Once upon a time Denver was home to the Southern Cheyennes, Arapahoes, Shoshonis, and Utes camped along the Platte River. By the 1820s American and French Canadian fur traders, Mexican-American miners, and farmers joined the tribes in the area. The first American gold seekers who arrived in 1858, rounded out the multi-ethnic community at the confluence of the Platte and Cherry Creek.
In December of 1858, William Larimer and D.C. Collier waded the partly frozen Platte to examine the land on the west bank. They staked out Highland across from the infant communities of Denver City and Auraria. At first not many people showed an interest in Highland. In fact, land values were so low that lots owners could not give land away. In 1859, A.C. Wright tried to trade 136 lots in Highland to Jose Merival for a horse, saddle, and bridle. Merival declined because the horse was worth more than the land. Through 1859 Highland existed only on paper although hopeful developers gave the streets names like Byers, Wootton, Wing, Wallingford, and Murphy after their peers. None of those names made it onto the official North Denver maps.
On December 3, 1859, the Jefferson legislature consolidated Auraria, Denver, and Highland into the City of Denver, Auraria, and Highland. Later that month they dropped “Auraria and Highland” from the name. The area called Highland in the early plats eventually became North Denver.
The May 1864 flood wiped out parts of Denver so people began to move up the hill. The Fifteenth Street Bridge and then streetcars made North Denver accessible. In 1875 Owen Le Fevre, and other developers petitioned the Arapahoe County Commissioners to establish a village government. After annexing Potter Highlands and then Highland Park they formed the Town of Highlands which became a city in 1885. The 1889 town ordinances restricted livestock in the streets, children’s games, rude language, and the number of saloons.
Le Fevre’s artesian well provided clean drinking water and the breezes from the west provided clean air by blowing away any smog. People supported bond issues for schools, a library, and other civic improvements because those services were what a town needed. Eventually, though the town fathers found it hard to maintain city services so in 1896, the residents voted to be annexed to Denver.
Highlands residents were mostly Protestant and Republican. In 1892, the young men of the community formed the North Denver Athletic Club so they could have facilities similar to those enjoyed at the Denver Athletic Club, playground of Denver’s elite. The women joined clubs including the North Side Women’s Club, where they heard lectures and organized good works around the area.
By 1900, North Denver had an Italian community that centered around a six-block section of Navajo running from Thirty-second to Thirty-eighth Avenues with Mount Carmel Catholic Church, located at Thirty-sixth and Navajo, at the community’s heart. The Germans in North Denver worked at the Zang Brewery near the banks of the South Platte River, as well as at the Denver City Brewery on 17th Avenue. The Irish built St. Patrick’s Church at west Thirty-second and Osage and then the new St. Patrick’s in 1905.
Beginning in the1920s, North Denver became home to both Mexican-American migrants and Mexican, Central and South American immigrants. The first to arrive from New Mexico were the villagers whose families had lived there since the 1600s. Beginning in the 1940s, many North Denver Mexican Americans and Mexicans attended Our Lady of Guadalupe Church at west Thirty-fourth and Lipan. West 32nd Avenue between Tejon and Clay became the modern commercial center of North Denver’s Hispanic, Mexican, and Central American community.
Since 2000 this business strip has begun to transform as the neighborhood begins to evolve from a working class Latino into a gentrified, middle-class increasingly Anglo-American neighborhood. Older buildings are giving way to modern architecture, single-family homes to lofts. The one constant in the neighborhood, during all of its history, has been change.
Rebecca A. Hunt, Ph.D
Senior Instructor at University of Colorado Denver