native Americans took up their old nomadic, buffalo hunting lifestyle, now much easier on horseback and with bow and arrows. Those who wished to retain the agricultural lifestyle could not adequately defend themselves and their crops from the nomadic raiders, so they too had to adopt a hunting life again, or join their agricultural neighbors to the southwest, descendants of the Anasazi, whose strong pueblo fortifications and defensive positions allowed them to withstand the raids from the plains.

In the mountains, life was not much changed. The terrain and lifestyle was not as conducive to the equestrian revolution that swept the plains. One can't go galloping off after elk in the mountains as if it were a plains buffalo after all. For the most part, the mountain people remained on foot and let the rugged terrain protect them from their enemies on the plains.

And so, when the white men began to encroach on the natives' land in Colorado in the mid 1800s, they found the Arapaho and Cheyenne in firm control of the plains of northeast Colorado. In the mountains the Utes reigned supreme, with some Shoshoni in the far northern mountains, boarding Wyoming. The foothills area was in dispute, claimed by both sides.

Technically, the area that is now Larimer County came under U.S. jurisdiction in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase, but it was not until much later that the U.S. government began to exert any influence or control over the area. Prior to that time the Spanish and French had each in turn claimed the area, but it is unlikely that any of their official representatives ever stepped foot in the area now known as Larimer County.

We do not know just when the first Europeans entered Larimer County -- they were undoubtedly trappers and mountain men who left us no written record of the event. Early Colorado exploration parties lead by Pike in 1806 and Long in 1820 did not enter the county, though Long's party did set eyes on the famous peak that bears his name. By the 1820s the area was well known to local trappers who gave names to the Thompson and Poudre Rivers.

In 1849 a party of Cherokee Indians passed through the county on their way to California, their route later being known as the Cherokee Trail. The discovery of gold down in Cherry Creek in 1858 brought on the gold rush of 1859, and a few of the prospectors from that crowd later wandered up into what is now Larimer County. Also in 1859, some of the French fur trappers, who, with their Indian wives, had settled along the Poudre at a little village called Colona, decided to formalize their little settlement. The following year a townsite was platted and given the name Laporte. At the same time a small settlement was beginning to grow up around the site Mariano Medina settled on the Big Thompson in 1858. In February of 1861 the Territory of Colorado was officially formed, including as one of its original counties -- Larimer County -- with Laporte designated the county seat. The original county included most of what is now Jackson County (formed 1909), but otherwise the boundaries have changed very little.

The year 1862 was pivotal for Larimer County, as much of the region's later history was affected by decisions made that year. The eastern part of our nation was torn by a bloody Civil War. Many of the western troops were withdrawn from the frontier to help put down the Rebellion.

In spring of 1862 gold was discovered in Idaho, drawing many hopeful prospectors away from the Colorado fields. The most direct route lay along the trail blazed by those California gold seekers thirteen years earlier -- the Cherokee Trail.

Meanwhile, the Indians up in what is now Wyoming noticed the lessening numbers of Bluecoats along the emigrant road and stage line that followed the Platte River route, so they stepped up their attacks on passing wagon trains, stagecoaches and stage stations. This not only upset the owners of the stage line, who found it rather bad for business, but also disturbed the U.S. Government, who were desperately trying to retain the loyalty, and wealth, of the western part of the nation in their battle against the southern insurgents. Thus they needed to protect their westward traveling citizens, and more importantly, they needed to protect the lines of communication in both directions< communication that was vital to the nation interest as well as business. So, when managers of the stage line decided to move their business to a different, safer route, the government supported them. The stage company chose the Cherokee Trail as their new route and began setting up stage stations along the route, including one at Medina's crossing called Namagua, and others at Laporte, Virginia Dale, and other Larimer County locations. The Military established two new outposts to help protect the new route, one of these being Camp Collins at Laporte.

With the increased traffic through the area, Larimer County could not help but attract permanent settlers. The soldiers and travelers needed food and supplies, as did the still not too distant miners to the south. Business was good for both farmers and merchants. Rich land, a healthy climate, and spectacular scenery all played their roles in attracting newcomers. Even many of the soldiers whose duty sent them to Camp Collins ended up staying or returned to settle here at a later date.

After the Civil War ended, a great railway was planned to tie East and West together, the Transcontinental Railroad. Denver, severely disappointed that the route chosen for the new railroad failed to pass through that city, soon built a connecting rail, straight up through Larimer County into Cheyenne.

In 1864 Camp Collins had been destroyed by flood, so the military prudently moved it to a new, higher location a few miles downstream, upgrading the name to Fort Collins along the way. The post was abandoned in 1866, but by that time enough of a community had grown up around it that the village continued to thrive after the military left. The town grew so fast that by 1868 they managed to wrest the position of county seat away from Laporte.

Larimer County in the 1860s and 1870s was dominated by the open range cattle industry and a growing number of small farmers, mostly along the waterways. Irrigation ditches were dug, stemming out from the Thompson and Poudre Rivers, and reservoirs were constructed to better control the flow of water. Soon the southeastern corner of the county was dominated by small farms, while the northern foothills remained predominantly cattle country. Hopeful prospectors combed the mountains, but found little mineral wealth. They were looking for gold midst beautiful scenery, not realizing the scenery was worth more than gold.

One of the first tourists to come into the mountainous part of the county looking only for adventure, was Miss Isabella Bird, who wrote of her experiences in A Lady's Life in the Rockies. Also attracted by the scenery, and wildlife, was Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quinn, the 4th Earl of Dunraven, who sought to establish a hunting lodge and reserve in the English style at Estes Park.

The 1880s and 1890s brought steady growth and greater diversification to the county. The open range cattle industry lost some if its momentum as more land passed into private ownership, and fences started going up. Unusually sever blizzards in the winter of 1886/87 killed much of the livestock on the range, further exacerbating an already deteriorating situation.

In southern Larimer County innovative agriculturalists began experimenting with fruit trees, which if they could be bred to be hardy enough to withstand the cold winter temperatures, could be expected to thrive in the sunny summer weather. An agricultural State Land Grant college was founded in Fort Collins before there was even a high school there. Local farmers also branched out into a greater variety of vegetable crops, in addition to the traditional grains.

In time, even a little gold was found in the mountains, though the mines were short lived. The hogbacks behind Fort Collins and Loveland were found to be a good source for sandstone, and so another mineral based industry was born. Some coal was also mined, though it was not of top quality.

With the turn of the century came a new prosperity to Larimer County. Sugar factories were built in Loveland and Fort Collins, and sugar beets became a major crop. The relatively mild climate was found conducive to the winter feeding of sheep. Fruit orchards, especially cherry trees, were established in large numbers. A luxurious resort hotel was built in Estes Park and the tourist industry boomed.

Horses had to share the road with those noisy new automobiles. Electric power plants were built and city homes came aglow with electric light. Some folks even got phonograph machines and began listening to recorded music. The times certainly were a-changing.