The stories behind Denver street names

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DENVER – Whether you’re a Colorado native or a newcomer, chances are you’ve driven down the same streets, walked through the same neighborhoods, passed beneath the same signs — but have you ever stopped to wonder about how those places got their names?

If you have such questions, Professor Tom Noel, known on the UC Denver Campus where he teaches history as “Dr. Colorado”, likely has the answers.

“They’re often one generation’s heroes,” Noel said of the namesakes of Colorado streets, towns, counties and landmarks, which tell the stories stretching back to the mid-19th century when gold prospectors began to settle amidst the Rocky Mountains to statehood and into the 20th century as Denver grew into the region’s largest population center.

“To the victor go the spoils, and part of that is being able to name things,” Noel said.

“The settlers vanquished much of the Indian population. And while there are some things named for Indian names, there are a lot more things named for the people who staked claims to this land, who developed it, who made Denver and the state of Colorado what they are today. Only in retrospect are people like Little Raven, who should have been celebrated for a long time, being honored.”

Little Raven Street, one of downtown Denver’s newest streets, now glitters with the glass towers and town homes of the posh Riverfront Park neighborhood. There, at the entrance to Commons Park, is a modern day totem of sorts to the street’s namesake, “Little Raven,” head chief of the southern Arapaho who first welcomed white settlers to the region.

“He made what he later realized was the mistake of saying, ‘We’ll share the land, we’ll share the water, we’ll share the cottonwoods, we’ll share the grass’,” Noel said. “He and all the other Arapaho were massacred six years later.”

Just east of Little Raven, three streets in the heart of LoDo are named for Indian women — Champa, Wewatta and Wazee, the three wives of William Magaw, who Noel describes as “a notorious drunk who helped found the city of Denver.”

Modern-day Market Street was originally named for Magaw, but then changed until it got its current name, a reference to the bordellos that populated the street in the early 20th century.

Denver itself was named for James Denver, who was the governor of Kansas Territory, which preceded the Colorado Territory, not created by Congress until 1861.

“Technically, Denver used to be in Kansas Territory,” Noel said. “But the first gold strike here was in 1858 and by 1860, you had 35,000 people here. It was just like the Gold Rush they saw in California 10 years earlier: head west, make your fortune, get rich quick.”

Colorado’s first territorial governor was William Gilpin, for whom Gilpin County and Denver’s Gilpin Street were named.

“Gilpin was a sidekick of Abraham Lincoln‘s and Lincoln appointed him the first governor in 1861,” Noel said. ” John Evans was number two right after him and the most prominent of the early governors.”

Evans, too, has a street named for him, not to mention one of Colorado’s 54 “Fourteeners”.

“He brings the railroads to town, founds the University of Denver, has the mountain named for him,” Noel said. “After the Sand Creek massacre, he’s held responsible for that slaughter of Indians and forced out of office in 1864.”

Denver’s most well-known and well-traveled thoroughfare, Speer Boulevard, is named for the mayor who envisioned it, Robert Speer.

“Mayor Speer really transformed Denver from a dusty, grid city with a pattern of streets to one where you have curvilinear streets and Speer Boulevard, following Cherry Creek and really playing up the beauty of Cherry Creek,” Noel said.

The longest-serving mayor in Denver’s history, Benjamin Franklin Stapleton, has a neighborhood named for him that is now a shining example of New Urbanism — but some people who live there are conflicted about whether his name should be celebrated given his story.

“He joined the Klan, and the Klan helped elect him,” Noel said. “And some people moving-in out there didn’t want to live in a neighborhood named for Klansman.”

Stapleton had been home to Denver’s International Airport, until the 1980s when then-Mayor Federico Pena led the push for a larger, more modern DIA which now sits on the plains about 15 miles to the northeast. The 10-mile road between the terminal and Interstate 70, naturally, is Pena Boulevard.

Which leads to Jeppesen Terminal, named for Elrey Jeppesen, a local aviator whose hand-scrawled flying diagrams, used for helping pilots avoid obstacles at night in the early days of aviation, became and remains the definitive navigational guide for pilots.

Today, pilots fly above a local landscape that’s turned, in the last 75 years, from ranches to ranch houses.

“These large plots of land were bought up a long time ago, including one by John C. Shaffer, who was a tycoon from Chicago who purchased the Rocky Mountain News at one point,” Noel said. “And he named his ranch for his two sons, Ken and Caryl.”

Hence, the modern-day community of Ken Caryl Ranch.

Those surprised to learn that Ken Caryl isn’t named for one person but two, might also expected Denver’s Bonnie Brae neighborhood to have been named for someone named, well, Bonnie Brae.

“It’s not a person at all but a Scottish term or saying,” Noel said. “It literally means, ‘pretty hill’, like a ‘bonnie’ hill or lass. The landscape architect who founded the neighborhood in 1923 modeled it after a Kansas City neighborhood with similarly curving streets, and that neighborhood was called Bonnie Brae.

“A lot of places were named for other places, the hometowns or cities that settlers of Colorado came from,” Noel said. “Aurora is actually based on Aurora, Illinois. In Greek mythology, Aurora is the goddess of the dawn, and it’s on the east side of Denver, so the sun shines on Aurora first.”

Running from Aurora through Denver and Lakewood all the way to Golden and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains is Colfax Avenue, the country’s longest continuous business street. It has long been and remains a colorful and complicated stretch of businesses, both symbolic today of urban renewal and redevelopment and still associated with crime and vice.

“Colfax is named for Schuyler Colfax, who was a congressman from Indiana, who introduced the bill for Colorado statehood,” Noel said. “He became Ulysses S. Grant’s vice president but was forced to resign for his role in the Credit Mobilier scandal — and that’s why we have scandalous activity to this day on Colfax Avenue.”

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