Pikes Peak or Bust

With the superb backdrop of the Rocky Mountains, the ‘mile high’ city of Denver has one of the most attractive locations of any oil town.
This article appeared in Vol. 8, No. 2 - 2011


Denver from the air. Photo: Thomas Smith Although Denver is now well known as a center of the oil industry, it owes its origins to a different mineral - gold. In 1858 a small group of miners crossed the great plains of the Colorado Territory and found small quantities of the precious metal at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek, near the center of present day Denver. Word got out of the first significant gold discovery in the Rocky Mountain region, and before long, over 100,000 people had flocked to the region to seek their fortunes. The mountains, including the towering Pikes Peak, 100 km south-west of Denver, acted as a signpost to the gold fields and a symbol of encouragement to flagging newcomers crossing the plains, leading to the expression ‘Pike’s Peak or Bust!’

Gold, Silver and Oil

The initial finds were not large, but the town established itself as a trading center for the area as the gold prospectors searched the Rocky Mountain foothills. Fortunes were made by people staking out plots of land and selling it on to newcomers. One of these entrepreneurs was a General William H. Larimer, who laid out the plans for a city which he named after the Kansas Territorial governor James Denver. This did not afford Larimer the political favour he had hoped - by the time the city was called after him, Denver was no longer in office!

When gold was discovered deeper in the Rocky Mountains, it looked as though the city might die, like the 500 or so ghost towns now deserted in Colorado, as the miners left to chase the latest elusive dream. But many eventually returned to the town, which grew steadily from less than 5,000 in 1870 to over 100,000 by 1890. This growth was partially fuelled by a silver boom, which finally crumpled with the financial collapse in 1893. However, by then the railroad was passing through Denver, so its future as a major trading post at the foot of the Rockies was assured.

Finally, oil was discovered in 1901 in Boulder, on the edge of the Rockies about 40km to the north-west of Denver. It was the first of many finds in the Denver Basin, allowing the city to take its place as one of the major oil metropolises in the world. And not just oil: the Wattenberg Field, which covers an area of about 6,500 km2, was found in the 1970s just north of the city. It is one of the largest natural gas fields in the US and is thought to hold over 5 Tcf of recoverable gas.

City of Culture

The 15th step of the state capitol building is exactly 5,280 feet - one mile high.  Photo: Jane Whaley Growing as it has out of a mining background, there has always been plenty to do in Denver.Gaming houses, theaters, music halls and drinking saloons, not forgetting well frequented ‘houses of ill repute’ soon appearedas the town grow, all ready to prize the hard-earned gold and silver from the relaxing miners. But by the beginning of the twentieth century, Denver was fast achieving respectability, and became an elegant city with fountains, beautiful houses, tree-lined streets and over 200 parks. Now with a population of over 600,000, it is the the largest city for many miles, and for more than 125 years it has been the cultural, shopping and entertainment capital of this vast region.

Denver is renowned as a major cultural center, rich in art and music. The original Denver Theater was built in 1864, followed by many other theaters, concert halls and opera houses. The city now has the nation’s second largest performing arts center, the Denver Performing Arts Complex, which can accommodate over 9,000 people. There are also many galleries and museums, including the seven story Denver Art Museum. There is a thriving classical music scene, but the city is also well known for more modern culture: Denver was a gathering point for poets of the “beat generation.” Neal Cassady was raised in Denver, and a portion of Jack Kerouac’s beat masterpiece, On the Road, takes place in the city. And the Red Rocks open air amphitheatre to the west of Denver hosted the Beatles in 1964, as well as many other famous groups, festivals and events.

A Great Place to Live

Lying just 557 km (346 miles) west of the exact center of the United States, Denver has a semi arid, continental climate, which can be very unpredictable, due to the expanse of the High Plains stretching to the east and the Rocky Mountains rising in the west. The climate can show great extremes, with locals claiming they can have all four seasons in one day.
Waking up to heavy snow and then going home from work in shirtsleeves is not unknown, while temperatures of over 33°C (90°F) are common in summer. It is, however, a very pleasant place to live, with over 300 days of sunshine a year, and the altitude means the air, even in the center of the city, always feels fresh and clean.

But for many people, as well as enjoying the cultural life of the city, or watching sport at one of the huge stadiums, one of the best things about Denver is the mountains outside. With only a short drive of less than 25 km (15 miles) you can be in the ‘foothills’, a gentle series of peaks ranging from 2,130 to 3,350m (7,000 to 11,000 ft) high. Rising behind them is the Continental Divide, the line of over 4,000m high peaks which marks the watershed separating rivers that drain to the Pacific from those that flow eastwards. This vast area is riddled with trails and paths of very degrees of difficulty for day trippers, hikers, mountain bikers and horseriders, and in the winter, of course, skiing and snowboarding are easily accessible from Denver. Not to mention the fast flowing rivers, ideal for canoeing, kayaking and white water rafting, as well as for admiring the geology and surrounding mountains as you shoot the rapids.

And in case you think this all sounds far too healthy, hale and hearty – Denver brews more beer than any other American city!


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