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History of Boulder

Boulder's Origins

The Boulder Valley was first the home of Native Americans, primarily the Southern Arapaho tribe, who maintained a village near Haystack Mountain. Utes, Cheyennes, Comanches, and Sioux were occasional visitors to the area.

Gold Seekers

Gold seekers established the first non-native settlement in Boulder County on Oct. 17, 1858, at Red Rocks near the entrance to Boulder Canyon. Less than a year later, on Feb. 10, 1859, the Boulder City Town Company was organized by A.A. Brookfield, the first president, and 56 shareholders. There were 4,044 lots laid out at a purchase price of $1,000 each, a price that was later lowered in order to attract more residents.

Territory of Colorado

Boulder City was part of the Nebraska Territory until Feb. 28, 1861, when the Territory of Colorado was created by the U.S. Congress. It developed as a supply base for miners going into the mountains in search of gold and silver. Boulder City residents provided these miners with equipment, agricultural products, housing and transport services, and gambling and drinking establishments.

One of the earliest photo ever taken of Boulder, circa 1865. (Photo credit: Carnegie Branch Library for Local History)

Intense Competition

Competition among Boulder County settlements for new residents and businesses was intense. As a mining supply town, Boulder residents were more settled than in the mining camps. Economic stability was a necessity and residents encouraged the establishment of railroad service, hospital and school buildings, and a stable town government.

First Schoolhouse

Boulder's first schoolhouse was built in 1860 at the southwest corner of Walnut and 15th Street, the first in the territory. Also in 1860 a group of Boulder residents began lobbying to have the University of Colorado located in Boulder. By 1874, Boulder had won the designation, secured a donated 44.9 acre site and raised $15,000 to match a similar grant by the state legislature. Construction of Old Main signaled the opening of the University, with classrooms, auditorium, office and the president's living quarters all located there.

Railroad Service

Transportation was improved in 1873 with railroad service coming to Boulder. Gradually tracks were laid to provide service to Golden and Denver and to the mining camps to the west. In 1890, the railroad depot was constructed on Water Street (now Canyon Boulevard) and 14th Street.

Boulder's railway system in 1899, at what is now Chautauqua Park. (Photo credit: Boulder Genealogical Society)

City Government

City government was formalized on Saturday, Nov. 4, 1871, when the town of Boulder was incorporated. The first mayor, Jacob Ellison, was elected for a two-month term in 1878.


By 1880, Boulder's population had passed the 3,000 mark, which was the minimum required by state statutes for the incorporation of a city of the second class. This step was taken on April 3, 1882, and that month a new town hall was completed in time for the first meeting of the council of the newly formed city government. Designation of Boulder as the county seat occurred in 1867 and led to the construction of the first courthouse at its present site in 1883. It burned to the ground in 1932 and was replaced by the current courthouse in 1934.

The 12th Street (Broadway) bridge in the 1880s. ( Photo credit: Boulder Genealogical Society)

First Post Office

Amenities and health services were developed, even in periods of little growth. The first post office was established in 1860. A hospital was built in 1873. A year later, the telegraph became available, the first bank was built and a water system was installed.


The initial residential area was located in what is now downtown and in some parts of Goss/Grove, Whittier and Mapleton Hill neighborhoods. As commercial expansion took over downtown housing, these neighborhoods surrounding downtown remained primarily residential areas. At the turn of the century, growth of the University led to the development of parts of University Hill. One mark of elegance for residents were flagstone sidewalks, first installed during the 1880s.

First Private School and Chautauqua Auditorium

The first private school in Boulder, Mount St. Gertrude Academy, was opened in 1892. Boulder, by then accessible to visitors by railroad, was known as a community with a prosperous economy, a comprehensive educational system, and well-maintained residential neighborhoods. It was no wonder that the railroad recommended Boulder as a site for a Chautauqua in 1897. Boulder residents passed a bond issue to buy the land, and the now familiar Chautauqua Auditorium was built.

The Chautauqua Auditorium in 1899. (Photo credit: Carnegie Branch Library for Local History)

Hotel Boulderado

By 1905, the economy was faltering and Boulder counted heavily on tourism to boost its fortunes; however, Boulder had no first class hotel to attract summer visitors and group meetings. By 1906, a subscription drive had raised money to begin construction. The first event at the new hotel was a reception for Boulderites, held on Dec. 30, 1908, and the Hotel Boulderado opened to the public for business on Jan. 1, 1909.

The Hotel Boulderado opened to the public in 1909. (Photo credit: Boulder Genealogical Society)


Tourism continued to dominate the Boulder economy for the next 40 years. Each summer, shopkeepers, transport firms, and lodging managers eagerly awaited the influx of Chautauqua residents, primarily from Texas, and other visitors. By World War II, when tourism declined, the university unknowingly provided another opportunity for growth. With the location of the U.S. Navy's Japanese language school at CU, young men and women from around the country became acquainted with the city and liked it.

Population Rising

Following World War II, many of these trainees returned as students, professional and business people, joining veterans attending the University on the GI Bill. Boulder's population had not increased significantly since the 1920s. The 1920 census showed 11,006 residents while the 1940 census count was 12,958. After the first influx of new residents in the late 1940s, the count soared to 20,000 in 1950.

Late 1950s Boulder. (Photo credit: Carnegie Branch Library for Local History)

Preserve Natural Beauty

New residents meant both new opportunities and new challenges. Although jobs were needed, townspeople wanted to preserve the beautiful natural setting and amenities developed over the years. By 1950, Boulder leaders were actively recruiting new "clean" industry and improved transportation, securing a new highway, the Boulder-Denver Turnpike, and the National Bureau of Standards in 1952. Other research and development industries soon followed.


In 1959, Boulder voters approved the “Blue Line” city-charter amendment, which restricted city water service to altitudes below 5,750 feet in an effort to protect the mountain backdrop from development. Residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of amending the city charter to combine the long-standing parks and recreation divisions and establish a Boulder Parks and Recreation Department (BPRD) in 1961. 

New Neighborhoods and Shopping Centers

The housing shortage and need for additional business and public buildings attracted young and talented architects. New subdivisions were planned, including the Highland Park-Martin Acres neighborhood located on the historic Martin Farm, and the North Boulder developments from Balsam north, originally part of the Tyler Farm. New neighborhoods brought the city's first two shopping centers, North Broadway and Basemar.

Continued Growth and Historic Preservation

With the completed turnpike to downtown Denver, Boulder continued to expand. From 1950 to 1972, the population grew from 20,000 to 72,000. Boulder comprises 25.37 square miles.

With the purchase of thousands of acres of open space beginning in 1967, the adoption of the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan in 1970, passage of the building height restriction ordinance in 1972, and the residential growth management ordinance in 1977, Boulder began a period of infill and re-use of its past architectural development which continues to present. The Historic Preservation Code was passed in September 1974. The ordinance is instrumental in preserving significant portions of our past while encouraging the rehabilitation of historic buildings.

The Pearl Street Mall was built between October 1975 and April 1976. (Photo credit: Carnegie Branch Library for Local History)