Karl and Kelly Con 2016 – A Very Brief History of Denver

Yep… That’s Denver.


Denver, which was originally called Montana City, was founded in 1858 because of one major reason: gold. Some of the metal had been discovered at the confulence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek (right downtown, close by to Union Station.) That send scores of miners west look for wealth and a really wild time. Another reason that the city grew so quickly was the Rocky Mountains as they are kind of hard to ignore. So in the 19th Century, any sort of nervous traveler would have likely looked up at those mountains and though ‘To Hell with that… I’m staying here with all the booze and hookers.’

It was renamed Denver in order to curry favor with the Kansas Territorial Governor James W. Denver, who had actually resigned by the time the name became official, so it was of no real use for the local politicians to actually name it after him. Of course back then, Denver City was a frontier town, with an economy based on servicing local miners with gambling, saloons, livestock and goods trading.

FUN FACT!!! While Cheesman Park is now a city park, it originally started as Prospect Hill Cemetery. The cemetery was converted into a park (with some scandal) in the early 20th Century. Most of the bodies remain, still buried a few feet under the park. It’s TRUE!!!

The Beats

Here I was in Denver…I stumbled along with the most wicked grin of joy in the world, among the bums and beat cowboys of Larimer Street. – Jack Kerouac, On The Road

“…who journeyed to Denver, who died in Denver, who came back to Denver & waited in vain, who watched over Denver & brooded & loned in Denver and finally went away to find out the Time, & now Denver is lonesome for her heroes.” – Allen Ginsberg, Howl.

When Kerouac set out into America in 1947, he had one place in mind: Denver, Colorado. Beatnik prototype: part hipster, part huckster – Neal Cassady (renamed Dean Moriarty in On The Road) grew up in the city along Larimer Street Skid Row, stealing cars, telling stories, and generally living the life that Kerouac wanted to emulate. They spent most of their time wandering through Five Points, drinking and listening to jazz.

Kerouac and Ginsberg both lived in Denver’s Uptown area for a period of time in the late ‘40s and early ’50s. They were here long enough that most old bars around the city all claim that ‘Jack Drank Here!’. While some of the stories may be true, as far as I can tell only a few bars have any real evidence that Kerouac, Cassady, and Co drank there: My Brother’s Bar (2376 15th Street, a place that Cassady mentions in one of his letters), Herb’s (2057 Larimer Street, that had a photo of Jack in one of their old booths), Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom (formally the Casino Cabaret in Five Points where they hung around, 2637 Welton Street), and Charlie Brown’s Bar & Grill (980 Grant Street, in the Colburn Hotel where a few of them stayed.)

Check out the documentary Neal Cassady: The Denver Years. I hear some local cartoonist did some of the artwork for that film, which was animated as well.

Comic about Neal Cassady? Yep. I did one about him as well. 

Colfax Avenue

“And that thoroughfare, born beneath the mountainous mountains of rocky peaks so high, seeing as it shall victual to prospectors, explorers, and men of chance, and whereas said men, in their sparse moments of recess and requiescence, require relief of an immediate and carnal conformation, let Colfax Way be a den of avarice, a cauldron of covetousness, a peccadillo wharf in a sea-storm of morality. Let not a man walk Colfax Way and wonder, & ‘Where shall I deposit my virility this eve, where may I encounter mine intoxicant?’ for he shall find all he seeks on Colfax. Curse these vexatious rickets!” – Schuyler Colfax, 1878

So, it’s always been my belief that all cities have that one place where everyone winds up, where all the excitement, neon, bars, low lifes, dives, drugs, pimps, and prostitutes all come together as one. Boston has Mass. Ave, Philly has Broad Street, San Francisco has Market Street, and Denver has Colfax Avenue.

Originally the street was called ‘The Golden Road’ (cause it headed up to Golden, CO, where the gold was…), but was renamed in 1865 after Schuyler Colfax, a powerful Indiana congressman, Speaker of the House of Representatives at the time, and later Vice President under the first term of Ulysses S. Grant. He eventually had to step down because of a bribery scandal in 1873. That pretty much sets the tone for the avenue that (in the ’70s) Playboy magazine called “… the longest, wickedest street in America.”

At almost 30 miles long, Colfax Avenue is the longest continuous commercial street in America. Most Denverites (or is it Denverpudlians?) have an odd affection for this wicked street. Once there had been elegant Victorian mansions that ran up and down it, but after the Silver Panic in 1893, most of them went to ruin. A few years later, after the city tried to clean up the sleaze downtown around Market Street, everything moved up to Colfax. While Colfax was always the main street through the city, after Interstate 70 was built in the ’60s, traffic through it was cut down causing businesses and neighborhoods suffered. It became noted for abandoned properties, parking lots, crime, drugs, and prostitution.

One of the more infamous strip clubs (though he called it a ‘burlesque house’) was Sid King’s Crazy Horse Bar on East Colfax (located where The Irish Snug is now) which ran from 1948 through 1983. The club (and Sid King) also made a cameo in Clint Eastwood’s (along with his orangutan, Clyde) film Every Which Way But Loose.

Of course, with modern gentrification and a rising economy, Colfax Avenue has cleaned up somewhat, but the old Colfax has not disappeared as yet.

30 Miles..? Perhaps someone should do a comic about it, documenting people’s lives in the city?

NEXT: Things to do in Denver!


Posted on

September 8, 2016

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