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Why Denver is called Denver? The history of nomenclature in Colorado

I walk my dog along Leyden Creek every day, ok not every day but at least three times a week. For months now I’ve followed the banks of Leyden Creek up and down, down and up. I’ve seen Leyden Creek flood and I’ve seen Leyden Creek freeze and I’ve wiped Leyden Creek off my face after standing too close to my dog when he shook-off after a quick dip. Then one day I wondered, who’s Leyden?

Turns out Leyden isn’t a who but rather a them. Three brothers to be exact: Martin, Michael and Patrick Leyden. The Leyden brothers were miners, but unlike their compatriots who found gold in creeks around Denver, the Leyden brothers found rich seams of coal. Their discovery led to the development of the prosperous Leyden Coal Mine which fueled the growing infrastructure of a young Denver. When numbers in the miners’ camp grew into the hundreds Leyden became a small town. Today a lake, walking trail, reservoir, park, greenbelt, road, town, and of course a creek around what is now Arvada all bear the Leyden name. Unfortunately it did not end well for the Leyden brothers; Michael was murdered in 1869 and his brother Martin died in a mine accident one year later. However, the legacy of their early influence lives on through the family name.

In answering my first question about Leyden Creek another came to mind: what other pieces of Colorado history surround me? What other pieces of lost lore do I pass by every day oblivious to their historical significance? So I looked into the backstory of some famous landmarks and locations in Colorado and found a patchwork of antiquity hiding in plain sight in the nomenclature of Colorado. From pre-law pioneers to turn of the century politicians, their names now adorn the state their actions helped to shape. Here are a few of their stories.

  • Denver: Ever wondered why Denver is called Denver? It’s because of Kansas Territorial Governor James Denver. In an attempt to gain political favor a fledgling settlement at the convergence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek named their city in honor of the region’s political leader. It was a failed attempt to curry favor however as Governor Denver had retired by the time news of his namesake city reached Kansas. The ploy failed, but the name stuck and so today Denver is Denver. And another notorious name link to this story is the general who came up with the failed naming plan; his name was General William H. Larimer. A name that is also still seen throughout Denver (e.g. Larimer Square).
  • Mount Evans: President Lincoln appointed Dr. John Evans governor of the Colorado Territory in 1862; he was the second governor of Colorado succeeding William Gilpin. Evans was instrumental in bringing railroads to Denver which was a crucial developmental factor for the economics of Colorado. He also played a key role in the creation of the Denver Seminary, a school still operating today under the name University of Denver. Evans was the governor when Congress passed an act providing for a Colorado State Government in 1864 and he facilitated the first election of delegates. However, Evans was also a highly controversial political figure in Denver because of his role in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, one of the state’s bloodiest and most brutal military actions against Native Americans which subsequently ended Evans political career. It wasn’t until 1895, well after Evans left office, that the Colorado legislature officially changed the name of one of the Front Range’s most dominant peaks from Mount Rosa to Mount Evans in honor of his service to the state.
  • Speer Boulevard: If you love the parks and greenery of Denver you may want to thank Mayor Robert Speer also known as Denver’s “City Beautiful” mayor. Inspired by the White City from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Speer’s turn of the century vision was to take Denver from a brown, muddy cow town to a sophisticated city with European style and lush greenery throughout. During his ten years as Denver’s mayor (1904-1912, 1916-1918) Speer doubled the Denver city park system breaking ground for what is now Wash Park, Sloan’s Lake, City Park and the Civic Center Park complex. He also paved or graveled nearly all Denver city streets and gave away over 100,000 free trees for Denverites to plant in their yards and neighborhoods. Under his administration Denver hosted its first Democratic National Convention in 1908 and the first National Western Stock Show which has since grown to one of the world’s largest shock show and rodeo. It was also Mayor Speer’s idea to beautify Cherry Creek by creating a sunken and protected path which later became the renowned Cherry Creek bike path, now one of Denver’s most popular bike trails. It seems fitting therefore that the broad boulevard that skirts Denver parallel to Cherry Creek bears the name of the mayor who envisioned it.
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